City Paper is not for tourists
Max Ochs has had little mantras in his head for years. “Annapolis is the most happenin’ place/I tell you, man/In the whole United States,” goes one, a syncopated game of vocal hopscotch that betrays Ochs’ background as a musician.
He sings another in a soft tenor: “Don’t die/Please stay alive.” This one has an Indian flavor, calling to mind the two fingerpicked ragas the 64-year-old Severna Park, Md., guitarist released in 1966 on Contemporary Guitar, the very first compilation on his friend John Fahey’s Takoma Records. And it’s essentially a series of mantras that make up “Imaginational Anthem,” a sprawling, complex instrumental in open C that Ochs recorded for another local music icon: Frederick collector Joe Bussard, who put the tune out on his own Fonotone label in 1969.
It’s the kind of mystical, multicultural music that has proved irresistible to a certain type of history-minded hipster, in both the ’60s and the ’00s. “Imaginational Anthem” even provided the title for a new CD linking the folk and blues revivalists of the psychedelic era to their counterparts today. Entertainment Weekly just gave the disc an A-. Famed New York–area free-form radio station WFMU built a three-hour Web special around it.
Ochs now finds himself playing CD-release parties and has been interviewed by National Public Radio. Yet for 35 years, most of the little mantras in his head didn’t travel very far—chiefly to fellow musicians, a few specialist collectors, and small but appreciative coffeehouse crowds in the vicinity of his beloved “Anna-no-place.” In fact, aside from Letter to the Editor, an album that Ochs says was hastily produced four years ago prior to a gig for a Japanese blues society, until Imaginational Anthem, he hadn’t released any new music since the ’60s.
“I could’ve promoted myself more, but what would that have meant?” Ochs asks. “That I’d have records out? That I’d have money? That I’d be more well-known?”
Well, yeah. All of those things.
But those aren’t the things that interest Ochs, who suggests he “would’ve starved as a musician.” He’s more comfortable maintaining his role on the outskirts of the folk and blues scenes—say, teaching fellow Marylander and “Father of the American Raga” Robbie Basho how to play double-thumb-style. Or reintroducing legendary country-bluesman Mississippi John Hurt to many of his own songs.
“There’s a grand tradition in the blues of not making much money or getting much notice doing what you do,” Ochs says. “And somehow, I love being a part of that old blues guys’ tradition.”
It’s no surprise that the riverside home Ochs shares with his wife, Suzanne Ochs, is filled with relics of bygone musical eras. The walls are adorned with antique guitars. A 70-year-old Victrola sits by the piano, awaiting 78s. Bookshelves are lined with records that Ochs is eager to share with visitors, so when he sits down to talk about his own music, he naturally ends up talking about someone else’s.
After adjusting spectacles that perch between salt-and-pepper hair and chapped lips, Ochs’ long, thin fingers leaf through the pages of a 2003 Charley Patton box set, a project initiated by Fahey. Inside the extravagant, gold-lettered box are seven CDs and thousands of words of musical appreciation and scholarship.
“Mississippi John Hurt deserves a boxed presentation like this,” says Ochs. “There are many geniuses of the blues—Robert Johnson, Sleepy John Estes, all the blind guys: Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson.”
But Hurt is special to Ochs. Along with Fahey and WAMU DJ Dick Spottswood, Ochs was a member of the small group of local 78 collectors who helped introduce the bluesman to a new audience in the early ’60s. Since recording a few poorly selling sides for OKeh in the late ’20s, Hurt had been scratching out a living as a sharecropper. He’d long ago given up making music, so Ochs and his buddies had to prepare him for upcoming performances by playing him copies of his own recordings.
One of those, “Avalon Blues,” had compelled Ochs’ friend Mike Stewart to make the trip to Hurt’s hometown of Avalon, Miss., to see if Hurt might still be alive. “As soon as I got the call [that Hurt had been found], I zoomed over to Dick Spottswood’s house,” recalls Ochs. “And there was this little black man in a porkpie hat, sitting in a chair with a circle of people around him.” To Hurt, Ochs says, it was as if “the ears he had always wondered about” had finally made themselves known.
Later, Hurt would stay with Ochs while getting ready for a television appearance in New York, where Ochs lived and worked for a few years after college. Hurt even taught Ochs his picking style—which Ochs says he learned “like a turtle.”
Ochs, a distant cousin of protest singer Phil Ochs, had taught himself to play guitar as a teenager in Annapolis, after buying a cheap Harmony acoustic and a book of Burl Ives ballads from a local pawn shop. But his style didn’t really begin to develop until he picked up a hitchhiker named Harry Banks. Banks was black and drunk—two attributes that unsettled Ochs’ mother when he brought the man home. When Ochs told her that Banks needed a knife, he says, it nearly “gave her a fit.” But Banks only needed the knife to play slide guitar, and that day he showed Ochs an alternative to “white man’s tuning.”
From then on, Ochs and the blues were inseparable. After enrolling at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1960, Ochs became friends with a fellow student named Robbie Robinson, who soon began calling himself Robbie Basho. Together, they experimented with the modes of the Indian raga, which inspired the music on Basho’s first LP for Takoma, 1965’s The Seal of the Blue Lotus. It was also around this time that Stewart introduced Ochs to Fahey, who’d already recorded a few examples of the style he called “American primitive guitar.”
“We all looked up to Fahey because Fahey had taken the music of Charley Patton and John Hurt and done something with it,” Ochs says. “He took that steady 4/4 thumb and brought it into a wonderful niche of his own, which was completely compelling to me and my friends.” The crew coalesced as the young men began showing up for the same house parties—whichever promised the best hootenannies.
It would be a while before Ochs tried his own hand at recording—though he has no recollection of the 1969 session that yielded his best-known number. “Everybody laughs at that and says, ‘Oh, ha ha. You must have been stoned,’” he says. “But back in those days, there were always tape recorders going.”
Bussard recalls Ochs coming into the studio to record several instrumentals, including the two that would make it onto a Fonotone 45, “Imaginational Anthem” and “Oncones.” He also laid down a cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Crying,” the master of which still sits somewhere in Bussard’s trove of more than 25,000 recordings.
“I thought he was a nice guy,” Bussard says of Ochs. “Fahey was way out there, but Max seemed all right—like a normal guy. He played kind of a weird bottleneck guitar, which I thought was pretty good.” Ochs’ 45 wasn’t a big seller, according to Bussard—“but then,” he says, “none of the Fonotones were.”
As young friends tend to do, members of the gang soon went their separate ways—Fahey and Basho to varying degrees of underground prestige, Ochs to the coffeehouses and crab shacks of his native Annapolis. Occasionally, Stewart would come by to play the 333 Coffeehouse shows that Ochs orchestrated at the city’s Unitarian Universalist church. But like Hurt before him, Ochs didn’t earn his living from music. Instead, he taught—world history at an Orthodox Jewish boys’ school in Baltimore, conflict resolution at Anne Arundel Community College.
In describing his career, the teacher draws on Proust: “His characters are filled with certain desires, and then finally, in the end, they get just what they want. But only after they don’t give a damn anymore,” he says. “That’s a Zen thing, and that’s what happened to me.”
The two ragas Ochs recorded for Takoma eventually caught the ear of Josh Rosenthal, a former Sony Music marketing executive. Rosenthal started putting together Imaginational Anthem shortly before founding the New York–based Tompkins Square Records this past February, and with the album’s release in October, Ochs, like Hurt before him, finally found the ears that he had always wondered about.
“Listening to [Contemporary Guitar], I thought about what was going on at that era,” Rosenthal says. “Sgt. Pepper[’s] came out around then, and you’ve got this incredibly deep, heady psychedelic thing that was going on with Max Ochs and Fahey and Harry Taussig and Robbie Basho. The tunes were very mysterious and evocative. I wanted to connect with some of those guys and see if I could find them.”
He did—or those who were still alive, anyhow. Imaginational Anthem begins with a rerecording of the title track that Ochs made in New York last year and ends with the 1969 Fonotone original. Tompkins Square has also released the tune as a limited-edition Fontone-facsimile 45, still backed with “Oncones.”
Written in tribute to Fahey, who died in 2001, the newer “Anthem” borrows heavily from the guitarist’s syncopated style. The older recording is faster and more aggressive—more rock ’n’ roll. On the original, Ochs used plastic fingerpicks; today he shuns them, claiming they kill certain unique textures one can create with “the fingers of the warm animal.” As he listens to the two versions, he takes care to point out influences along the way. “This part’s all Fahey,” he says at one point.
Ochs recalls playing the tune for Fahey in New York shortly after writing it, in part to see if Fahey, always a tough read, would mind Ochs’ borrowing elements of his playing. “John Fahey had a kind of haunted sort of demeanor,” Ochs says. “No matter how close you got to him, you were never that close to him.”
On Nov. 5, during his first D.C. show in ages, Ochs honored his late friend again, by playing Fahey’s “In Christ There Is No East or West.” He also broke out a butter knife to play some Harry Banks–style slide guitar on Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man,” a song whose central question—“What is the soul of a man?”—Ochs has answered with his own original blues, “The Soul Is the Whole Man.” If his music should leave a legacy, Ochs hopes it’s this yet-unrecorded number, not “Imaginational Anthem,” that will be regarded as his signature work.
Ochs picks up his guitar and demonstrates, singing in a strained but impassioned wail: “Now I’m not trying to be a great big soul man/I might be just an I-don’t-know man/The soul is the whole man.” Most of the song is picked, but as he approaches a rare strummed passage, Ochs stops for a moment.
“Even this rhythm here,” he says. “I stole that from Charley Patton.”
Additional reporting by David Dunlap Jr.
Ochs performs at 6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 18, at the Crab Cake Factory, 1803 West Street, Annapolis. For more information, call (410) 626-9900.CP