John Fahey – Volume 6, Days Have Gone By (1967)

John Fahey is, in my opinion, an absolutely fascinating figure in the course of American music. His compositions encapsulate a huge spread of musical history, drawing inspiration from early blues and folk, avant-garde classical, Indian musical traditions and even experiments with noise. Beginning as a straightforward blues guitarist, he first followed the tradition of his favorite guitarists in Blind Willie Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson. Early Fahey works are unabashedly committed to this blues obsession, performed under the pseudonym “Blind Joe Death”.

Unfortunately though, Fahey’s beginnings as a musician were absolutely disastrous. His first album, Joe Death, was self-released and despite only printing 100 copies, took almost three years to sell out. Most copies were given away by Fahey, as he gave them to musicologists and snuck them onto the shelves of record stores, in an attempt to spread the lore of “Joe Death”. In some ways, this peculiar move bolstered Fahey’s reputation and spread his music even further. A few records grabbed the attention of musicologists, who were perplexed by this mysterious blues musician. In an attempt to recuperate from a failed musical debut and move away from blues, Fahey took a pause from music and attended UCLA’s school of folklore1. He also founded his own record label, Takoma, where he would release all subsequent albums.

After his stretch in academics, Fahey’s music took a noticeable leap, progressing beyond old-time American music, into other brands of experimental music. The next editions of Joe Death are still based in blues and gospel tradition but become increasingly bizarre, darker and more influenced by mysticism. Fahey dubbed his new blend of fingerpicking guitar and avant-garde influences “American Primitivism”, based on a movement of “Primitivist” French folk painters. By the late 60s Fahey was including touches of Hindustani music, avant-garde classical and the psychedelic movement into his music. And by the 90s, he was far more fascinated with noise and improv than anything blues related.

Volume 6, Days Have Gone By is the album where Fahey hits one of his peaks. Alongside The Great Santa Barbara Birthday Party, Vol 6 is one of his most brilliant balances of tradition and experimentation. Tracks maintain an obvious blues influence, still possessing an air of melancholy and an earthy tone. Yet Fahey’s fingerpicking guitar technique is enhanced beyond simplistic blues, relying more on Indian scales and sweeping impressionistic guitar arpeggios. A raga suite dominates the middle portion of the album. Eastern musical elements become increasingly prominent overall. And occasional field recordings enhance the atmosphere of the lengthier, more wandering tracks. The mix of styles makes Vol 6 feel highly spiritual, meditative and atmospheric.

“Joe Kirby Blues” is perhaps the best example of this approach. Beginning with a simple blues progression, it transitions briefly into a mini raga. It shifts quickly and almost jarringly, only to snap back into blues after a few seconds. The switches continue for a majority of the 3 minute track which somehow make it sound more mysterious and entrancing. For that reason, it’s one of my favorite Fahey compositions. It packs so much into a short runtime, without feeling forced or going over the top.

The driving force of the album, however, is the two part “A Raga Called Pat”. One of the best examples of Fahey’s tape experiments, it not only relies on an Indian musical scale, it brings in some unique elements. The track warbles around awkwardly at times, playing in reverse, changing speeds – maintaining an eastern, spiritual feel throughout. The guitar on this track is used incredibly effectively, sounding more like a sitar during large stretches. Though, the experimental elements aren’t as wandering as Fahey’s attempts on Requia or Womblife. It never feels like experimentation for the sake of it – it’s used to compliment the style of the album.

The real key to Fahey’s music in this period is this balance of experimentation. He experiments, throws in bizarre elements and unique instrumental flairs – but maintains an approachable demeanor. The album isn’t merely a host of sonic experiments. Instead, it’s a cohesive collection of guitar-driven instrumentals, with an occasional touch here and there to tie things together. At his worst, Fahey sounds like he just throws random elements together for the sake of it. But on an album like Days Have Gone By, he effectively plans a suite; he composes brilliant instrumentals while maintaining a consistent, one-of-a-kind atmosphere.

Days Have Gone By is in my mind, one of the finest albums American Primitivism has to offer. It may not be the essential Fahey or the most experimental. But I’d argue Days Have Gone By is where Fahey strikes his best balance and draws in the most impressive collection of influences. As a result, it’s one of the most representative albums of a movement so hard to define.

 


Where he wrote a 100 page thesis on delta blues musician Charley Patton.

Author: Charlie

Charlie Wooley is an aspiring journalist and founder of The Tenth Man Blog. An avid sports fan and music nerd, he’s written for publications such as Pop Gates, Every Deja Vu and Tremr. A local San Diegan, you can catch him eating fish tacos or cruising through Balboa.

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