A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Track #21 on Thommy Ford’s Playlist
I don’t really know how to sell people on the solo guitar music of John Fahey. “No really, that stuffy looking guy playing old timey music on an acoustic guitar is really pretty cool” just doesn’t seem to cut it. Should I call him a genius? A prodigy? The Paganini of the steel string guitar? None of that’s true. But those types of superlatives seem appropriate somehow.
I guess if you want to figure out what’s so special about John Fahey, you’re best bet is to just stop by the library and check out his 1963 album Death Chants, Breakdowns, and Military Waltzes. The second track “When the Springtime Comes Again” is a good place for the uninitiated to start. It kicks off with a slow (almost renaissance lute like) minor progression then erupts into a bright ragtime style that eventually drops back into the minor key. You’ll find yourself thinking it sounds familiar somehow, but you’ll also think it’s not quite like anything you’ve ever heard. Fahey’s ability to twist around, deconstruct, and recombine traditional material until it’s utterly his own, sets him apart from most other folk guitarists.
But there’s another wonderful quality of his that might be hard to explain to non-guitarists: the balance between his rhythm picking and his lead picking is really uncanny. Sure, it’s difficult to pick a rhythm part with your thumb and pick a lead with your other fingers at the same time, but even more difficult is getting the dynamics between that rhythm and lead right. Fahey’s seem to swell and recede in volume naturally and independently of one another, in a way that’s uniquely his. Plus, Fahey does all this while making strange, surprising shifts in tempo and mood too. The result is almost trance-like music that seems channeled through John rather than played by him.
So, if you’re a guitarist, Fahey is a must hear, but if you’re not you should still come in and take a listen. It’s beautiful, eccentric music, and it will definitely reward the effort it takes to listen carefully.
Review by Matthew