Joining their killer suite of recent releases that’s given us Jim O’Rourke’s absolutely astounding LP “Hands That Bind” and Arnold Dreyblatt’s “Resolve”, the Chicago based imprint, Drag City, returns with “Proofs & Refutations”, a mind-blowing LP of rare and largely unheard compositions made by the seminal guitarist, John Fahey, between 1995 and 1996. An illuminating bridge between Fahey’s long-standing practice of guitar soli and the more explicitly experimental excursions that defined his later years, it’s of towering importance on historical terms, an absolute revelation, and a true joy in listening of the highest order.
John Fahey was among the most complex, enigmatic, and influential artists of the 20th Century, single-handedly rethinking the way the guitar might be considered, played, and approached. Trained as an anthropologist who researched the blues in the southern states of the U.S., his efforts in that field remain relevant today, particularly his study of Charley Patton - “A Textual and Musicological Analysis of the Repertoire of Charley Patton” (1966) - and the lasting legacies of his tracking down blues legends like Bukka White and Skip James. This alone would have been enough to secure his place in history, but Fahey’s curiosities and passions took him along another path.
Like many artists of his generations, Fahey was drawn to the guitar through his love of recorded music, in his case the rural folk music - blues, bluegrass, country & western, etc. - of the United States and European classical music. During his early attempts to understand what many of his favorite blues artists were doing, he learned finger-style playing techniques and discovered that many of these songs were in alternate tunings, unlocking a new world of potential into his playing. Perhaps most importantly, because of his remarkable knowledge of both American folk music and European classical music, Fahey was able to observe overlaps between the two and that what many folk musicians were doing were of equal artistic worth to the work of celebrated composers. Being both a deeply political trickster and an avant-gardist at heart, he set out to prove a point.
First appearing on the scene in 1959 via an album entitled “Blind Joe Death”, which was issued in a tiny edition of 100 copies by the privately run Takoma Record, this landmark in 20th Century music - generally considered to be the first full-length entirely comprising new compositions for solo, unaccompanied guitar - was billed as a “split” LP by Fahey and mythical bluesman named Blind Joe Death, who was, in fact, Fahey playing as an alter-ego. It was the first of dozens of albums to appear by Fahey over the coming years, which would help radically change the perception of the guitar.
Gifted with a virtuosic ability on his instrument, Fahey’s work like the character of Blind Joe Death, was an interventional trojan horse; a hybrid that conceived of the guitar as an orchestra unto itself, delivering complex structures and tonal relationships drawn from composers like Holst and Ives, that he veiled in the aesthetics of rural folk, often leaving breadcrumb truths to his radical character via works like 1967’s “When the Catfish Is in Bloom”, which incorporates bristling elements of musique concrète.
Sadly, despite his best to remain otherwise, very few of Fahey’s fans understood the nature of his work and consistently misread and located it within the idiom of contemporary folk music. While hugely influential via his technical approach to the guitar, his ideas were rarely celebrated, leading to his becoming increasingly isolated and disillusioned. By the end of the '80s, he found his career in taters and himself homeless, living in boarding houses and searching for valuable second hand records to sell to collectors.
This began to change during the mid-1990s when Fahey fell into the orbit of artists like Jim O’Rourke and Glenn Jones, who both championed his efforts, and lined up shows and new recordings opportunities, helping to bring his incredible music to a new generation of listeners. Perhaps it was the context, or maybe the support and encouragement of these artists, but Fahey’s work during this period took a radically experimental turn, as though the artist’s true personality - lingering in the shadows for decades - had finally allowed itself to be fully seen. Between 1995 and his death in 2001, he produced a remarkable suite of full-lengths and EPs that remain illuminating, as well as creatively brilliant and forward-thinking, to this day.
The material encountered across the two sides of Drag City’s “Proofs & Refutations” comes from the beginning of Fahey’s ‘return’, roughly the period that he encountered O’Rourke and Jones. Recorded between 1995 and 1996, mostly in John Fahey’s room at a Salem, Oregon boardinghouse, it encounters the guitarist / composer in a period of transition. Where his most recent album at that time, 1992’s “Old Girlfriends and Other Horrible Memories” feels a bit like he had given in to perceptions of traditionalism that had long haunted his career - giving his old fans what they wanted and nothing more - here we encounter him pushing toward new ground with a ferocity that had been absent in his output for years.
Perhaps most striking is the album’s opener, “All the Rains”, a vocal work that features the processed and manipulated, howling and spoken vocalizations of Fahey, which, beyond the occasional tape work from the '60s - “When the Catfish Is in Bloom”, etc. - is fairly singular and unique in his output. This is followed by the equally unique “F for Fake”, across which the guitarist has laid a complex, overdriven vocal drone and intervened with wild slide guitar playing that prefigures works like "Red Cross, Disciple of Christ Today” that would appear over the coming years. This is followed by four pieces - “Morning (Pt. 1)”, “Morning (Pt. 2)”, “Evening, Not Night (Pt. 1)”, “Evening, Not Night (Pt. 2)” - which appeared on an incredibly rare 78RPM edition (Double 78), issued by Perfect in 1996, and finds Fahey delivering complex experimental lines on acoustic guitar, drawing direct connection with where he had been over the previous decade and where he'll be heading over the coming years. Also featured is for “For LMC 2” - a subtle dedication to the guitarist Loren Mazzacane Connors - a wild and roving work that stands among the earliest documents of Fahey’s excursions on electric guitar: a defining feature of his late '90s and early 2000s work, and “Untitled (w/o Rain)” - a counterpoint work to “Untitled With Rain”, which appeared on “Red Cross” in 2003 - which features Fahey weaving wild, abstract soundscapes via processed slide guitar.
Truly remarkable from the first sounding to the last, Drag City’s “Proofs & Refutations” is pure gold for any fan of Fahey or unaccompanied and experimental guitar music at large. We can’t possibly sing its praises enough.