Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
You can’t talk about American Primitive without talking about John Fahey. And you can’t talk about John Fahey without talking about his hometown of Takoma Park. For Fahey, whose first recordings on the 1950s and ’60s Frederick folk label Fonotone turn 60 this year, Takoma Park loomed large in his oeuvre.
“The thing that fascinated me most about John Fahey was that he described his music as the pathos of the suburbs,” says Steve Lowenthal, author of Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist. “You hear that in his music and if you are a product of the suburbs, you can relate to that.”
Fahey named the record label he founded to release some of his first records Takoma Records, which went on to release the music of legends like Leo Kottke and Robbie Basho. And you don’t have to look far in Fahey’s catalog to find examples of the local landmarks that shaped him: “Sligo River Blues,” “Twilight on Prince Georges Avenue,” and “Dance of the Inhabitants of the Invisible City of Bladensburg.”
On the weekend of April 13, the city of Takoma Park will celebrate Fahey, who died in 2001, and his music legacy with a three-day festival called The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose: A Festival of American Primitive Guitar.
The liner notes inside the festival’s companion compilation CD says, “‘American Primitive’ is a term originally coined to describe homegrown painters of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries who were self-taught, not trained academically.” It has since been applied in the music world to describe Fahey’s unique style of fingerpicked guitar. “Fahey hated boxes. He hated being called a folk guitarist,” says Glenn Jones, a musician and writer whose friendship with Fahey spanned more than two decades, until his death in 2001.
By Jones’ estimation, it was Takoma Records co-founder Eugene “ED” Denson who came up with the term American Primitive to describe Fahey’s music. He says Laura Weber first asked Fahey about the term in 1969 on her PBS show Folk Guitar With Laura Weber. This is how Jones recollects the interview: “‘John, your music has been described as American Primitive.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, that seems like a good term. Everything is self taught.’”
The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose is the first festival of its kind to celebrate that niche genre of guitar music that Fahey pioneered. Guitarists across generations who play in the American Primitive style will be there.
In the last 15 years, younger players, like Daniel Bachman and the late Jack Rose, invigorated the genre and brought comfort to older players that American Primitive will survive beyond them.
“It wasn’t until I saw Jack in 2003 the first time that I suddenly realized—holy shit! There are people that are listening to this music as hard as I listen to it and for whom it is as important as it was for me,” says Jones. “When Robbie [Basho] died, all his records were out of print, and I thought in 10 years nobody’s even going to know who that guy was. And he’s got more people listening to him now than he ever did when he was alive.”
These days, the genre that was once considered niche, and on the fringes of both the folk and experimental music scenes, is more popular than ever before, with more artists shaping it. But if there’s one consensus that American Primitive guitarists have, it’s that there is no consensus about what American Primitive actually is.
The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose festival is an opportunity for those often labeled as American Primitive musicians not only to perform, but to debate exactly what American Primitive is and where it should go as well as to confront the challenges presented by Fahey’s legacy. Below, nine of the festival’s participants tell City Paper how they view American Primitive.
The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose: A Festival of American Primitive Guitar takes place April 13-15 in Takoma Park, Md. Tickets are available at 1000rose.org.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
Festival Organizer, Guitarist
American Primitive music is basically, at its core, just emotive music. One of the reasons why I think I gravitated to it in the early days for myself was because I was looking for something that both had the kind of—I was heavily into Hendrix and the sort of guitar virtuosity from the ’60s and ’70s and I was also into pre-War blues and country.
For me, American Primitive is basically unschooled folk painting. It’s sort of applying that into the music world a bit. But really American Primitive doesn’t mean anything, it’s just something that was a blank thing that Fahey could throw out because he didn’t wanna be called “folk” or anything else. So that’s one of the reasons why the term is so confounding, because Fahey wanted it to be obtuse and wanted it to have a lot of different meanings to a lot of different people. The problem with that is, if you use the term to mean anything, then the term means nothing. It’s a broad term, it’s meant to have a lot of facets, but I think that that means everybody gets to take a position on it and ultimately we all get to hash it out in a way that is respectful.
There’s always a propulsive thing in American Primitive. Even if you take Robbie [Basho’s] perspective, which is more sort of like free-flowing, pulling in influences of music from India and American Indian traditions, or if you’re going into Fahey’s music and you’re dealing with American Blues and Spanish music or South American music, it always sounds like it’s an emotive sort of structure over a very rooted folk tradition.
Some of the artists [playing the festival] had reactions like, “I don’t feel like I’m American Primitive.” And Glenn [Jones] was like, “Of course, you are!” Some of the artists were like, “Well, I’m American Primitive but so is Bill Orcutt, because he’s someone who is turning over the apple cart, just like Fahey.” We all sort of came at it from a different perspective, but at the same time, when you take those songs and you sort of transform them through the prism of Fahey’s presence, they become this thing we’re talking about, this incredibly emotive, powerful experience. And that’s why the music is still here—because whenever people pick up a guitar and they feel like [they] can literally just let [their] soul shine through this instrument.
What does the word primitive mean, and who is saying it, and about whom? That word, in general, is … oy. What is American music? It’s a national identity that’s made up of influences from all over the world, so that’s that. And then primitive, I just don’t even understand how any music can be called primitive—anybody’s music. I get that the genre needs a label, and that’s the label, and it’s somebody’s battle to change that. I think over time, hopefully, it will. But at the moment, that’s what we have got. That’s what people know it by, and I think pushing out of the boundaries of what those meanings are is a good idea.
I don’t think about it. I’m not the one that needs that word to describe what I do. That’s something that someone else might come along and be like, “What you do falls into this category,” and I might have points of agreement with that and points of disagreement with that, but I’m not thinking about that. I’m not like, “Well, I’m part of this particularly labeled scene, therefore I have to do things in a certain way.” I’m just doing me, and it’s to the critics and the people who need to sell records to describe it.
I think one main thing is that on a guitar, like a piano, you can express multiple lines of music at once, which is not something you can do on a wind instrument or a brass instrument. So that’s, I think, the fundamental thing. Beyond that, there’s a lot of different tonal elements. And I play electric, I don’t play acoustic as much. And one of the reasons that I do is because I like to play very quiet and very loud both. And I also like to play with the tonal elements of what a solo electric guitar gives me.
So I’m a little bit of an outlier in terms of the festival, because it is mostly an acoustic guitar festival. But things that I really am attached to in my own music are dynamics and tone. I find that just as important in conveying the essence of the piece as melody, or harmony, or rhythm. And I think one other interesting thing that a guitar can do more easily than some other instruments is express quite complicated rhythmic ideas. Through strumming or through good right hand technique, you can really do polyrhythms and syncopations that can be spelled out more thoroughly than, again, a non-chordal instrument.
It’s kind of a loaded phrase now, with semantics, and what it means to say that. But I think those guitar players were bringing together a lot of different types of music. They were playing blues style, and some jazz influences. A lot of them played with Eastern influences, like Indian guitar and Sitar-style influences, which is not American at all. So I don’t know, all that works together to create this label, which has a lot behind it. Although maybe it needs to be talked over to really figure out what it means.
A lot of the guitar players that were influential on the scene [also] sang; they had some instrumental records, and then some where they’re singing, like Bert Jansch and Robbie Basho. It’s all part of the same thing. I’ve put out a couple tapes that are just instrumental, but they’re not on the radar at all. But I think that that’s the festival trying to reach out to different styles of people that are interpreting this music, and getting a good assortment of people from different parts of this genre. There’s a couple of different schools: There’s the pastoral, Fahey is really good [at] doing that. And then I’m a fan of the mystical side, which is like Robbie Basho, and that sort of thing.
I would say if they feel a personal connection to the performance, that’s the most important thing. Because this style of music, in my opinion, when it’s the best, besides pure technical skill, which is really fun to watch, it’s also good when a player can create an emotion through the tone and evoke something that’s non-musical through musical means. So if the viewer feels something when they’re watching a performance, I think that’s all you can really ask for. That’s what marks a good performance for me.
It was really more like an interest in folk music and all good music of any genre, in particular certain old sounds just really called certain people like Fahey and me, that it touched something. But I think Fahey—I’ll give him credit for kind of making it more accessible to my ears. Fahey was a little older and somehow he focused on the right thumb of people like John Hurt and Charley Patton, and he found a way to isolate it. He listened to all the static and scratchiness of the old 78s and then he played it clean and anew in such a skeletally pure way that it was like really alarmingly good. It was like, “Wow, he caught that thing.” It was also opening the door that I could actually have a direct relationship with the older musicians.
I’m all over the place as far as music that I love and that influences me. Somehow when I sit down to play it comes out with this real simple stuff, and when I tune my guitar to an open tuning it makes it even easier and simpler. I’m just kind of amusing myself I guess, and I’m sort of surprised at when other people are amused too—they like it and find it worth taking the time to listen to.
Maybe you run into somebody who’s heard of Fahey, but I think most people don’t know, or they do know but they don’t care. It’s like this little niche of aficionados or something, and I’m not even sure what they’re getting out of it. Some of if is a little too repetitious for me, I get restless and I start to get bored and think, “OK, I’ve heard that pattern and now you’re starting it for the third time, and what’s new? Are you going to introduce a new musical idea in here, or do we just have to hear this very slow and repetitive thing going on?” I don’t know how people’s ears decide that something is good enough to not get restless.
Author, Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist
Initially, when I first heard John Fahey, I didn’t really have a context for it. It almost sounded like country music, but it still had this repetitive, minimal, experimental, kind of bent. Which was sort of fascinating, in a way. Then the more I explored the world of solo guitar, I realized there’s an entire spectrum of music that could be contained therein. You know, on the more traditional end of it you have some of the more bluegrass inspired players and more of the people who are coming out of country blues, who some of the old guard are representing at the festival because that’s the music that they grew up listening to and that’s how they learned to play guitar from learning how to play old blues records and stuff.
Fahey was the first of the cannon in that world that I had heard. Basho and Kottke and all those other guys came afterward for me. Because I didn’t listen to the blues, I didn’t listen to ’60s music really. I was coming from a punk and indie experimental background. I was a young guy, pre-internet era. I was really getting a lot of my knowledge through zines and people like Thurston [Moore] and Byron Coley. Then the more I learned about John Fahey, the more I realized he was equally referencing the blues and bluegrass and American folk music. At the same time, he was also very much influenced by 20th century modern classical music and experimental music and different music cultures through various parts of the world.
I always say John Fahey is like the godfather of 21st century guitar because the techniques and ideas that he had are still really contemporary. Leo Kottke’s fantastic, but the best Leo Kottke record sounds like it was made in the 1960s. It’s very of its time. It’s a fantastic record. You could listen to John Fahey records right now and it will sound contemporary. The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party, Requia, those are modern sounding records. Nobody else was making records then, that sound modern now.
Fahey was just doing both worlds. He had one foot in knowledgeable music background and then he was really getting pretty far out. That was the first time I ever heard anybody really combine stuff like that. Not really modernizing traditional music, but like abstracting it, you know what I mean? It was cool. I got hooked, I was into that stuff.
Some of the people now don’t really have any of the syncopated, more rhythmic blues type stuff when they’re playing at all. The only reason that I think they get compared to John Fahey is because they have the solo guitar connection. That’s a personal preference, man. The blues aren’t for everybody. It’s cool, and especially playing it. I tend to dip my feet in and out of it too because I’m just going, I don’t know, sometimes it’s not me.
You can be incredibly expressive with an acoustic guitar. When you learn how to bring your voice into the instrument, you can be as expressive as anything really, with a piano or a violin soloist, something like that. You can do the same kind of thing.
I think the Fahey stuff is so profound for me because of the emotion he put in it. That’s what I’ve really been trying to get at forever. I think I’m starting to scratch the surface. The older that I get, the deeper I get into it. I mean in the beginning it was just like technical stuff and I was trying to learn stuff. Now, I don’t know, you just really try to put your whole heart into something. I know a lot of people say that, “I think that you can feel it when somebody feels it.” That’s what’s kind of tiring about it and also what is beautiful about it—when you really try to give people something from who you are.
I think [the label American Primitive] frustrated John Fahey and I’m not sure if it’s something that he would have really wanted that to be what his music was called. I know that in the beginning he was kind of tongue-in-cheek about it, and then it got a life of its own and different stuff. I do think that the spirit of what that term is trying to say is pretty appropriate. It’s mostly people that don’t have any formal education in their instrument or composition trying to make larger works compositionally and stuff. I get where it’s coming from. It kind of bums me out when people say that too. So I’m just like, “Man I’m a guitar player. That’s what I do.”
We’re quick to label these days—I guess we’ve always been—but that’s cool.
If it’s American Primitive, primitive to me means very simple, or it could be. I think it’s more about an approach to the guitar and it doesn’t necessarily have to sound like blues basically, which a lot of that stuff can sound sort of like delta blues. Pretty much anything like that ends up sounding like that, you can be like, “That’s American Primitive.” But I don’t know. I just would like to see it become a little more open and see what could happen from that.
That’s kind of the issue, I guess. I don’t know. That’s partly why I’m burnt out on it, I think, ’cause it’s so easy to—there’s more and more people kind of doing the same thing and it all blurs together, honestly to a lot of that stuff, a lot of that music sounds the same to me. And, I don’t know, I’m hoping people will start to incorporate more instruments into it.
There’s a part of me that likes that some people are keeping tradition, and then I do wish the genre, the name, I wish it encompassed more styles of music. And I think that’s been a conversation that’s been happening in that little community about incorporating more guitar, instrumental guitar players, also because Fahey was into all types of stuff, like he would make experimental music at the end of his career. I just think if he’s the dude that created that genre, then he—I think it could be more encompassing for different styles of playing, basically.
For people to get into it, it has to be presented in a certain way. And when it’s not given the kind of reverence or something, when it’s not performed in a space where people are quiet and listening to pay attention, then, because so much of that music has to do with subtleties, if it’s background music and you’re playing at a bar, it just doesn’t really belong. It really takes a certain setting for that type of music and I guess there was a heyday for that.
In the ’60s, Fahey could probably go play a big room and everybody would be quiet. It just seems it’s a little harder to get that type of audience nowadays. You can easily just flip a switch in your mind and think this is background music, but there is a lot of weird subtleties going on and that’s what I’m interested to hear. That’s the most interesting stuff to me, someone’s tone and their dynamics and things like that. It takes being kind of sensitive I think. Certain people might be really bored with it and other people might be able to tune in. It fits in that realm of drone music and ambient music. It’s a similar headspace you have to be in, not thinking, or, there’s obviously there’s no words to listen to so you’re really just—it’s supposed to just give you a feeling.
In terms of this type of fest, I’ve never really played a festival that’s this narrowly-defined, I guess. And so it’s strange to me, also just as a guy who doesn’t play guitar. I understand that a lot of these people that are playing have been wrestling with both influences and legacies, and the problematic legacies of this music.
Ideally, a festival like this is a site both to celebrate kind of a rich stream of music and voices, but also interrogate why this music is what it is and why. I just don’t really know what it means, so I’m eager to see what other people think in the context of playing this festival, and I’m eager to see how we can stretch the boundaries of it. I also teach English, and I have complicated thoughts about ideas of a canon, or forwarding a canon through the creation of or the furthering of traditions that may not have much to do with the world as it is anymore.
It’s such a rich opportunity to talk about this and figure out what the future looks like of people playing fucking instrumental guitar music—ponderous, navel-gazing guitar music. When Glenn told me about the idea for this, I was really tickled because it sounded so particular and so kind of idealistic. Well, not idealistic, but like, “Oh man, what a fantasy to have all these people here who seem to be into this fairly minor scene.”
If the umbrella here is American Primitive, then the curators decide what is American Primitive and isn’t. And that’s up to them.
However we define that genre, it’s a bunch of, historically, ponderous white dudes. It seems pretty baked into that particular strain of folkies in the ’60s and ’70s who were fortunate and privileged enough to have access to things and a commercial world that was willing to spread their work. And so we’re reaping the effects of that.
Guitarist, Festival Organizer
I think, more so than most music, there isn’t really a consensus on what American Primitive is. It’s not like bluegrass or blues or old time music, where even within the variety within those musics, there are at least a number of characteristics that allow you to define it. One of the things that kind of defines American Primitive is that there isn’t a specific set of traits, or something that you can say, “Ah yeah, this is what makes it that.”
You’re talking about roots music, there’s certainly a lot of blues and hillbilly and gospel music and Fahey and stuff like that, but you’d be very hard pressed to find any of that in Peter Lang’s music for instance, or Robbie Basho. So there’s also the big Indian and Eastern influence, but then you’d be hard pressed to find that in Cockney’s music, for instance. It’s all these different things.
Players of this music mostly wrote their own material. They composed their own pieces. So, unlike classical players who are mostly interpreters of the classical literature, with the American Primitive players, they were kind of creating their own thing and kind of inventing their own peculiar techniques to allow them to play whatever it was they wanted to express.
And certainly when you look at the pantheon of great guitar players, you wouldn’t say that John Fahey was a great technician. There are players who can just play circles around John, but we’re not talking about them as much as you talk about John because I think there’s a second thing that’s important, too, which is that the music expresses a certain emotional quality that has more to do with the character and feelings of the player than it does … It’s basically not treating the guitar as an instrument of virtuosity for its own sake. It’s like trying to find a way to say something, not to just dazzle you with this incredible technique.
If there’s anything that we’ve been criticized for in terms of the festival, it’s the fact that we’re taking a very conservative definition of American Primitive for this festival. People have said, “You could have Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, or the No-Neck Blues Band. All these people are playing American Primitive, too,” and all this stuff, and it just kind of shows you how wide open the definition is for that.