American Primitive Guitar
Fingerstyle & Slide Guitar
by John Fahey
Mel Bay Publications
If we look to the dictionary to define genius, it gives us the rather placid accounting of “Extraordinary intellectual and creative power.” For an altogether more vivid explanation, we look to the music of John Fahey. In a performing career that stretched from 1959’s Blind Joe Death until his death in 2001, guitarist John Fahey defied the limits to which a guitar had previously been bound, almost single-handedly invented the “steel string” guitar genre as a musical and marketing force, and inspired (largely by fear) all guitarists who came after him. Raised on a diet of bluegrass and blues, Fahey played a mixture of sounds derived from influences such as Charley Patton, Bukka White, and countless bluegrass flatpickers. At times known as much for his eccentricity as for his music, he possessed a wicked sense of humor (such as the title of his 2000 book, How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life) and the ability to find meanings in songs unknown even to the original composer, and to take a piece in tangents to a far different place. He founded two record labels, Tacoma, which helped give rise to the careers of Peter Lang and Leo Kottke, as well as Revenant Records, who recently released the mammoth Charley Patton set, which contained a in depth book on Patton penned by Fahey.
Either in concert or while listening to his dozens of records, a listener is often stopped by the brilliance of his playing — not so much by his technique, which is bested by many, but by the sheer force of his imagination. The thought crosses your mind of not “how did he do that,” but rather, “how did he ever THINK to do that?” A vastly different question. We will never how his mind worked to create his masterpieces, but with these two books, we can learn how his fingers did the work. These two instructional books expertly lay out key examples of his craft in tab format. Both include three CDs each of Fahey explaining the songs in the books, phrase by phrase. He is a joy to hear, and between listening to him play a piece and following the tab, you can begin play along. Standards of his are included such as “In Christ There is No East or West,” “Requiem For John Hurt,” and “Some Summer Day,” among others. Are they easy to play? Ha. It would most likely take a lifetime of work to approach a comfortable peace with these pieces, and that would be an impressive achievement. Would it make you into the next John Fahey? No. That will never occur. But they are fun to play, and unlike many tabbed books, they have the bonus of being played by the one who did ’em. Each book contains additional articles on the man and his life, and until a truly deserved biography of this Primitive American genius is written, these will have to tide us over.