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John Fahey

by B.A. Nilsson on April 4, 2012

YOUR PAST COMES BACK TO HAUNT YOU: THE FONOTONE YEARS (1958–1965)

Beginning in 1958, and for seven years, guitarist John Fahey recorded for the quirky Fonotone label, which issued hand-cut records on demand. At first he recorded in Joe Bussard’s Fonotone studio; at a later point he sent Bussard tapes to issue.

And, being John Fahey, he subsequently disowned all that material. True, he went through phases where he disowned pretty much anything he’d recorded; late in life, he even tried to drastically reinvent his sound.

If anything of his warranted getting tossed, however, it was this early stuff. Except. And this is the pause that refreshes our need for this material: Fahey did things to American music that exploded it and changed it. Like fellow collector Harry Smith, he explored old recordings at a time when listeners and record-company suits had no idea that a treasure trove awaited.

Fahey went door-to-door begging records, and learned the sounds of the forgotten greats. He was a one-man Charley Patton cheering throng. He absorbed the sounds of Elizabeth Cotten, Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White.

And this five-CD set presents a young sponge of a guitar wizard trying to sound an awful lot like his mentors even as he’s rebelling against their legacies and searching for his own. No wonder he put off producer Glenn Jones’s interest in this material with the comment that became the set’s title.

Fahey died in 2001, and Jones persisted, gathering recordings and ancillary material. Like other Dust-to-Digital reissues (“Goodbye Babylon,” for starters), it’s a gorgeous set. It makes you feel good to be a fanatic.

All the more helpful as you push through the cringeworthy early stuff. But so what if early Beethoven sounded Mozartean? There was nascent Beethoven in there, too.

Fahey turns the blues inside out and even attempts to sing along with it, and you thank all that’s thankable that he gave that up. He teams with a flutist to forgettable effect. And then he comes into his own, and the last three discs are like a good-looking flower bursting into bloom.

Listen to the evolution of “The Transcendental Waterfall,” which would make its way onto Fahey’s first “real” album, Blind Joe Death, and its subsequent rerecordings. (At least one version recently was added to the U.S. National Recording Registry.)

“The Last Steam Engine Train” shows what he could do with found material; “The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California” heralds the birth of Fahey the long-form writer.

Unlike song collectors like Alan Lomax, Fahey didn’t seek music as an academic exercise. He wanted to know where we’d been. He wanted to influence further direction. He did so. This is the record of his earliest attempt, reminding us that if the change is good, the development can be endured.