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Friday, August 6, 2010

John Fahey's Holy Grail

John Fahey: "John Fahey" 198?, USA/Fonotone 3. Disc is in beautiful EX to M- shape, it's like new. Labels are typed and hand-applied, with a "FONOTONE" logo applied separately on top of the typed label. This is an expertly-made 12" metal acetate LP that was hand-cut on a lathe. The sound is excellent, it's comparable in fidelity to a standard vinyl pressing. It has a manila slipcase for a cover.

Frederick, Maryland musicologist Joe Bussard, Jr. recorded several local artists in his home studio, including John Fahey. The Fahey recording sessions began in 1959, and continued through 1962. Fahey left these early masters with Bussard, asking only that if he was going to make the music available to collectors, he do it himself on his Fonotone imprint and never license the material to another label. Bussard had the equipment for making acetates at 78 rpm, and this was how he shared Fahey's early recordings with interested collectors for many years. These were usually 7" acetates, with one song on each side. They were expensive to produce, and correspondingly they were expensive for Fahey collectors to purchase from Bussard. As a result very few were ever made. A small number of these handmade Fonotone 78s have turned up on ebay and have fetched considerable sums.

By the 1980s, Bussard had upgraded his cutting equipment to be able to produce a 12" disc at 33 1/3 rpm. He only made one "official" 12" disc available to Fahey fans, Fonotone 70001, labeled "Guitar Solo's". Beyond this, it has been widely believed that he never produced any other 12" discs, but I recently found four different ones in a collection! The discs are numbered FONOTONE 1, FONOTONE 2, FONOTONE 3, and FONOTONE 4. Predictably, there is a story about how they came to exist that I will relate below. On offer this week in separate auctions are FONOTONE 3 and FONOTONE 4, which as a set contain 23 instrumental guitar tracks that John Fahey recorded in Joe Bussard Jr.'s home studio between 1959 and 1962, and six blues tracks Fahey recorded with Backwards Sam Firk as "The Mississippi Swampers" in Joe Bussard Jr.'s home studio on June 15, 1962. Many, if not all of the tracks on these LP acetates were made available by Bussard as Fonotone 78 rpm acetate singles. But I have reason to believe that these acetates in my possession are unique, in that they are the only 12" discs playing at 33 1/3 rpm (LPs) of any of this material.

The collection I recently purchased had a lot of folk guitar records. Many early rare ones, like the Harry Taussig on Talisman and the Steve Mann on Custom Fidelity, the Fred Gerlach, stuff I'd never seen before. There was a lot of Fahey, and then I found the acetates. I asked the owner how he came to possess them and here's what he told me: I wrote to Joe Bussard Jr. in the early 1980s, and I asked him if he still had the early John Fahey recordings for sale. He wrote back that yes, he was still offering them on cassette. I wrote again and told him I really would rather have records, and he wrote that he could make me a set of 78 rpm acetate singles. But I didn't want 7" records, and I certainly didn't want anything that played at 78 rpm! I asked him if he could cut me 12" LPs at 33, and he refused to do it. I waited a year or so, and I wrote him again. By then he had the "Guitar Solo's" LP acetate available, and I bought one. It sounded great, which made me want the other tracks on 12" LP even more, so I asked him again. He told me he'd never made custom 12" discs to order for anyone EVER, because cutting full LPs by hand was a lot of trouble. I wrote him back right away and told him that I'd pay him whatever he asked, but I had to have LPs. I think it was another year before we closed the deal, but finally we agreed on a price and he sent the four LPs. He enclosed a note with them that said, "I can't believe how difficult it was to make these, I will never do this again for any amount of money!" I asked him if he thought they were in fact unique, and he said Oh, I have no doubt that they are. I chose the songs that I wanted from his master list and the order I wanted them in, and he cut the acetates. He custom made these LPs for me and told me flat out that he would never do it again for anybody!

You should be able to see the song titles on the scans below. For your further information, here is a list of the Fonotone label 78rpm acetates that are collected on this LP, directly cut from Joe Bussard Jr.'s masters: #1157, #1182, #1184, #1185, #6707, #6708. In addition, there are two tracks not bearing titles (see label side B) which may have been made available as #6801, which is identified in Bussard's catalog as "Two Guitar Solo's - Titles Unknown". Fonotone 78 singles are rare, I would guess each one has the potential to bring three figures at auction. This acetate LP collects at least six of them!

The winning bidder will also receive copies of Bussard's mid-1980s catalog of early recordings of Fahey and several other artists.

Be sure to look at my other auctions to see the companion disc with the other nine Fahey instrumentals, and the six Mississippi Swampers recordings.

Learning something new everyday makes living worthwhile!


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