The liner notes for Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You-- the complete recordings guitarist John Fahey made for the tiny but crucial Fonotone label between 1958 and 1965-- comprise an 88-page book, bound in beautifully toned, dense cardboard. These 88 pages brim with an obsessive sort of information about Fahey: his slapdash drawings of important people and places in his life, the first known photograph of him with a Gibson F-hole guitar, the receipt for his Holzapfel 12-string, his Boy Scouts photo, and even a personal letter to Fonotone owner Joe Bussard where he begs for recordings of a few old blues heroes. There's a revealing and hitherto unpublished interview, remembrances from past collaborators, and Italian researcher Claudio Guerrieri's guide to the various hand-written labels Bussard affixed to the center of each record he hand-cut on order.
The centerpiece of the book is Malcolm Kirton's exhaustive 40-page examination of every track on the 115-piece, 5xCD, six-hour set, including Fahey's thoughts on the tunes, his tunings, his techniques, and how a scrawny, awkward white kid from the suburbs of Washington, D.C. came to learn obscure songs from even more obscure black bluesmen long before CD reissues and online archives were even an idea. It should be noted that Kirton also helped produce The Roots of John Fahey, a free online archive of many of the songs in question. Like this set, it is also essential. As the guitarist, enthusiast, and project co-producer Glenn Jones quips in his own introduction, "Let's face it, who is this set for if not Fahey's most hardcore fans?"
Actually, Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You is not just for Fahey zealots. It's for anyone interested in the story of American music, from its Appalachian string bands and mean-moaning Delta blues singers to the hymns sung from its church pews and the country-rock anthems soon enough crafted by its hippies. But Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You is not only the story of the musician John Fahey, it's also the story of the songs that have become crucial to his country, a place that Fahey explored from one end (he was raised in Maryland) to the other (he lived in Hawaii at one point and died in Oregon). Somewhat comparable to the sprawling ethnomusicological work of Alan Lomax, Harry Smith, Art Rosenbaum, Nick Perls, and others like them, Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You is a rich overview of America's musical bedrock-- only here, it's told through the hard-won, fast-paced development of a guitarist who, in turn, changed the way future players could consider their instrument. A must-have collection of lore, music, and history, it's a unified, brilliant, and often very challenging archive.
During four decades between the time this set was recorded and Fahey's death in 2001, the guitarist would cover expansive musical ground, from transfixing, blues-based tone poems that stretched the boundaries of his instrument to, years later, luminous drones that synced with the interests of a new generation of his advocates. As Robbie Basho said in an oft-repeated explanation, "Fahey and myself are playing frustrated little symphonies on guitar." Over time, he was a philosophy major, an author, a record label owner, a curator, and a strange storyteller. However, here on these either unreleased or very hard-to-find tracks, he's a young American adult rifling through his friends' record collections and taking road trips to rural lands to find the music and musicians that he really loves-- raging country blues and blissful acoustic hymns, written and recorded by the likes of Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Elizabeth Cotten, Bukka White, Will Moore, Mississippi John Hurt, and a canon of others, all while building his own style.
Emotionally, technically, and stylistically, Fahey makes for a suitably uneven tour guide through these dusty back pages, like a metabolic personification of Greil Marcus' old, weird America. On one version of "Poor Boy Blues", recorded in 1959, he plays with a great, repetitive sadness, the 20-year-old doing his best to sing like a Mississippi septuagenarian, as if inborn with an inescapable melancholy. About a year earlier, he'd folded the same tune into "Libba's Rag", an apparent homage to mentor Elizabeth Cotten. It sounds young and vaguely hopeful, always on the verge of lifting off. Nearly two years later, he wove a glimpse of another version of the tune-- learned from his master of sorts, Charley Patton-- into "Dasein River Blues", the kind of slow, wobbly, serpentine country-blues stagger that would eventually give some of Fahey's best-known music its trademark, trance-like essence. Fahey sometimes navigates these tunes with crystalline clarity, as with his stately reverence for the fifth-century "St. Patrick's Hymn" or his haunted slide guitar dirge behind "In the Pines", a duet with mountain singer Fran Vandiver. Elsewhere, he pugnaciously repurposes the material, as when he snaps the strings hard against the slide of a 1960 take on "John Henry" or slurs the words of "Green Blues". He hammers out the chords with a great aggression, as though they'd said something about his mother.
Admittedly, some of the material here stands as a curiosity at best. Fahey's six collaborations with flautist Nancy McLean function more as a testament to his inquisitiveness as a player and listener than something you'll want to hear repeatedly; the same goes for his raucous, wasted take on "I Shall Not Be Moved". Similarly, some of the short guitar solos included here-- two versions of the gorgeous cowboy song "Goodbye Old Paint" or his slide through "House Carpenter"-- aren't testaments to his otherwise-apparent abilities as an arranger. They simply shape our understanding of his lexicon. By set's end, though, Fahey's working through knotty versions of the romantic "How Long" and "You Take the E Train" (better known as "The Last Steam Engine Train"). These songs and several of their contemporaries illustrate Fahey's very original synthesis of folk, blues, classical, and even old American standards. He was a zealous collector and an ingenious interpreter, two qualities that Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You takes great care to link.
Fahey's legacy and reputation among modern guitarists is overwhelming and inescapable. Just as pop-rock bands with stacked harmonies and two guitars can't escape Beatles comparisons, an upstart learning to flatpick must initially step up to or around Fahey's prominence. Though Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You lives up to its name by finally presenting a lot of material Fahey admitted he would rather forget, it ultimately confirms his stature as one of music's pioneering polymaths. The tunes here are, at turns, funny or solemn, sober or delirious, studied or shambolic, but, with it all, Fahey was able to ingest and utilize a broad range of feelings and ideas into takes that remain totally singular and identifiable.
During a session at home with Bussard in the spring of 1960, Fahey cut seven songs, including a particularly charged version of "Sitting on Top of the World" and a delicate, subtle ragtime mutation he called "Hill High Blues". The last song Fahey ostensibly cut that day was "Paint Brush Blues", improvised on a lark after he picked up a paintbrush Bussard used to keep his record lathe clean. He beats the strings, the chords radiating through the speakers. It's a tossed-off moment, certainly, but the anything-goes spirit validates what Kirton calls a sign of "Fahey's experimental propensities." Fahey was a restless listener, tinkerer, thinker, and player-- a combination that makes this set fascinating both as a history book and a lifetime listening indulgence.