John Fahey: “Voice of the Turtle,” America’s First Composer, and Other Excursions

As an artist that never seemed to stop evolving, it really says something when a record seems ‘transitional.’ This is something that embodies every record to an extent, but upon dropping America, John Fahey seemed to truly be on to something—or perhaps, off of it. In a career of experimentation, lapse, and change, America truly comes off as departure. If pressed, the same could be said of Days Have Gone By, The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party, and Requia’s B-side. With these monuments, however, Fahey was adding to the equation; bringing in new elements to mutate his blues with the Avant Garde. At times the union opened up realms never thought possible by a man and a guitar (and sometimes a tape deck or flute), other moments detracted from the essence of Fahey’s constituent sound. But, by any metric measured, it was all prodigious (lest we not forget the culmination of these experiments with the raucous genius of Voice of the Turtle). Yellow Princess would take Fahey back into the realm of convention – and sheer virtuosity in terms of ability as evidenced by the soli shred of the title cut and “Lion”- and The New Possibility offered a financial lifeline for the remainder of his days. Coming to America, it seems that Fahey wasn’t changing so much in terms of influence and fusion, but rather turning his sound on its head by way of subtraction. And this was no more apparent than on its opening cut of a familiar name.

“Voice of Turtle” finds Fahey in the long-form game; a territory not often visited, but familiar to his days of The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party. Unlike that record’s title cut, “Voice of the Turtle” works in continuity instead of interconnected vignettes. The work rambles along in slow motion with full-bodied chords intersecting with Fahey’s signature primeval picking. At no point are there angular breaks in composition or effect-laden changes of course, but rather a committed piece that alters the constitution of guitar soli composition. Halfway through the number, the train gets rolling as Fahey builds up the two-step rag he executes so well, only to slow things back down before accelerating to yet another false catharsis. Fahey, who above all else was the master of keeping time, was in effect shifting the reality of time within the universe of the tune itself. The effect is similar to the tape speed manipulation played with on prior experiments, only here, the picker has delivered an organic real-time psychedelia. In its last couple of minutes, the teasing ends and Fahey opens the country-blues floodgates. The momentum nearly throws the piece off the rails before the brakes are eased onto the entire affair and things ease toward a close.

Like the preceding LP of the same name, “Voice of the Turtle” offered yet another step away from re-creation of primitive blues guitar. Herein laid the workings of greater imagination—to make do with the materials at hand. In this case the acoustic guitar. Though sonically wild, the musique concrete route was par for the course in the era in which it arrived. A cohort of America’s first freak show were employing the technique and perhaps it was more radical to find the abstract in the organic: the glaring radicality of the minimal eccentric. Even within the title of the record – America – Fahey further entangled his interpretation of a country’s musicality with the flawed, though somewhat accurate depending on circumstance, ideology of wildness—becoming one with the legacy of the untamed frontier. Like Thoreau’s attempts to circumvent a society viewed as corrupt by escaping into the woods or Kerouac finding solace wandering (drinking) along America’s byways, Fahey was further distancing himself from convention; moving (as with his own origin) into the simplicity of the acoustic guitar after a stint of electronic experimentation. Even the album artwork portrays the artist being run out of town by a mob of transmuted humanoids.

Though Fahey would employ a similar strategy on America’s second side (after a dose of fretboard gymnastics on “The Waltz that Carried Us Away” and “Knoxville Blues”), with “Mark 1:15,” it is “Voice of the Turtle” that comes across as the true pivot point for the guitarist as a composer. And it was just that, which he was becoming. From revivalist interpreter, to experimenter, to composer of, perhaps, the most fundamentally American works. For years, Fahey had been turning away from his part as facsimilaic scholar of esoteric blues and moving toward the pivotal role of the most influential artist the masses had never heard of. The gig was up, Blind Joe Death been outed and it was time for the guitarist to make his own mark. | j rooney

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