John Fahey, ‘The Yellow Princess’ (1969)

If you go looking for John Fahey’s records you’d find them in bins marked “folk” or perhaps “unclassifiable.” Fahey, though, thinks of himself as a classical composer who plays classical music on his own guitar. This does not mean he is devoting his life to translating the score of Bach’s B Minor Mass into something appropriate to one-stringed instruments (though he does play the Beatles’ “You Won’t See Me” on Hawaiian guitar). John Fahey is a classical composer with his own special library of the classics.yellow-princessI remember walking into a record store in 1964, catching a glimpse of a black and white album cover, with stark lettering that spelled out: John Fahey, Death Chants, Breakdowns, and Military Waltzes. Pretty strange; I put that out of my mind pretty quickly. Then from the radio one night came this interminable song without any words, guitar chords exploring each other over and over, the music quietly frightening. It was called “The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party,” and it sounded, with a little help from the title, like Bunuel’s endless bacchanal from The Exterminating Angel. I began to hear mention of Fahey’s name every once in a while, the name connected with places like Maryland, Mississippi, Arkansas, Berkeley, and of course, San Bernardino.Fahey began playing music on a clarinet in junior high school; he hated that, and picked up a guitar. He began composing before he really knew how to play; the title song on his new Vanguard album, The Yellow Princess is a product of those early years in the fifties, a song that wasn’t resolved, in Fahey’s mind, until just a few years ago. It’s the musical story of a clipper ship. Lidsacidspeedsmack—a clipper ship?

Fahey started listening to bluegrass and to the ancient country blues of Son House and Charley Patton. He spent a lot of time in the deep south, digging the lovely countryside, knocking on doors, asking for old records, trying to locate the forgotten masters of the blues. Along with Henry Vestine of Canned Heat and Bill Barth of the Insect Trust, he helped discover such legends as Ishman Bracey, Bukka White, and Skip James, who he found dying in the black ward of a Mississippi hospital. Searching for that “rootsy feeling,” Fahey says.

The Mississippi blues is like a mother lode for musicians. The magnificently expressive guitar styling of men like Skip James, the soft picking of John Hurt, the mysticism of Robert Johnson—all that in the midst of beautiful fields lit by a brilliant sun (“it’s a time warp,” Fahey says) has seduced and often destroyed white musicians who, unlike Fahey, could find no way to come to grips with their own roots. John Hammond is an example; raised on his father’s collection of 78’s from the thirties, he showed up in his twenties curiously disguised as a ninety-year old bluesman from the Mississippi delta. He found it impossible to make his own music, so caught up in the necessities of “authenticity.” John Fahey’s music isn’t “ethnic”—it’s real. A living vision of a tradition of lost music has found its way into his own compositions, and that tradition coexists alongside childhood memories of Maryland, the confused cacophonies of Berkeley, and the peacefulness of small towns.trout-fishingOn Highway 61 Revisited Bob Dylan pursued a classic American highway, a road that runs up through the forests of Minnesota and down toward the Gulf of Mexico. Chuck Berry hit the same sort of road with his songs that named every major city in America, with his car songs that took him all over the country (and of course it was crossing a state line with a young girl that landed him in prison for a couple of years). Like Dylan and Chuck Berry, John Fahey is an American musician, a composer whose creations are about America in the same way that Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing In America is a completely American novel, regardless of its “influences” or “literary sources.” John Fahey didn’t have to meditate with the Maharishi to get close to the spirit of Indian music. The names of his songs tell the story: “The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Tennessee,” “Sunflower River Blues,” “Stomping Tonight on the Pennsylvania/Alabama Border,” “On the Beach at Waikiki”(!), “The Downfall of the Adelphi Rolling Grist Mill,” and, naturally, “America.”

Glancing back over the titles of John’s compositions, it really seems as if only Richard Brautigan could write a novel about John Fahey’s songs, and only John Fahey could set Trout Fishing in America to music. Both of them have already done it.

San Francisco Express-Times, 1969 (possibly February, date TBC)


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