The Voice of the Turtle

Editor's Special


A lavish autobiographical fantasy, an absurd exercise in self-gratification, or self-deprecation, hard to tell; a labour of love for sure, a financial disaster, definitely, a grand folly, a lovely indulgence, a holiday from seriousness, a mosaic of diverse musical traditions and a discographical nightmare; “The Voice of the Turtle” is all these things. The most rococo expression of Fahey’s sense of the absurd, with its lying notes, self-mythologising and lunatic picture book, this is a serious joke.

Blues, of course, old time fiddling (should that be fiddlin’?), musique concrete, objet trouvees (we’ll come to them), Gamelan, cajun, hymns, Tin Pan Alley, the streams feed the river, and you heard all this before, in so many reviews of so many Faheys. However, as the notes say, “we do not mean to imply that Mr Fahey is merely eclectic.

With those notes, and that picture album so lovingly subtitled, the sleeve in all its gatefolded glory – “the author age 17” , the quote from the Bible which everyone including Fahey knows means turtledoves, not turtles, this record comes at you like a conceptual piece, a bold encryption of a dream of a possibility. Fahey, I award you the Turner Prize for 1968.

Glenn Jones told me once: “Takoma was selling the record for over a year before some genius (definitely not John in this case) decided to cost out the various prices of assembling the whole package… and discovered that the record was costing Takoma 15c more per album to manufacture than they were selling it for to their distributors! This is why all the later versions of the record are single pocket sleeves with no notes.

The problem is easily summarised - one sleeve, one label, but two records! It took me about 12 years to realise this, and perhaps many owners of the record never did find out, and still don’t know. I was at the house of Mr David Popple, and we were trying to crack the mystery of “Bottleneck Blues”. We were coming round to the theory that it really wasn’t Fahey playing the song. As we argued the pros and cons of this then-outrageous theory, minutes passed and I remember asking what was playing now – I hadn’t noticed anyone changing the record. Still “Voice of the Turtle” I was told. That can’t be right, I said – I never heard this before. And there it was, spinning on the turntable, playing songs I never heard. “Your copy of this record has songs on it which my copy doesn’t,” I said very slowly, “but the sleeve is the same, and the track list is the same.” There was one significant difference – his record had a black label. Mine had an orange. So it turned out that when we thought of “Train” we were thinking of entirely different songs. Not to mention “Bean Vine Blues” which was three different songs! It was confusing. Since the Orange Label version is the first, the bizarre accident happened when VOT was reissued minus the gatefold sleeve and notes. Clearly it was an accident, as the tracklisting remained the same (except for one detail we’ll come to later). Or, perhaps, it was a joke within a joke perpetrated by some nameless Takoma employee. Even in this, the Age of Available Information, I doubt that we will ever know. The same tracklisting on both versions makes it impossible in four cases to tell which title refers to which song. When this true confusion is added to the spoofing half-truths and downright wool-pulling deliberately confusing fictions of the liner notes, then the air grows thick and the hearts of lowly discographers quail. Labouring on individually, Fahey fans had nearly given up all hope of solving the enigma within a riddle inside a conundrum whose name is VOT. It’s the kind of thing that makes strong men weep. It came to pass, however, that certain persons fell asleep one night in 1998 and dreamed the same dream simultaneously; and in such a manner was formed the International Fahey Committee, the only human agency remotely capable of tackling this problem in a worthy manner. Spanning several continents, and with limitless financial resources, the IFC has left no stone unturned, has burnt whole lakes of midnight oil and has been through therapy eight times apiece, often involving deep hypnosis (“How old were you when you saw an Orange Label edition for the first time?”) and is now in a position to give tentatively definitive answers to most of the questions. Before we proceed any further, readers must be aware that the CD reissue of VOT is essentially the Black Label Version. CD-only owners of VOT will not have heard some of the stuff which follows. A formal complaint about the CD issue will be registered elsewhere in this essay.

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