Excerpts from Byron Coley's notes...
On the album:
Death Chants is John Fahey's second album, following the brilliantly apocryphal Blind Joe Death by four years. As massive as that earlier work was, it represented only a tentative first step towards the fields of hodologic splendor that our hero would go on to create. Death Chants represents a much more fully realized syncretism of the modernist and primitive poles between which Fahey wobbled. It is also the first album he deigned to release entirely under his own name and the one with which he truly began to cast a shadow across the blandly-lit landscape of the world's subconscious.
On Fahey's departure from the East Coast:
ED Denson remembers it thusly. "The West Coast folk scene that we came into was derivative of the East Coast and a couple of years behind in the trends. When John got to Berkeley the main scene was a club called the Blind Lemon that was down on its luck, and one which [Folkways recording artist] Rolf Kahn opened, the name of which was the Cabal. Rolf liked to be mysterious. It was down on the main drag-as was the Blind Lemon-not up by the college. The music was mainly Dylan imitators and other residue from the late Fifties folkie stuff, where the idea was to take something and hoke it up for suburban white audiences. John had not only actually heard the roots music, he could play it (he didn't like to sing, and didn't sing well), and it has aesthetic values which were quite different from those of the folkie stuff. He was not wildly successful with the audiences, in part because of his stage personality. However he was a breath of air from a different clime."
On meeting graduate school admission requirements:
....The apex of Fahey's career as a heckler probably occurred at the 1965 Berkeley Folk Festival, at which he loudly berated J.E. Maynard for forsaking his pure bluegrass roots. Most of the attendees just shouted for John to shut up, but the acuity of his remarks caught the attention of folklorist D.K. Wilgus, who was just starting up a gradute department at UCLA. On the basis of Fahey's rant, Wilgus got John accepted to the program, and he left the Bay Area in the fall of '64.
On the music:
The abstract bohemian structure of "Adelphi," the co-option of Ralph Vaughan William's music for "Episcopal Hymn" (aka "At the Name of Jesus"), and the liner notes' reference to Harry Partch's cloud chamber bowls (and their relationship to Nashville's Grand Ole Opry) combine to demonstrate that Fahey's interest in the tradition of twentieth century composition was a proteal element in his music. It is this dedication to rigorously academic art music which created such a unique alloy when blended with Fahey's more obvious affinities for America's primitive volk traditions. At the time of these recordings, the strains of culture that blended so effortlessly inside Fahey's head were imagined to be at opposite, irreconcilable ends of the musical spectrum. In defense of his miscegenetic ways, Fahey will only say, "I thought it would be cool if you could syncopate Bartok." Indeed.
On the reissue:
Now, with the second coming of this lovely album, it's possible to hear the later, more exotically mature versions of the songs, placed next to their more basic and embryonic kin....
Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes is an album of extraordinary beauty and detail. The evidence of this is now before you as it never has been previously. And I hope you can dig it.
-BYRON COLEY (Deerfield, MA, 1998)