Since Smithsonian Folkways’ ballyhooed reissue of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, many of our world’s duller knobs seem to have been reborn as experts in roots music. So it’s a safe bet that spasms of delight will greet the latest release on avant-acoustic guitarist John Fahey’s label Revenant: Dock Boggs’ Country Blues (RVN 205), which collects the complete early (circa 1927-29) recordings by the dark godfather of all banjo-wielding Appalachian form destroyers.
All of Boggs’ music (including that of his ’60s “rediscovery” period) is mind- blowingly great, and the packaging of Country Blues is equally amazing. Lyrics, pics, and essays are bound into a lovely hardcover book, making Country Blues a masterpiece of recycling. But when you begin to examine the list of other Revenant releases, the brain begins to fog up. Some titles have an obvious affinity with Boggs (Harmonica Frank Floyd, Buell Kazee, etc.), but there are a host of others that emanate from a different creative universe. What do Cecil Taylor, Crime, and Derek Bailey have to do with roots music? If you’re asking that, you’re asking the wrong question, according to label manager Dean Blackwood.
“John and I talked about what kind of people were worth documenting,” recalls Blackwood. “Although we had different people in mind, we found that they had a commonality in a shared rawness of vision. None were interested in doing things that other people suggested, none would be deterred from doing what they wanted to do.”
With that spiritual orneriness as the label’s aesthetic spine, Revenant’s releases begin to assume Euclidean geometric wholeness. Music and Dance (RVN 201), by English improvisational guitarist Derek Bailey and Japanese post- Butoh dance giant Min Tanaka, reissues an obscure cassette filled with the telekinetic transmissions between Bailey’s splattery strings, Tanaka’s sinewy stretches, and the forces of nature. Happy Days (RVN 101), by Jim O’Rourke (who produced Fahey’s recent, wigged-out Womblife CD for Table of the Elements), is an intoxicating exploration of the drone qualities latent in both the hurdy-gurdy and steel-stringed acoustic guitars. Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come (RVN 202), a two-CD set by Cecil Taylor recorded in Copenhagen in ’62, documents the pianist’s first fully realized attempt to bridge the worlds of avant-garde jazz and contemporary classical music.
While none of these are “primitive” recordings in a strict ethnological sense, each certainly manifests an unbending adherence to its artist’s own singular creed. This is what unifies them with their premodern brethren on Revenant. The Stanley Brothers’ Earliest Recordings (RVN 203) collects 14 ancient sides by these protean explorers of the hot, sad art of bluegrass, complete with an extremely well-researched book that appeals to the Greil Marcus inside us all. As does American Primitive Vol. 1: Raw Pre-War Gospel (RVN 206), whose Fahey- penned accompanying booklet, about the skewed ethnomusicology of these sacred songs from the dawn of recorded street blues, is almost as crazed as the music. And there is blazingly twisted shit here, much of which has never been reissued before. In some ways, American Primitive – four more volumes of which are scheduled – is even more mind-bending than Harry Smith’s Anthology. Judging by some of the goodies awaiting release – Fahey’s Fonotone 78s; the complete recordings of Crime (SF’s rawest/dumbest art punks); John Breckow’s archival church recordings of steel guitar-wielding preacher Lonnie Farris – Revenant has clearly tapped a rich, hidden vein of our collective subconscious. And if you can’t dig that, well, eat dirt.
Byron Coley – SPIN April 1998