In 1958, at age 19, legendary guitarist John Fahey recorded for the first time. The session for Frederick label Fonotone included a variation on “Blind” Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night — Cold Was the Ground”, which he felt “may be the greatest song ever recorded.” Yet Fahey, who was born in Washington and grew up in Takoma Park, decided to give his version a new name: “Takoma Park Pool Hall Blues.”
“John always obsessed over the events of his childhood and the places of his childhood,” explains Glenn Jones, co-producer of a new box set of Fahey’s Fonotone recordings called “Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You.” “He eventually ventured out into the world, but he never really left those early obsessions.” Indeed, Fahey, who died in 2001, changed the world of instrumental guitar, melding blues, country, classical and world music into an influential finger-picking style he dubbed “American Primitivism.”
The many guitarists who have since followed Fahey’s path are sometimes called “the Takoma School.” The name is a homage to Fahey’s label, Takoma Records, which released some of his most famous albums. But according to Jones, “the seeds of all of that are in those seven years that he recorded for Fonotone. Even the earliest tracks — there is still something characteristically Fahey about them. He found his own voice at a very young age.”
Jones, 58, isn’t just a Fahey scholar — he’s a card-carrying, finger-picking member of the Takoma School. (On Friday, Jones will be in Takoma Park to discuss the Fonotone box at the House of Musical Traditions at 5 p.m., then play a show at the Potts-Dupre Schoolhouse at 8.) He’s promoting a new solo set, “The Wanting,” his fourth album of musical stories told in the language Fahey invented.
“When I was growing up listening to different people — Jimi Hendrix, Stockhausen, Sun Ra — it was all group music,” Jones said in a recent telephone interview. “It was when I heard Fahey that I realized one person alone could create something that was deep and moving and meaningful.”
But it took many years of listening to Fahey before Jones ventured into solo guitar himself. He credits that decision in part to advice from a college art teacher, who posited two ways to become an artist: “Either paint and paint and paint and eventually you’ll be a painter, or look at paintings forever, and when you’re ready to paint, you’ll be a painter.”
Jones chose the latter route, but even before he took up solo guitar seriously, he became friends with Fahey in the late 1970s. The two eventually collaborated with Jones’s band, Cul de Sac, on a 1997 album Fahey wryly dubbed “The Epiphany of Glenn Jones.”
“I sort of swum in John’s backwater, if you will, for many decades,” Jones chuckles. “It took me a long time to find my own voice.” That voice is quite clear on “The Wanting,” carrying him through lonely blues, looping melodies and sharp statements.
Jones has shed Fahey’s influence in part by owning up to it. On the new album, he continues Fahey’s habit of naming songs after locations, which helps him remember the initial inspiration behind each. In fact, the title of the record’s epic closer, “The Orca Grande Cement Factory at Victorville,” is a direct homage to Fahey’s “The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California.”
But Jones makes the song his own with circular, meditative playing, as well as with the textural accents of drummer Chris Corsano. “If people say there’s still a lot of Fahey in there, well, yes, it’s undeniable,” he admits. “I’m proud to be an apple that’s fallen off that tree. But I think that there’s enough in what I do that’s my own that I don’t need to apologize for anything.”
That’s certainly in keeping with the spirit of Fahey, a cantankerous soul who rarely said sorry with his music. “For John, there was no shying away from anything no matter how dark or negative it was,” Jones recalls. “He’d say, ‘People think blues is about sadness. It’s not about sadness, it’s about anger.’ He expressed anger in his music, and dread and fear and bitterness, but also joy and exultation.”
Jones doesn’t always detect that kind of honesty in new adherents to the Takoma School. “A lot of the players today have absorbed Fahey’s style and inspiration, but I think some are missing an important element in what he does, and that’s the emotional element,” he says. “They’ve got the ‘how’ part of playing down, but I don’t feel they’re coming to grips with the ‘why’ of playing.”
Jones will explore some of those hows and whys during his Takoma Park appearances. The visit offers him a chance to spread the gospel of Fahey in a place where he wishes more people were believers. “I hope someday, in some minor way perhaps, he’ll be celebrated [in Takoma Park] and seen as a cultural touchstone for the town,” he says. “I’m not saying there has to be a big statue in the middle of the town square, but it would be nice if he’d be recognized.”
Even if Takoma Park doesn’t often celebrate John Fahey, he often thought about Takoma Park — even decades after living there. Jones recalls a tape Fahey played for him in the ’90s, in which a low drone that producer Jim O’Rourke added under Fahey’s guitar playing got him extremely excited. When Jones asked why, he replied, “It sounds like the Takoma Park railroad plow in winter, clearing the snow off the tracks. I’ve been looking for that sound my whole life!”
Masters is a freelance writer.