So, about 9 months ago I started working on this compilation. Several months and nany hours of searching, listening, and sequencing later, I found out that someone had already done a more complete version of the same task. Until yesterday, however, I hadn’t seen a tracklist from the mysterious 10-cd set called the VrootzBox, so this is not a derivative work, however similar it may be.
The inception of the project came when I heard Frank Hutchinson playing K.C. Blues on the A Lighter Shade of Blue: White Country Blues (1926-1938) compilation. I read the booklet to Return of the Repressed, and found all these mentions about musicians he had copped licks from. I looked at The Fahey Files, the crowning achievement of the International Fahey Commission. Then I found Old Time Mountain Guitar on El Diablo Tun Tun, and that propelled me further. Some trips to the library for Béla Bartók and Charles Ives cds proved pretty revealing too.
Some time back someone left a comment on my post of Fahey’s God, Time & Causality saying something to the effect of “This version of I Am the Resurrection pales in comparison to the version on The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death”. Well, while that’s true, it’s also true that I Am the Resurrection pales in comparison to Jesse Fuller’s Hark from the Tomb, upon which it was based. In fact, a lot of these performances are more raw and idiosyncratic than Fahey’s versions, though Fahey, to his credit, adds a harmonic complexity absent from the originals. And if you think Fahey was a bizarre visionary living on the fringes when he released Blind Joe Death in 1959, consider that Harry Partch created his own scales, built his own instruments, and crafted totally unique, beautiful, complex, difficult-listening music in the ’40sm while living as a hobo. And, through a curious chain of personal connections, Fahey heard some of this music and was very inspired by it.
I should mention that not all of these songs are songs that he covered or copped licks from. Most of the music he has made mention to, though a few of the songs were recorded after his formative years and one or two he never would have heard. But they are presented to give an illustration of the styles he drew from (such as gamelan, which he grew up playing in his neighbor’s back yard).
Originally I was going to write something about each song on the compilation, but as it swelled to 5 cds and I prepared to leave the country, I just settled on the daunting task of finishing the damn thing and posting it. So what you hear is what you get, though additional info can be found at the Vrootz! info page.
Many of the artists on here can be found on other “roots of” compilations (Roots of Rock, Roots of Robert Johnson, Early Blues Roots of Led Zeppelin, etc), underscoring the fact that, as Willie Dixon said, “The Blues is the roots. Everything else is the fruits.” But as a record-collector, Fahey’s roots were deeper and more obscure than those of the blues-rockers who got rich ripping off Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters (both of whom ripped off Son House & others).
I thought about grouping the music into styles (hillbilly music, country blues, modern classical music, etc), but decided that in Fahey’s world and music, these genres were not so disparate and could in fact flow seamlessly into one another. Reading R. Anthony Lee (aka Flea)’s account of the early life of John Fahey confirms this, as even early on “he had developed his famous eclecticism, and would follow Sibelius’s Second symphony with the Stanley Brothers’ White doves will mourn in sorrow with no sense of disjunction.” Plus, this way I could highlight certain connections, such as beautiful modal dissonances found in the music of both Son House and Bartók, the shimmering just intonality of Southeast Asian gamelan ensembles and the homemade microtonal music of Harry Partch. Also I’ve grouped songs to show how Fahey would pull from several disparate sources to form a new song, so you’ll hear building block such as Walter “Buddy Boy” Hawkins’ A-Rag, Carl Perkins’ Matchbox and the flamenco of Sabicas, all of which can be heard in Fahey’s Lion. And, in true Fahey-fashion, I ended each album with a hymn of a sort.
I’ve been collecting music and making eclectic and themed mix-cds since high school, but this is the first time I’ve put extensive research into it. I guess my hope is that other aspiring musicians and inactivists will hear this music and enter a new realm of musical enchantment, irresponsible unproductivity, and hapless record-collecting.
There are a few artists and songs that ought to be on here but aren’t because I assume that everyone knows about them (e.g. Robert Johnson, Christmas music, California Dreamin’, and The Beatles’ Rain, Blueberry Hill, Hank Williams). Also, I didn’t really trace his latter-day influences such as Einsturzende Neubaten, as that’s not really my area of expertise (nor his, despite his self-aggrandizing claims). I didn’t include the version of Railroad Bill on Pete Seeger’s guitar-instruction album, which was the first song Fahey learned to play, though I do have it. I also left off songs that are only related by title (no copies of Charley Patton’s Some Summer Day had surfaced when Fahey took the title, and Fahey’s Wine and Roses and Night Train to Valhalla bear very little similarity to Henry Mancini’s Days of Wine and Roses or Roy Acuff’s Night Train to Memphis). Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh was left off, though Stravinsky’s Dance of the Infernal Subjects of Kaschei was included.
If you like this music and are interested in delving further, check out some of the blogs listed here. El Diablo Tun Tun is where I got a lot of this stuff. For serious blues lovers, check out Merlin in Rags and The Blues Club forum (registration required). For classical stuff, see Le Roi S’Amuse, or check out your local library. The Ravi Shankar piece upon which Fahey based On the Banks of the Owchita can be found at Singer Saints. The gamelan vinyl came from A Closet of Curiosities. A bunch of Fahey-related stuff can be found at grown so ugly and the usenet group alt.binaries.sounds.mp3.acoustic is excellent. A lot of related music is also posted on this blog; if you search the archives, you’ll find some Harry Partch, some Jug Band music, some Son House, and others. Also check out the releases on Fahey’s Revenant Records, for a stunning mix of arcane rural musics and raw avant-garde improvisation.
There are 5 mix-cds in this set, plus a bonus disc which consists of Sibelius’ 7th Symphony and Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin and Music for Percussion, Strings, and Celeste, all of which deserve to be heard in their entirety. I thought about including works by musicians working on parallel lines (Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s fusion of Dvorak’s Going Home and Stephen Foster’s Old Folks at Home, or Brij Bhusan Kabra, the first musician to play ragas on a guitar). But these will have to come another time.
I also was going to type out the tracklist, but you’ll have to settle for snapshots of my itunes playlists. An advantage, of course, is that you can see which albums I got the tunes from, and search out the ones that inspire you.
The Roots of John Fahey
Disc 1 – Vampires in Valhalla
Disc 2 – The Chthonic Blues
Disc 3 – Duelling Kitheras
Disc 4 – Dance of the Subjects of the Great Koonaklaster
Disc 5 – The Turtle’s Waters
Disc 6 (bonus) – Requiem for Blind Joe
All have the bitrates at which I found them; those I converted from AAC and my cd rips are as always at >192vbr. No covers are included. What you hear is what you get.
for much of the information I used to build this compilation, see the Fahey Files.
for more fahey trivia, unreleased songs, record labels, etc, see the John Fahey blogspot
which includes R Anthony Lee “Flea”‘s piece The Wolves are Gone Now,” which recounts Fahey’s early life from the eyes of a friend, organicist, and fellow musical miscreant.
and see VROOTz! : FAHEY SOurCEs AND INFLUENCES tracklist and notes in the Wall of Fahey (word document) or see it in html here. thanks to Paul Bryant, Andrew Stranglen and Mitchell Wittenberg, for their contributions to the project.
oh, and the photo used above is by Dick Waterman, manager of Son House and many other great blues artists of the ’60s. Incidentally, it was largely his photos and stories, found within Between Midnight and Day: the Last Unpublished Blues Archive, which led me to artists like Son House and Skip James in the first place. the photo, like everything else here, used without permission.
and if you appreciate my endless unpaid toil, leave a comment!