From the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Glenn Kimpton

Although he grew up in Maryland alongside such American Primitive guitar pioneers as John Fahey and Max Ochs, also releasing several albums on Fahey’s Takoma label, guitarist and singer Robbie Basho expanded on the style by bringing Hindi, Indian, Japanese, and Native American music into his playing. A very religious and exploratory man, it seems that Basho had to strike out further to satisfy his creative hunger. In a rare recorded interview from 1974, he is explaining the approach to his current style of guitar playing in his laconic, Christopher Walken–esque voice. “Meat and potatoes doesn’t do it for me anymore,” he says, and explains that he wants to “see how many ways a guitar can be portrayed.” The result of his exploration, studying many cultures, religions, and styles, is one of the most exhilarating and challenging catalogs of guitar music in history. At the time of his death, in 1986, Basho’s genius was not widely acknowledged, but with the 2020 release of Song of the Avatars: The Lost Master Tapes box set and Liam Barker’s Voice of the Eagle documentary, recognition seems to be growing. 

Guitarist Richard Osborn, once a student of Basho’s, reveals how he came to recognize the power of this singular artist. “I had become one of those guitarists who had learned all of John Fahey’s pieces and was kind of blown away,” Osborn begins, “but I had never really found any personal freedom in the style. Because of the Takoma label, I had heard some of Robbie’s earlier albums, like The Seal of the Blue Lotus and The Grail & the Lotus, which were very impressive, but the pieces were more like compositions. It wasn’t until late 1967 or early ’68 that he came and played at Stanford and by that point we were into the material that showed up on the Falconer’s Arm albums, much more open-ended raga stuff.”

Like Osborn, guitarist Glenn Jones, a friend of Basho’s, first encountered his music vicariously through Fahey. “I bought my first Basho album, The Grail & the Lotus, after discovering and becoming intrigued by the music of Fahey,” Jones says. “Both were solo acoustic guitarists, and both played for Takoma, but I quickly discovered that any similarities between the two pretty much ended there, except for one: Neither considered playing the guitar as an end unto itself, both viewed playing as a way to get to something beyond music.”

Eccentric, Driven, and Powerful

Basho was interested in deeply exploring cultures and religions, and his commitment to something greater certainly had an effect on people around him. “I was kind of in awe of him,” Osborn says of studying with Basho. “The thing about Robbie was that he had a gravitas and a power about his person, so you could find his music very moving, and to hear him in person and feel that presence added a lot of impact. But he pretty much stayed in persona most of the time. He had a way of comporting himself like he was an ambassador from another plane or another time. He was eccentric and driven with a personal vision that fueled his engine, like monomania.” 

I suggest to Osborn that Fahey also perhaps shared some of these characteristics. “Oh, absolutely,” he nods. “But although both were socially awkward, John was far more withdrawn. I remember seeing Fahey at a show at the Jabberwock in Berkeley and he played this 20-minute improvisation and blew everyone away, and then stopped playing and was drinking his whiskey and coke and just sitting there staring off into the rafters. Somebody called out, ‘Hey John, why are you looking up there?’ and he just said, ‘Because there’s no people up there.’ 

“Robbie conducted himself publicly in a very courtly but very intense way. I recall in one of our lessons he was talking about conserving psychic energy; he looked at being in the world and engaging people as draining one’s energy. I remember him saying, ‘You’ll notice that I’ll rarely look at you directly,’ and as he said that his eyes popped up and he looked straight at me and I felt a force like I had been shoved in the chest; there was this literal power to him.”


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When discussing the music of Fahey and Basho, Jones shares a few key points. “I think Basho’s challenges were greater than Fahey’s,” he says. “As with Fahey, Basho’s music is unmistakably his own, but it’s perhaps more personal and deeper. Fahey created his music by synthesizing influences from all over, whereas Basho created his almost from whole cloth. He had his influences—he took classes with [sarod virtuoso] Ali Akbar Khan in Berkeley, California, after all—but he didn’t wear his influences on his sleeve quite the way Fahey did. Even when Basho was working within the realms of Indian or Persian music, or when he was reworking a classical guitar piece he heard on a Presti and Lagoya record, what he actually played belonged to himself. You’d never mistake his music for the music of anyone else.” 

Unfortunately, his creative genius didn’t extend to the classroom. “He was not a good teacher,” Osborn says with a smile. “For one thing, he was very wrapped up in his process and his ongoing and very restless energetic exploration. But also, his character was not the kind to stop and wonder what it was that made his music and how he could convey that to someone. He could have greatly benefited from having disciples and I was certainly willing to be one. I had gone to him hoping to be led into how to explore things in this raga style, but he was not able to convey that.”

An Uneasy Freedom

A significant detail when considering Basho alongside Fahey and other players is the level of success each enjoyed: Fahey was quite unstoppable throughout much of his career, whereas Robbie struggled to achieve the recognition he deserved. Osborn is still bemused: “It’s totally mysterious. [Windham Hill Records founder] Will Ackerman wanted to get Robbie to ride his coattails if he could, and it baffled him, it baffles Glenn Jones, and I can’t figure it out either.”

Jones attempts an explanation: “With John, you have that syncopated right hand. Its alternating bass is setting a dogged pace and feel, so no matter what journey he took you on as a listener, he seldom left you feeling at sea; you were well grounded. With Robbie, you have to let go and entrust yourself to his care. He can leave you feeling unsure of the ground under your feet, and not everyone likes that feeling. Especially in his compositions for 12-string guitar, played in what he called his ‘galloping rondo’ right-hand approach, he had the ability to create a pool of sound that you can dive into and get lost in. There is mystery in Basho’s music and the sense that he’s invented his own arcane symbolism, and that it’s up to us to make sense of it. He requires work from his listeners. I also think there’s more freedom in Basho’s music than in Fahey’s, a willingness to follow his muse no matter where it leads him. And freedom can be scary.”

Interestingly, when Will Ackerman did sign Basho to Windham Hill, the material Basho produced is seen by Osborn to be less powerful than much that came before it. “Will was a fan of Basho’s, and he loved his music, so he wanted to help further his career,” he explains. “But it seems to me that Robbie was making some kind of calculation, thinking that his double-thumbing technique was where it was at. A lot of people of are big fans of those two Windham Hill albums [Visions of the Country and Art of the Acoustic Steel String Guitar 6 & 12], but I’m not. To me, it was a step back. Robbie said that a lot of people had criticized him for playing these long ragas, but I was in the other camp; I wished he had rambled longer.” Asked if this change of style perhaps suggested a lack of self-belief, Osborn says, “I certainly read it that way, although I don’t think other people did. But after Windham Hill came a series of albums, and Liam Barker’s film really helped me understand Basho a lot more at that stage. I had always thought of him as a guitarist, but I realized that he was really a troubadour. He was a singer and that was his passion.”


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Unearthed Treasures

Last year saw the release of Song of the Avatars: The Lost Master Tapes, a five-disc box set of previously unreleased Robbie Basho material that was unearthed by filmmaker Liam Barker during the making of Voice of the Eagle. It was put out through Josh Rosenthal’s Tompkins Square label, but Rosenthal takes little credit. “The idea for the box came out of the film,” he says. “When I learned about the trove of tapes which appears on film for a moment, I approached Liam. Everything from there was his direction.” 

“It is essentially my baby,” Barker confirms. “I had tapes transferred at a recording studio, programmed tracks, and worked with the designer and mastering engineer.” He takes us further back: “After Basho’s death, it was rumored that the religious order he was initiated into, Sufism Reoriented, had most of his belongings. After a preview for the film was published, a Meher Baba lover contacted me, which led to him providing me with a list of contacts.”


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This serendipitous contact led to treasures, including Basho’s 12-string guitar, an unpublished songbook, and a collection of master tapes, rich with eye-opening material. “Song of the Avatars treats us to some of Basho’s ventures into territory not previously charted on record,” Barker says. “Some have said that he wasn’t the best judge of his own work, but the fact that he never released some of this material is confounding. It presents a parallel pathway to his entire commercially released discography and is quite a ride.” —GK


This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.