John Fahey was already a great guitar player in 1964, although he had not yet become a Great Guitar Player. His first album, the legendary Blind Joe Death, had sold through its 100-copy press run; his second album, Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes, was beginning to sell. Though he had already astonished a small network of cognoscenti with his preternatural skill and musical vision, he was by no means well-known. Fahey had yet to take to a stage for a paying gig. To all outward appearances, he was just another rough-hewn college student trying to wrap his brain around German philosophers at the University of California at Berkeley.
But the late summer of 1964 found John Fahey back in his native Washington, D.C. area for a few short fateful weeks, after he and friends Bill Barth and Henry Vestine had tracked down long-last bluesman Skip James in his sickbed at Tunica County Hospital in northern Mississippi. Before Fahey moved on up the Eastern Seaboard, he ventured over to Adelphi, Maryland where ED Denson, Fahey's friend and partner in the fledgling Takoma label, had booked some time at the basement recording studio of one Gene Rosenthal. Over the course of three nights that August, Fahey recorded the music which would become The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites, one of the triumphs of his early career.
"It was an interesting session," Fahey recalls. "It was the only one I ever did on marijuana and whiskey. It was kind of bouncy, you know. Another reason for that – I didn't actually own a good guitar at that time, so I was using Bill Barth's guitar, which was a big J-something Gibson and it had a real high action, so I couldn't hold the strings down very well."
The febrile trappings of the session aside, Dance of Death offers a glimpse of an artist in transformation. More than half the album's titles draw from the traditional blues and country repertoire Fahey had spent his teen years and yound adulthood collecting, listening to, and learning to play, yet the recordings proved once and for all that his interests lay in musical transfigurations rather than preservation -–Fahey was not afraid to use these old tunes as raw material. He added a bridge to Bukka White's "Poor Boy," making it his own while providing a bravura display of his picking skill at its slowest gait. "Variations on the Coocoo" finds Fahey worrying a lick from a banjo piece by Clarence Ashley while "Give Me Cornbread When I'm Hungry" comprises an amalgam of Dock Bogg's "Country Blues" and bits of Willie Brown's "Future Blues." "The descending bass line – that's Willie Brown, but I'm playing it fast," Fahey explains. "Willie Brown always complained about fast players. He always used to say – like I do – "What's the rush?' The faster you play, the less syncopation you can indulge in." Fast or not, the syncopation gets pretty hot in spots here.
At other times his transformative touch on inherited material was personal as much as musical. The dancing bottleneck piece "Worried Blues" was derived from a tune by country guitarist Frank Hutchinson, but Fahey invests it with a luminous, emotional quality that defies easy encapsulation and is singularly his own.
Fahey recorded more than 30 tunes, in whole or in part, during the sessions, and this issue of The Dance of Death features four cuts which didn't make the original album; none are Fahey compositions. "Tulip" is his take on the old Tin Pan Alley tune "When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose," a piece Fahey says he first heard during tap dance lessons his mother took him to when he was 10 or 11 years old. "Daisy" represents his first recorded stab at another sentimental standby, better known as "A Bicycle Built for Two." (Fahey: "It's just a pretty old tune." Is that all it takes? In this case, yeah.") The bottlenecked "Steel Guitar Rag" is better known through countless versions by western-swing and country artists, which is where Fahey first heard it. His version cleaves closer to the original tune, a bottleneck piece called "Guitar Rag" by black Louisville, Kentucky-based guitarist Sylvester Weaver.
"Sevastopol" constitutes a brief but spirited run through the parlor-music piece originally know as "The Siege of Sevastopol." Fahey traces this version of the tune back to Elizabeth Cotton, whom he knew and played with when both were part of the D.C. folk scene. "I didn't learn much from her because by the time I met her, I could already play most of that stuff, including versions of "Sevastopol," he recalls. "The one thing she taught me was how to play bottleneck in open G." Thus admires of the aforementioned version of "Worried Blues" owe a debt of gratitude to Ms. Cotton.
While Fahey was able to find fresh avenues in the traditional repertoire, his own musical interests were unmistakenly broadening. "[John's] early stuff tended to be taken from the model of old 78s," ED Denson notes. "It would be a rendition of an old 78, or he would write a new song as if it were an old 78. Pretty soon, he got into doing much longer, abstract pieces." The Dance of Death finds Fahey breaking that 78 paradigm, following his muse outside the realms of Southern folklore and digging deeper into the emotional issues that would elevate his music as well as dog his career.
Like the earlier "Sligo River Blues," "Revelations on the Banks of the Pawtuxent" takes its (misspelled) name from an actual body of water, the Patuxent River, which flows through southern Maryland down to the Chesapeake Bay. Though that corner of the state is now a tightly-woven blanket of commuter sprawl, it was once a very different place, and had a profound effect on Fahey, inspiring a still-unreported revelation and this piece. "Some of the most beautiful country I've ever seen was along the Patuxent," Fahey recalls. I"I still think about it when I think of a lake. You wouldn't believe how beautiful Maryland used to be." Despite the benign character of his remembrance, "Banks" is a wracking, atmospheric piece of slide work that hints more at a river's murky depths than its pacific surface.
According to Fahey, swinging soundtrack composer Henry Mancini deserves a nod for inspiration for the opening "Wine and Roses," a moody minor-key testament to the powers of syncopation. After hearing Mancini's "Days of Wine and Roses" on the radio, Fahey tried to play it from memory later and came-up with this tune, which he later retitled "The Red Pony." Meanwhile, the beguiling title track has its roots in afternoons Fahey spent in the kitchen with his mother as a boy, listening to big bands on the radio: "It was kind of an imitation of a swing band piece by Benny Goodman called "Sing, Sing, Sing' – an imitation of a swing band playing blues." The piece jigs with the kind of macabre glee that continues to be a Fahey hallmark.
The haunting "On the Banks of the Owchita," another misspelled river tune worked up and performed on this recording with Barth, found its inspiration even further afield. The melody came from a musical refrain composed by Ravi Shankar and used throughout Indian director Satyajit Ray's 1958 film The World of Apu. "I went to see that a number of times the year I was flunking out of Berkeley," Fahey recalls. "I was severely depressed because I couldn't find a girlfriend and I couldn't pass philosophy exams. Although it's very major-key and all that, my associations with it are very somber."
Not every piece on The Dance of Death represents a new tack of musical endeavor or personal excavation. The Fahey original "The Last Steam Engine Train," written while sitting on the hood of his '55 Chevy beside a Missouri Pacific railroad track somewhere in western Arkansas, channels Sam McGee into a nifty piece of picking that doesn't resonate as much as the other material, original or not. The sunny, bucolic "What the Sun Said" is the longest piece on the record, but its length represents more vamping than vision. To fill out the original record, Fahey played a series of variations of his own composition "On the Sunny Side of the Ocean" which ED Denson later edited into the de facto suite heard here.
After the session, Fahey headed on to Boston and New York and eventually back to school in California. A fateful meeting with D.K. Wilgus would persuade him to move to Los Angeles in 1965, where he would continue his studies as a folklorist; his own music would remain an obsession if still not an actual vocation for some time. But The Dance of Death & Other Plantation Favorites represents the first, best recorded declaration from Fahey that he was interested in transforming his music into a vehicle for personal expression that built on his influences but accepted none of their prosaic boundaries. (With his later excursions into album-side-long pieces and musique concrete, everyone would start to get the picture, even if they didn't get the drift.) Nowadays this sort of concept is a given. But it didn't exist until Fahey took it on, and precious few of those who have followed him took it farther than he did.
"People would always talk about 'the weird stuff Fahey plays,'" he recalls. "It wasn't really that weird from a harmonic, rhythmic standpoint. It would just touch on these deeper, darker emotions. I wouldn't call myself a great guitar player, but I'm an awfully deep one." Listen to The Dance of Death and you can hardly help but agree.
Lee Gardner 1999