The Phantom Tollbooth
The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album
Christmas With John Fahey Vol. II
Artist: John Fahey
Label:  Rhino Records
Time:   74:35 / 20 tracks

In 1993, Rhino Records reissued, on a single CD, John Fahey's first Christmas album, The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album, originally released on Fahey's own Takoma Records in 1968, together with Christmas with John Fahey Volume II, originally released in 1975. The second album included several duets with guitarist Richard Ruskin. The limits of the CD format meant that one song from the second album had to be left off. What remains is 74 and one-half minutes of wonderful music.

Throughout a recording career dating from 1959, Fahey has earned a reputation as an innovative guitarist, composer and arranger of music for guitar. He may be as well known for his personality as his music. His first album was jokingly presented as the newly-recovered lost work of a legendary blues guitarist named Blind Joe Death. Fahey is regarded by some as the father of "new age music," a title which he scorns.  For a recent album, the liner notes quoted a letter to a friend in which Fahey states that he despises "new age" music and never considered himself to be a "new age" musician.

His trademark style, which he refers to as "American primitive guitar," applies the playing techniques of Pre World War II blues and country guitarists to other musical styles. His original compositions and arrangements draw on every musical style from classical to popular, with blues and country music at the heart of his playing. As he was starting his career, this concept was radically different from what other guitarists were doing, and has influenced many guitarists since.

You don't need to be a serious guitar afficionado to appreciate John Fahey's Christmas albums, though it helps. Since Fahey's versions were conceived specifically as guitar pieces, they lack the schmaltz of the common vocal arrangements. Fahey adds introductions and bridges between verses, which reminds the listener that these tunes are worth listening to in their own right. Using various styles, tempos and tunings, these renditions take old familiar Christmas songs and help the jaded listener hear them anew.

Fahey's arrangement of "Joy to the World" starts out with a rapidly moving downward run and settles into a slightly slower than typical tempo, filling in behind the melody with bass notes to keep time and propel the melody forward. He uses the same style on a medley of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful," only this time faster than is customary.

Fahey's treatment of "What Child Is This" reminds the listener of the age of the melody ("Greensleeves"). Fahey uses chords strummed in arpeggios to supplement the melodic line, making the guitar sound like a lute or a harpsichord. The arrangement is simple and plaintive, suiting the song's lyrics even though the lyrics are not sung. He creates a similar sound in his version of "Good King Wenceslas," though playing at a more loping tempo.

Fahey's blues influences come through on "Go I Will Send Thee," as he slides and bends his way through the melody, filling with licks as he goes. The second time through, he displays his virtuosity by taking the song at twice the original tempo without missing a note. He plays "Silent Night" in a similar fashion, but with more attention to the melody.

Along with the traditional Christmas songs, Fahey includes two songs from Bing Crosby movies, "The Bells of Saint Mary's" and "White Christmas."  Fahey uses harmonics and allows chords to ring to create a bell-like sound in the former. "White Christmas" receives a slightly bluesy treatment, nicely capturing the wistfulness of the song.

Fahey's duet work with Richard Ruskin, from "Christmas with John Fahey Volume II" is also well worth hearing. Their joint arrangement of "Oh Holy Night" features a full melody, played with chords, over a finger-picked rhythm part that moves quickly and majestically. Sung performances of the song usually feature the upper reaches of the vocalist's range; Fahey and Ruskin are content to focus on the melody itself, to the point of playing it on the lower strings. On "Carol of the Bells," the two players trade off playing chords and finger-picking, and the chords ring out like the bells of the song's title. The CD concludes with "Christmas Fantasy Part II" (Part I was left off the CD), over twelve minutes of improvised shifts of tempo and time signature, tied together by melodic quotations from Christmas carols.

This CD spends a lot of time in my CD player, both because of its length and because it sounds so different from the other music I hear during the holidays. If the same songs must be played and played each year, at least Fahey's versions will provide the hearer with a reason to listen.

By Chris Parks  (11/21/98)