As a teenager, I spent untold hours in my darkened basement listening to John Fahey’s spooky journeys into the unknown via “The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party” and the Blind Joe Death album; listened over and over with astonished disbelief to Leo Kottke’s 6- & 12-String Guitar (the “Armadillo album”); and a little later conducted my first interview in a long journalism career with none other than the incomparable Robbie Basho, whose mysterious mojo had leaped out of the grooves of his records at me and was completely overwhelming when I finally got to see him perform live.
All three of those pioneering members of my steel-string guitar Holy Trinity are represented on this excellent, wide-ranging, single-disc set of 17 pieces by ten different first-generation “American Primitive” guitarists and banjo players, spanning 1963–1974. That term itself is open to debate, but it’s come to encompass a movement of musicians who drew from “folk” sources ranging from blues to old-time country to Indian ragas, but in the service of what compilation producer (and author of the illuminating liner notes) Glenn Jones writes was about “concocting their own techniques, tunings, and aesthetic approaches in order to best say what they wanted to say.” At its best, American Primitive music was deeply personal for the players, and that’s why it connected so strongly with so many listeners (though, of course it was never more than a niche style). Jones’ collection draws from the catalogs of Fahey’s Takoma Records label and New York’s folk-music giant Vanguard Records, so he had much to choose from. And though some might quarrel with any given choice or selection (’twas ever thus with every compilation ever), overall the set offers a varied and dynamic glimpse of the movement that eventually helped spawn the more palatably mainstream “Windham Hill Sound” (Ackerman, DeGrassi, Hedges, et al), and on down the line to today’s slick fingerstyle greats. This stuff is rough and ragged in places, much of it clearly improvised, and sonically not what modern audiences perhaps expect/demand. But it’s undeniably heartfelt and soulful in a deep and occasionally even spiritual way.
Aside from the aforementioned three, the only other players here that I was aware of back in the day were the always underrated Peter Lang (who shared a great 1974 album with Kottke and Fahey) and Sandy Bull, who I knew mostly as a guitarist, not a banjo player as he is here. Bull’s track feels like the missing link between the Primitives and the influential Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, which in the early ’50s brought together all sorts of incredible and strange 78s from the late ’20s and early ’30 onto LPs for the first time. Others, such as Harry Taussig, Max Ochs, and Peter Walker, I’ve gotten to know only recently through important contemporary rereleases by the Tompkins Square label of little-heard ’60s and ’70s albums. Fred Gerlach was also new to me, but his 12-string guitar and vibraphone journey (self- double-tracked) has become one of my favorites. Peter Walker’s “Gypsy Song” is another that benefits from multiple instruments—in this case he plays sarod and is backed by tabla, violin, and flute; it’s one of several explicitly Indian-influenced pieces on the album.
All in all it’s a fascinating trip back to a different time and very different headspace. These “primitives” sound pretty evolved to me.
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.