“When first to this country a stranger I came / I placed my affection on a maid who was young / She being warm and tender, her waist small and slender / Kind Nature had formed her for my overthrow”
A few years ago I bought a vinyl record of John Fahey’s music at the famous Princeton Record Exchange. Later that night a strange man in Carhartt overalls told me, with great solemnity, that there are two types of people in the world: those who appreciate John Fahey, and those who don’t. I suppose this statement is true, though that is perhaps its only virtue. But then, I’ve always loved Fahey’s music in part because it’s hard to explain why.
When I lived in Chicago I occupied a one-bedroom apartment as lightly as I could; it was furnished, but if you looked carefully, you could see that subconsciously I wanted the ability to break camp at a day’s notice. I did have a record player, though, and Ben Hjertmann and I used to sit in there with the windows open at night, listening to albums. Nick Drake. Captain Beefheart. One time we were playing Spades, listening to Fahey, and Ben looked up from his hand and said, “it seems like it’s just a guy playing a guitar.” Now, Ben was in graduate school at the time and listening to more Scelsi than may be strictly healthy, but he was right. It’s just a guy playing a guitar. So why has it always struck me as more? Again, the point may be the lack of a point; the gimmick is the lack of a gimmick.
“On the banks of the Bann, where I first beheld her / she appeared like fair Juno or a Grecian queen / Her eyes shone like diamonds, her hair softly twining / Her cheeks were like roses, or blood drops in snow”
One day recently, out for a run, mind wandering, I started listing musicians and associating them with an element. Bach: water; Beethoven; fire; Mozart; air; Brahms, earth; Bartók, earth; Stravinsky, earth; Richard Rodgers, water; Miles Davis, air; Steve Coleman, fire; Maurice Ravel, water; Peter Garland, air; Ben Hjertmann, fire; Chris Fisher-Lochhead, water; Eric Malmquist, air; Brian Baxter, earth. Myself, I’m a Taurus born near the Aries cusp, an earth sign with an affinity, maybe a desire, for the air. And that’s what I get from Fahey, too. He’s playing you a folk song at the same time he’s abstracting it. The answer exists contemporaneously with the question. Experimentation is just another plant coming up in the garden.
I used to listen to The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death driving between Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where I grew up, and Bloomington, Illinois, where I went to college, and I still associate Fahey’s music with the Mississippi River, and with bridges. Let me say, I have much better ears than I did back then. Fahey’s music is melodically folksy, harmonically simple. Lately I’ve been practicing piano by running jazz standards through all twelve keys and learning Bud Powell solos by ear and memory. I have a much enhanced ability for linear hearing; and I’m just as impressed with Fahey now as I was then, if not more. Such melodic fecundity. Such textural freshness. Such confidence without showiness. Such authority as a performer.
“It was her cruel parents that first caused our variance / All because I was poor and of a low degree / But I’ll do my endeavor to earn my love’s favor / Although she is come from a rich family”
At the Banff Centre in the Canadian Rockies in 2011 I met an artist from Belfast named Phil Hession. Phil didn’t look straight at you, he spoke through a sideways grin, and he smoked a lot of hand-rolled cigarettes. I would see him at the Maclab Cafe, picking up burgers to take back to his studio. Phil was in the Leighton Colony, the fanciest-ass realm within this fancy-ass arts center, a quiet area set aside in the woods where you’d walk down snowy paths to a set of individual studio buildings, each built by a different prominent Canadian architect. The Leighton residents were off on their own, not part of a larger program within the Centre, and they both lived and worked in those gorgeous studios of theirs. Phil occupied a visual artist studio, though it wasn’t totally clear what he was up to all day. Sometime in January he invited me, and a few other folks from around the Centre, to take part in a singing project. He was going to teach us the Irish folk song “Banks of the Bann,” and we were going to sing it along with a video of some other people singing it. There were three people on the video. The fourth was missing. We’d be the fourth, that night. He had done similar presentations in other countries.
We’d meet at Phil’s studio on cold, packed-snow afternoons. He’d roll some cigarettes and crack some jokes, and eventually we’d get down to singing. A few of us in the room were professional musicians and learned the song quickly. Nonetheless we managed to spend a great deal of time at it, returning week after week to practice “Banks of the Bann.” Finally one night he invited a bunch of people to his studio for a presentation of the song. Some brought guitars and fiddles and such, and we drank beer and whiskey, played songs together, sang “Banks of the Bann” along with a video of some Irish people in a stone tower someplace, people we’d never met, singing “Banks of the Bann.”
This was, so far as I could tell, the culmination of Phil’s residency. Ostensibly he had received some sort of grant funding to travel across the world and live in Banff for a couple of months and do this thing. I’m still not clear on how he kept busy, day to day. And I didn’t feel particularly impressed with the work he presented, but then, maybe that isn’t the point. Here I am, still thinking about it. And I’ve never forgotten the song.
“My name is Delaney, it’s a name that won’t shame me / And if I’d saved my money I’d never have roamed / But drinking and sporting, night rambling and courting / Are the cause of my ruin and absence from home”
That night was February 20, 2011. It had been a big day; some of the Banff musicians had presented an outreach concert in nearby Canmore. I played a piano piece called Prelude and Blues, a work-in-progress that I never returned to; I’ve since lost the score. On the way back we stopped at a big frozen lake. We walked out in the middle of it and looked at the mountains. Then we returned to the Centre, for beers and dinner and more beers and Phil’s party.
My journal from late that night: “Friday I felt like great music is worth all the bullshit. It is. But I’m starting to recognize that I don’t need to move constantly to achieve. I could pick a place and be excellent there. That happens. Sometimes art is great, and sometimes it is about love, but love is not art. Love is way, way bigger.”
I haven’t seen or heard from Phil since then. I wonder if he’s still off someplace, rolling cigarettes, cracking jokes, teaching people “Banks of the Bann” with luxuriant slowness.
About a year later, Nick Phillips commissioned me as part of his American Vernacular project. He was looking for a piano piece based on some aspect of American vernacular musical styles. I might have cheated by selecting Fahey. He plays guitar; that is a classic instrument of American vernacular music. But his music is instrumental, and immediately there he leaves the sphere of American pop music, wherein the fundamental unit, the mp3 file in your iTunes library, is the “song.” Speaking literally, if there’s no singing, it’s not a “song.” But in 2015 America that’s the understood medium: we are conditioned to hear not music, but song. Singing is of the air. We aspire, easily and often. Instrumental music is of the earth. We don’t look down there much.
In 1967 Fahey made an album called Requia. He wrested the requiem from Mozart and Brahms, excised voice and text, removed the proceedings from the church and set them down someplace grittier. He wrote a few solo acoustic guitar pieces and called them “Requiem for John Hurt,” “Requiem for Russell Cooper,” and “Requiem for Molly.”
The piece I wrote for Nick is called Back Porch Requiem for John Fahey, based on the form and textures of “Requiem for John Hurt.” The whole Requia record is just gorgeous. By the time you get to “Requiem for Molly” you know you’re dealing with abstraction. But what about “Requiem for John Hurt”? What about “When the Catfish Is In Bloom“? Is that the earth, or is that the air? I suppose that's all of us, with our feet in the dirt and our eyes toward the stars.
“Had I all the money that’s in the West Indies / I’d put rings on her fingers and gold in her ears / We’d live on the banks of the lovely Bann River / And in all kinds of splendor I would style her my dear”
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