Listen to the metaphysical folk songs that the late John Fahey recorded way back in the 1960s, and they can still transport you to unknown worlds. And that seems to have been the idea all along. Fahey — who grew up in Takoma Park, Md., in the 1940s — had been traveling among worlds since childhood.
In his chaotic not-quite-a-memoir, “How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life,” from 2000, the guitarist made his adolescent romps through the woods near Sligo Creek sound like freaky hallucinations — he venerated mystical turtles and claimed to have encountered phantom “cat people.” And just as growing up in Takoma Park left wild marks on Fahey’s imagination, it also left lasting marks on his songbook. He named two of his most evocative instrumentals “Sligo River Blues” and “Takoma Park Pool Hall Blues.”
It’s too bad that the city of Takoma Park hasn’t named much after Fahey in return, but maybe that will change after the Thousand Incarnations of the Rose. The music festival takes place this weekend at various venues in Takoma Park and will celebrate Fahey and his co-pioneers of “American primitive,” an influential style of fingerpicked guitar playing that can sound both rough and virtuosic, as if more than two hands are crowding the guitar strings at once. The style has spread slow and steady across the American underground since Fahey’s death in 2001, and festival organizers felt it was time to bring the guitarist’s legacy back home.
“Longtime residents of Takoma Park definitely know about Fahey,” says organizer Steve Korn. “But there’s been so much change in the neighborhood, I get the sense that the new residents don’t know a thing about Takoma Park being part of an important strand of musical history.”
To launch the festival, Korn, one of the principals behind the Takoma Park arts venue Rhizome, teamed up with American primitive boosters across the country: Philadelphia documentarian and musician Jesse Sheppard, Boston guitarist Glenn Jones, Georgia concert promoter Kathy Harr and Takoma Park arts organizer Margaret Holt. From there, they invited more than two dozen practitioners of American primitive to perform on Fahey’s stomping grounds, striking a thoughtful balance between living legends (Peter Lang, Max Ochs, Harry Taussig, Peter Walker) and rising torch-carriers (Marisa Anderson, Daniel Bachman, Nathan Bowles, Rob Noyes).
Listeners should expect this trans-generational slate to create the most simpatico of sparks. The music is steeped in tradition but has always felt ferociously multidirectional.
“American primitive guitar playing has a foundation in the blues and others folk forms, but anyone who picks it up has freedom to go outward from there,” Sheppard says. “That’s what Fahey bequeathed to us as players: to know where we’re coming from but to feel this extreme freedom.”
Jones, a former Fahey collaborator who will also perform at the festival, says that it’s easy to feel dazzled by the technicality of this music but that the enduring magnetism of American primitive is rooted in something deeper.
“I think the reason we’re still talking about people like Fahey and [Robbie] Basho is because there’s an emotional component to what they were doing that reaches us before the technical qualities come into play,” Jones says. “There was this idea that one person with one instrument could captivate you the same way a band did. Psychedelic music took you on an inner journey, but Fahey’s music did that, too. And it still does.”
All are welcome on that journey, newbies and superfans alike. If you know Takoma Park but you don’t know the music, you couldn’t ask for a more excellent crash course. For those who know the music but don’t know Takoma Park, the festival offers an opportunity to walk along the streets and streams that Fahey once mythologized in melody.
“For those of us who aren’t from there, we have this image of Takoma Park,” says Harr, the festival organizer from Georgia. “We might go down to the Sligo and look for turtles. We really could!”
Go for it. Just watch out for the cat people.
The festival takes place at various venues throughout Takoma Park, Md.
Tickets: Single- and three-day passes have sold out. Many shows don’t require tickets.