John Fahey’s Campfire Freak Jazz

Levon Henry was always telling me that my music sounded like John Fahey and I never knew what he was talking about… When I finally got the chance to listen to Fahey’s music (on YouTube in a hidden tab of my browser at my office job in Harlem) I still didn’t get the connection, and was instead struck by Fahey’s ability to collage elements of American music into a cohesive whole: some sort of Experimental Americana.


I grew up in ’90s America, a hyper-capitalist era which gave birth to many things great and terrible: The Big Lebowski; the Star Wars prequels; The Monica Lewinski Scandal; surf & skate videos (Tony Hawk, Rodney Mullen et al.); Harry Potter (horcruxes!); Napster; and a multitude of unnecessary consumer products marketed towards horny teens in the ‘burbs. In short, more than the sounds of his music, Fahey’s groundbreaking aesthetics resonate most with my own patchwork American upbringing.


Around the time that I was scouring Fahey’s discography on YouTube at work, I was preparing for the recording of my first album Uncivilized in May of 2013, which would later become the name of my current big-band project. This first album was the culmination of several years playing gigs in the city and throughout the Northeast in a variety of formats and sizes, and the start of a new record label, Tiny Montgomery, which was founded by a record collector from Long Island, and now serves as the collecting pot for projects at an open living-room recording space in Flatbush, Brooklyn.


I began writing a song for the record in my Bed-Stuy-room-with-no-windows that featured a rolling finger picking pattern and some weird metric modulations. I finished it the day of the recording session, and we ended up editing many takes together to create the final version. It features opposing Tenor Sax soli’s from both Ben Flocks and Kyle Wilson, as well as some very spirited playing from the whole band (Levon’s bass clarinet squawk is a highlight). The composition was brought in as a lead sheet entitled “Fahey” not because it sounded anything like John Fahey, or because it utilizes any of his harmonic or melodic forms, but because the piece was inspired by the freedom and fluidity with which Fahey’s music references the sounds of America. Fahey would combine Copland, Charlie Patton and John Cage, while my tribute tune was more of a Zappa, Art Blakey, ‘90s doom mashup.


In celebration of Uncivilized’s John Fahey tribute show at the world music venue Barbes on Thursday 11 May at 10pm, Tiny Montgomery Records is re-releasing the audio under the band’s new official name, available for free download on their bandcamp page:


John Fahey was a record collector, scholar, writer, businessman, record-producer, iconoclast, and — at times — completely broke: he infamously sold his guitar and record collection in the ’80s before a late-career comeback. Fahey claimed his main influence was classical music, but his guitar playing and compositions more often referenced the stride and country-blues guitarists Charlie Patton, Blind Blake, Elizabeth Cotton, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Lonnie Johnson, Fred McDowell and Gary Davis. This is lot of music history to combine, but Fahey took it further: he incorporated sound collage, tape manipulation, contemporary classical dissonances and experimental sound design into his recordings (what some have described as “ambient”), and even delved into electric and slide guitar on his later albums.


Despite his obvious command on the guitar, his works — especially his longer, semi-improvisational pieces — remind me of the rolling drumming and swing of Billy Higgins; the ghostly auras of fellow country-blues revivalists Bill Frisell, Sandy Bull, Robbie Basho and Marc Ribot; the esoteric harmonic movement of Kurt Rosenwinkel; Alice Coltrane and Kamasi Washington’s spiritual, cosmic jazz; Brad Mehldau and Keith Jarrett’s solo piano improvisations; and even the rawness of Ornette Coleman’s folky free jazz. Fahey’s music is for the soul and the brain, some sort of campfire freak-jazz.


There is a ghostly, hymn-like quality to Fahey’s music, which is mysterious and thought provoking like Paul Motian’s idiosyncratic compositions, and potentially even the genre-bending work of Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk, or Herbie Nichols. Fahey often flirts with the role of improvisation within his performances and compositions, making it difficult to discern whether he’s following a song path or playing entirely free form; in any case, he was definitely creating a sort of sonic journey — a songscape, if you will — all his own, sometimes ending without ceremony, like the twist of a post-modern painting. In this way, John Fahey’s work might even relate to the unique compositions and drumming of the enigmatic Tyshawn Sorey.


His music was often defined and enhanced by its imperfections, a characteristic which has undoubtedly influenced many living guitarists today: Mary Halvorson’s jaggedly lush guitar work; Brandon Seabrook’s baroque shredding; and the many Fahey revivalists/impersonators to boot (Glenn Jones, Daniel Bachman, Sean Smith, Ryley Walker etc.).


One of Fahey’s most popular albums (by some accounts selling into six figures, with many reissues) is his 1969 solo-guitar Christmas album The New Possibility (Uncivilized will be focusing on this album at our tribute show on May 11). Fahey often arranged and performed popular songs, folk songs, and traditional hymns, bridging the gap between his experimental side and more accessible sounds. He reimagined these tunes in his own vernacular, much like Sam Amidon or The Bad Plus might today, reharmonizing, laying back, and adding elements of dissonance and jazz to these long-gone traditionals. On The New Possibility Fahey plays classic Christmas hymns, including Auld Lang Syne and Greensleeves, with arrangements that are so simple and pure they sound cheeky, but his slightly tilted execution and harmonic adjustments bring new life to these supermarket standbys.


Fahey probably would have laughed at Uncivilized, and I hope he would because the last thing the world needs is another band led by a jazz guitarist, but I hope we all take one from John and let go of our heroes a little bit more (Fahey was more interested in Turtles than the pop stars of his day), delving fearlessly into that weird, happy unknown, devoid of mass-produced, formulaic Americana.