People involved in a genre of music just generally don’t like the name journalists give that genre, however cool it might sound. While I’m not sure of the exact popularity of the term American Primitive it is a neat container. It manages to be precise in a way that signifies at the essence of the music it describes, but vague enough to include all the orbital developments.
American Primitive is based around American folk idioms, usually played on that most everyman of instruments, the steel-string guitar. By its very nature, American folk music is a broth of cultures, both black and white in origin. While the assimilation of blues and gospel spiritual tunes and folk-songs from Celtic (Irish and Scottish) traditions is hardly revolutionary on it’s own, American Primitive synthesises this palette with modern elements: neo-classical compositional structure, intense, meditative repetition, a greater chromaticism (inspired by Charles Ives and Béla Bartók) and an embrace of dissonance, often achieved through use of alternate tunings on the guitar.
To call it “primitive” is in fact a little disingenuous, but still effective. The musicians who pioneered and embraced this type of music were learned and obsessive but they were also intuitive and improvisatory. There were traits they shared with composers dubbed minimalist (another useful if inaccurate term unpopular amongst those it describes) around this same time: the repetition, the meditativeness in particular. But it differed in terms of reference points, timbre and modes of thought. This is non-academic music, learnt by ear and instinct rather than theory and teacher.
There is one towering figure who leers both crazy and indifferent over this music, that of the late John Fahey. Fahey is a bit of a mystery cat, one whose obliviousness to the fame game seems built equal parts out of cantankerousness and naïveté. Fahey was innovator and eccentric, salesman and scholar. Musically, the Maryland native came from bluegrass and country traditions and in his youth, while he hustled for 78rpm records to collectors, he had an epiphany listening to Blind Willie Johnson, who’s heavy voice opened up the world of blues to Fahey.
As Fahey developed his own guitar style to incorporate the various elements referenced above, he also decided to make and release his own recordings, founding Takoma Records (named for his Maryland homestead, Takoma Park.) He did so on the assumption that no one else would take interest in releasing the kind of music he was making and was unsure even of how to go about that task. Takoma Records eventually became the home of American Primitive music, where Fahey discovered Leo Kottke (whose style was more virtuosic and clean cut), Robbie Basho (who incorporated Indian raga into his 12 string jams) and Peter Lang and would surprisingly do quite well for itself in a business sense, until Fahey’s personal problems got the better of the company.
With its low barriers to entry (an acoustic guitar, an imagination, some patience) and the way in which the music can float between stools – sometimes folky, sometimes avant garde wig-out dependent on context and creator – the tradition of American Primitive is surprisingly health today, particularly following a resurgence in interest in the early 2000s through re-issues and comebacks. Practitioners of this music, like within any genre, have blurred and smudged the boundaries over time, but the principals of getting lost in endless finger picking cycles, the infinite variations of blues tropes, the buzzing of the fretboard still endear many musicians, from Jim O’Rourke, through Glenn Jones’ Cul de Sac or Ben Chasny and his Six Organs of Admittance project to Daniel Bachman and to Dublin’s own Cian Nugent.
For more background on John Fahey’s life and Takoma Records, read two particularly great articles by Byron Coley from Perfect Sound Forever and Edward Pouncey from Wire or you can take his own word for it, in his fictional, but semi-autobiographical, collection of stories How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life [Drag City].
Records, records, records
Robbie Basho’s recently re-issued Visions Of The Country is a gorgeous collection spooky vibrato over American ragas, Leo Kottke’s 6 & 12 String Guitar is the acceptable face of virtuosity, Fahey’s own America is a spellbinding epic. More recent ventures worth dipping your toe into include Jim O’Rourke’s Bad Timing, which provides four lengthy slices of avant garde mischief, Glenn Jones’ The Wanting, Daniel Bachman’s Seven Pines, the late Jack Rose’s Kensington Blues or Cian Nugent & The Cosmos’ newest record Born With The Caul for an electrified romp through this territory.
Words: Ian Lamont