By Gwenifer Raymond
“Uncloudy Day” is an 1879 gospel song by the Reverend Josiah Kelley Alwood, who was inspired by the sight of a rainbow, backed by an enormous black nimbus cloud in an otherwise clear sky, greeting him on the final leg of a long homeward-bound journey. It has been covered by many performers, including the Staple Singers, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Doc Watson, to name but a few, and here we’re going to talk about John Fahey’s instrumental interpretation for solo steel-string guitar.
My own relationship with Fahey’s music began when, after many years of playing guitar with grunge and punk outfits, I fell into a deep hole of early American blues and folk music. Inspired by players like Mississippi John Hurt, I began to study the alternating-thumb method of fingerpicking, and it was during that period that I first heard a Fahey record. With that came the realization of how fantastically capable of emotionally intelligent, articulate, and surreal musical expression a solo guitar could be, and it changed the course of my own playing.
Fahey, who died in 2001 at 61, was similarly preoccupied with that old weird American sound (in fact, he wrote his master’s thesis on the music of Charley Patton) and his playing draws strong influence from those traditions. That said, Fahey was much more than an adept mimic. He incorporated minimalism, repetition, and dissonance to create avant-garde soundscapes, at once both beautiful and discomfiting, uncannily channeling his own perhaps difficult personality into notes on string.
Fahey’s version of “Uncloudy Day” was originally released on his 1959 debut, Blind Joe Death. He self-recorded and produced the album (becoming one of the first independent artists to do so), funding it by pumping gas, and with a $300 loan from an Episcopal minister. Only 100 copies were made in its original run (pressed onto custom 78s via the Fonotone label run by friend and legendary record collector Joe Bussard), some of which were sent to academics and folklorists, and others secreted into the racks of record stores and Goodwill bins. Despite it having made no impression on the general American public at the time, Blind Joe Death has since been deemed by the Library of Congress to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”
Sitting in the middle of this album is “Uncloudy Day,” a quintessentially Fahey arrangement. The core melody is traditional, but a compulsive focus on repetition and tone, along with a restrained use of discordant transitions, imbues it with a transgressive sense of unease that is typical of the guitarist’s best work. Fahey starts with his guitar tuned to open D7 (D A D F# A C), and plays a series of natural harmonics at the 12th, seventh, and fifth frets, tied together by militarily rhythmic monotone plucks of the low D string. At this point the track is not really recognizable to an unfamiliar listener as a gospel number, and when Fahey begins to retune his top string, it might even sound like some strange outtake of a recording gone wrong.
The maneuver is slick, however, and Fahey navigates the transition from open D7 to open D (D A D F# A D) and into the opening riff of the new segment with practiced ease. This transition of tunings poses the first real obstacle for a player studying this song. Using a scant few plucks for guidance, you need to train your ear to swiftly and accurately tune the top string from C to D (you’re tuning a string to the root note of the tune, which makes life a little easier). It’s also important that any guiding plucks are played reasonably in time with the preceding bar, blending them into the tune.
Fingerpicking in Waltz Time
The main portion of the song has a bass line that requires the alternating thumb, a technique fundamental to most of Fahey’s compositions, and one that is important to master. This is best achieved by starting slowly, playing only the bass notes (those on the bottom three strings), and repeating until your thumb becomes an autonomous entity, acting on its own volition.
This tune is played in 3/4 or waltz time, which complicates things a little, as alternating thumb is most commonly employed in 4/4 (or common time), where the thumb will move mostly between two sets of bass notes. In waltz time, the thumb plays one bass note on beat 1 and another on 2 and 3. The melody lines, usually situated on the top three strings, can then be picked with the index and middle fingers. (Some players use as many as all
of their fingers, but Fahey didn’t typically do this, nor do I.)
Classic bits of Fahey eccentricity are employed in bars 11, 23 and 43—bass-heavy chords that contain the flatted ninth (Gb), rubbing against the root (F). These moments of discord, along with the jaunty waltz timing of the piece, create the general sense of ill-ease that sits at the back of this song the whole way through.
Though he played the majority of “Uncloudy Day” with unwavering 3/4 alternating thumb, Fahey occasionally threw in an extra off-beat bass note at the end of a bar, as in measures 20 and 21. These moves, which might prove tricky to a newcomer, require the thumb to momentarily stray from its mechanical, repetitive action. But the off-beat notes aren’t strictly necessary to capture the essence of the piece. The core of the genius of Fahey’s music is its focus on mood and tone, and so those are the aspects most important to focus on. Everything else is dressing.
Gwenifer Raymond is a Welsh composer and multi-instrumentalist based in Brighton, England. Her latest album is You Never Were Much of a Dancer (Tompkins Square Records). gweniferraymond.com
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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