John Fahey

Red Cross (John Fahey's Final Album)

Revenant Records No 104

John Fahey is an iconic figure in the 'folk-based acoustic guitarist' world and he died the year before last.  He lived life to the full, indulged in most of its pleasures - largely very unwisely.  To quite another larger-than-life folk hero, Hamish Imlach, Fahey clearly "wanted to make sure that when he died, everything was knackered" - so that he could feel that every internal organ had given its all!  Red Cross is John's final album.

I first heard John Fahey on Transatlantic's Contemporary Guitar Sampler - alongside John Pearse, Ralph McTell and Bert Jansch.  Fahey's tracks intrigued me and were the oddest on the LP (remember them?).  However, they did not speak to me in the way that Bert Jansch did then and guitarists like Martins Carthy and Simpson, Nic Jones and Tony McManus have done since.  Since then, I've heard the odd John Fahey album - some of which were frankly baffling - consisting of heavily-effected and often very repetitive playing.  I accept, however, that this is my problem, as for many, John Fahey was and has a special "place ... in American cultural history".  On hearing this final album - I have to admit that, while it is more accessible and more tuneful than many I have heard, I am still missing the point, by and large.

This is pleasant enough, if too 'ambient' for my tastes.  Fahey is well-known for his use of effects and repetition - it certainly creates a mood, but my personal preference is for the odd melody here and there.  In the 'influential fingerstyle guitarist with a love of traditional music' vein Martin Simpson is an example of the opposite extreme.  Simpson's work includes very little by way of repetitive tinkling.  Every finely-crafted note carries an essential element of a melody and often the emotion and story behind the song whose melody is being played.  Fahey makes more concessions to melody than is his norm here by including Gershwin's Summertime - but his version of it is merely straightforward and pleasant (there's that word again!).

In all, I can find little to dislike about this posthumous CD.  However, I can also find little to make it land on my CD player again.  I'm going to be forced to end on a cliche - "If you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you'll like".  John Fahey fans will shed a tear at this final offering from a fascinating and troubled genius.  Those who were puzzled by Fahey's appeal during his life will remain puzzled.  Perhaps that would have pleased the notoriously idiosyncratic and bloody-minded Fahey.  I'm sure he'd also have loved the brown cardboard sleeve and the slightly off- the-wall obituary in lieu of notes on the CD tracks.  Despite my personal bafflement at Fahey's appeal - I think that the world is the poorer, musically, for his passing.  Rest in peace.

Alan Murray - 30.1.03

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