Many visitors to Delta Slider are familiar with the late guitarist John Fahey, who passed away ten years ago on February 22nd , 2001. As some of you may know, Chicago guitarist Charlie Schmidt has earned quite a reputation for his eerily accurate renderings of John Fahey songs. In the article below, he describes some thoughts and insights into the playing of Fahey material.
I was fifteen when I discovered the guitar world of John Fahey. I wasn’t immediately hooked, it took about six months for me to begin to appreciate what I was hearing. I recall that one album in particular, Death Chants, Breakdowns, and Military Waltzes, had excellent pieces that were especially evocative. I recall that the piece When the Catfish Is In Bloom from a different album proved beyond a doubt I was hearing the work of a genius. By 1978, I was well on my way in my musical journey, one I am still on today, 33 years later.
Watch Charlie play “When The Catfish Is In Bloom.”
I was enthralled by this music and had the ridiculous idea back then that I was going to listen to these songs really carefully and teach myself how to play them, and all that that entailed. To my surprise I managed to learn a few and the few turned into many. I played as a hobby, with no designs to perform or record. I was content to just experience that music in as direct a manner as possible, for friends and family only. My entire family was musical, and I got plenty of support, especially from my mother Donna. My sister Martha Helen Schmidt is a composer and educator in Minneapolis.
I didn’t write my own songs until much later, when I was in my 30s.
My devotion to the “Fahey oeuvre” however hasn’t changed much in 33 years. I still mostly play for myself, to revisit in an immediately gratifying way the many Fahey songs I have come to revere and enjoy with each passing year. Fahey’s work holds up extremely well over repeated hearings. His work was far ranging, of immense scope, depth, and simplicity; his person unlike any I have known before or since. Glenn Jones’ essay on Fahey “Railroads to Plowshares” is among the notes to Revenant’s Fahey album Red Cross. It captures the experience of what it was like to be around Fahey, which in all honesty was no picnic.
An important fact about John is that he was not only a very good guitar player, he was an also an outstanding composer for the steel-string guitar. I recall a phone conversation John and I had ca. 1996. We spoke about how incredibly good Leo Kottke was, all around. But I quickly added (probably awkwardly) that no one could touch Fahey when it came to his industriousness and musical economy. No one had wielded the spiritual depth and pure inspiration as assertively as he had; on this there was no argument from Fahey. (With all due respect to Mr. Kottke, if I could play like him, I would, believe me. Good heavens who wouldn’t?)
As a “Fahey player” I like to play Fahey’s music like he would play it himself, or at least how I think he’s playing it. Not that one should or shouldn’t improvise. I’ve always felt free to improvise within the style as long as the changes are consistent with what Fahey might do, such as reversing the order of themes, increasing or decreasing tempo, switching from a straight tempo to a syncopated rhythm, putting on or removing of plastic fingerpicks. But usually it’s easiest to just copy Fahey’s recorded version pretty much as is, making as few changes as possible, letting the little flubs add color, working as hard as I can to hit all the notes and control my tempo, while trying to sound effortless. Most of the differences you will hear between my versions of Fahey and the Fahey originals are just flubs that I’ve managed to salvage. In reality, even if one tries to copy, one really can’t. Despite this, I’ve learned that those “flubs and recoveries” turn into internally consistent nuances that can add to the interest and spontaneity of a performance. Of course, there’s no substitute for practice.
It’s rarely the case that adding something to a Fahey tune – adding my stamp for instance - improved it in any way. To the contrary, leaving something out is a far more likely event. When I choose to play from the Fahey repertoire, I’ve consciously tried to preserve the coherence that he so deliberately and beautifully realized in his compositions; from the shorter art songs such as the perennial In Christ There Is No East or West and Some Summer Day to the longer more cerebral tone poems like Voice of the Turtle, and across the terrain of open tunings. The “classical” period ca. 1959-1970 Fahey songs typically have a structure that makes them distinctively transparent to the ear, making it easier (than most guitarists) to identify fingerings, idiosyncrasies, and phrasing.
Is this a completist’s neurosis to imitate note-for-note one man’s artistic vision? Nah. It has never been about wanting to be like Fahey, or trying to outplay anyone, or to prove anything. It was and remains to be about the joy in the artistry of the music itself. Fahey himself imitated musicians who came before him such as Skip James, Sam McGee and Sylvester Weaver. But then he transformed those imitations into something new and timeless, as he once put it, into consciously artful pieces that are made to sound easy. Similarly, my CD Xanthe Terra was a deliberate effort to demonstrate that I could do my own thing, and create my own art.
So why should anyone care about playing like Fahey? Well, an audience does not begrudge a symphony orchestra conductor who has followed an original score. Chopin’s stunning 24 Preludes Op. 28 is not improved by improvisation. Charles Ives’ Unanswered Question doesn’t get better with added percussion. Nobody complains when the conductor follows the score. Rather, a conductor may try to emphasize a nuance or quality through his orchestra that is already inherent in the composition. That’s what I try to do with my Fahey renderings; to find the essential spirit and celebrate it, to state it again and again, immune to the passing fashions of the day, as if it were an old familiar friend. I choose to follow the Fahey “score” as a conductor might, albeit more as an advanced amateur than a trained pro. If that makes a song into a museum piece, so be it; it’s a museum I want to visit. It shouldn’t be a curse for a song to belong to a canon of classical works, whatever that may be. A song would not be canonical in the first place if it weren’t for its distinctive identity. So by the same token, a guitarist should be free to recreate Fahey songs with impunity, as I do. Granted, as long as John was alive, it seemed a bit pointless to “play Fahey.” But now that John and his musical genius have been gone for ten years, I’m more inclined than before to share my experience with others. Our host Scott is posting a few of my Fahey renderings this week right here at Delta Slider. Additional renderings at my YouTube channel may be of interest, among dozens of others who have posted on YouTube and been in some way inspired by Fahey’s music.
Now, for those of you who already know, the most interesting part of my story was the day Fahey asked me to recreate his recordings as him.
It is not without a little irony that Fahey – who was known to encourage artists not to copy him but to create their own songs – would nevertheless find in me an appropriately obscure guitarist who could convincingly imitate him. It would satisfy his need to pull the wool over our eyes, to sow confusion, blur attribution, defy our expectations. It was a mark of his humility, self-deprecation, and even recklessness to allow me to ghost his interpretations. Yes, he had heard me play his songs, but only a few bars here and there, just in passing. (I achieved this by volunteering to change his strings between sets when he was in town, while he schmoozed with fans or took long cigarette breaks.) And so it was, in March of 1993, that he took me at my word, paid my recording costs and set me loose in the studio as the “Fahey Doppelganger,” remarking that I would make an “excellent impostor” for a project he was doing with Shanachie Records, a label that had planned to reissue re-recordings of some of Fahey’s earliest and best work. In exchange, I got a vote of confidence from my mentor I could never have anticipated. I proceeded to record a new Death Chants, Break Downs, and Military Waltzes, and sent Fahey the DAT masters. I also included some bonus tracks of my own compositions, including one we named The Hyattsville Anti-Inertia Dance. Fahey was impressed, but nothing came of my recordings (or so I thought) and the subject was dropped. Then the tapes sat, for a decade, until something completely unexpected happened in 2004, three years after Fahey had died. Read about it in this profile from the Chicago Reader.
I devote my free tutorials of When the Catfish Is In Bloom to the memory of John A. Fahey, the messenger, born 2/28/39; died 2/22/01.
You can watch a 3-part tutorial by Charlie of “When The Catfish Is In Bloom,” here is part 1. Parts 2 and 3 will be presented in the following days. NOTE: Tuning is CGCGCC