A John Fahey Christmas Companion
by Philip Sherburne | November 22, 2011
Let's get this out of the way up front: I am no great fan of the Christmas season, although that manifests itself less in grinchitude than in mild indifference. (No, Fox News, I am not waging a war on Christmas; I just want to enjoy the ability to indulge or ignore it at my leisure, without being reminded that 'TIS THE SEASON every commercial break and/or city block.) Anyway, the same goes for Christmas music.
Some of that stuff I actually like to hear on, say, December 24 and 25. You can't argue with Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" -- that would be like arguing against, I don't know, oxygen. "The Little Drummer Boy" has that Bing Crosby/David Bowie version going for it, of course. And I have fond memories of performing carols in a bell choir at a friend's church when I was a boy. But finding a Christmas recording that doesn't send my kitschometer off the charts -- that's a different matter.
Enter John Fahey. Fahey was an eccentric master of fingerpicked guitar -- a onetime philosophy student who discovered the blues and never looked back. His early recordings built upon the knowledge of old-time blues and bluegrass he amassed over years of collecting records, folding in elements of European church music and 20th-century classical composers. A champion of American "primitivist" music, he also moved in avant-garde circles: he recorded with the Red Crayola in the late '60s, and in the '90s, linking up with musicians like Jim O'Rourke, he established his legacy for a new generation of listeners.
None of that seems like the pedigree of an avid performer of Christmas music. Nevertheless, Fahey released several Christmas albums in his lifetime, beginning with 1968's The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album and continuing through 1975's The John Fahey Christmas Album, 1982's Christmas Guitar Vol. 1 and 1988's Popular Songs of Christmas & New Year's. (Another album in Rhapsody's catalog, John Fahey Live at Studio KAFE, includes four of the Christmas songs he returned to most often.)
I'm particularly fond of the creaky grace of the earlier recordings. The starkness, the twang and the dissonance don't scan as typical "holiday music"; they have an intimacy and even an imperfection that runs counter to the plastic trees and blinding lights of the season at its most commercialized. I've culled some of my favorites from all five aforementioned albums to create a single playlist, A John Fahey Christmas Companion. 'Tis the season!