Primitive and Proper: A new box set shows how Fahey developed his style.
Primitive and Proper: A new box set shows how Fahey developed his style.

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

John Fahey called his genre “American Primitivism,” but I don’t think I truly understood what he meant until I heard “I Shall Not Be Moved,” his version of the spiritual standard that’s found on the five-CD box set, Your Past Comes Back To Haunt You: The Fonotone Years [1958-1965]. As Fahey bellows inelegantly through the gospel number like a drunken troglodyte channeling Charlie Patton, his nimble fingers dance on the strings like manic angels. Fahey later became famous for his fingerpicking technique, but here, as he emulates pre-war country blues, you can hear him teaching himself how to do it.

My first introduction to the D.C.-born Fahey, who died in 2001, was Cul de Sac’s cover of “The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California.” That band’s leader, Glenn Jones, is one of several Fahey acolytes and enthusiasts behind this collection. Jones writes in the liner notes that Fahey was against releasing these songs from early in his career, telling Jones, “A lot of those recordings were made before I could play guitar.” But Your Past Comes Back To Haunt You, more than any other Fahey compilation, outlines the musician’s rapid evolution from Delta blues pasticheur to hypnotic master of fingerstyle guitar.

Fonotone Records was essentially Joe Bussard, a Frederick, Md.-based collector of 78-RPM recordings. In a radio interview included in the box set, Fahey recalls his introduction to Bussard, whom he claims would ply him with hooch and encourage him to wail like a “drunk Negro blues singer from Mississippi.” Bussard released Fahey’s recordings on his label, occasionally using blues-onyms like The Mississippi Swampers and Blind Thomas. Many of these 114 songs are as chaotic, disordered, and fascinating as the life that Fahey led.

The first two discs feature the most rough-hewn songs—tentative fingerstyle instrumentals and inebriated Mississippi-blues facsimiles, for the most part, that occasionally betray flashes of genius. The last two discs provide plenty of payoff, however. (Jones writes that they have the makings of “a couple ‘Great Lost John Fahey albums.’”) Some of Fahey’s experiments involve an Indian instrument called the veena; on one song, “Western Medley,” he employs backward tape loops. When Fahey doesn’t get fancy, which is most of the time, he’s still able to find songs’ emotional cores despite his spartan arrangements. (See especially “Simple Gifts,” his take on an old Shaker tune.)

All of which is great news for completists, although the comprehensive liner notes—which include a piece by Eddie Dean that first ran in Washington City Paper in 2001—offer a solid introduction for newbies. Also included is the ode “a hymn of scent,” in which Byron Coley writes, “& he gave so much/ of himself/ & of his essential whatsis/ that the stain he left/ on our planet…will never be fully erased.” Your Past Comes Back To Haunt You portrays Fahey, the American Primitive, a musician both vulgar and elegant, as the brilliant, beautiful mess that he was.