John Fahey, Ottoman-American box sets belong on your wish list

By Dave Thompson

We’re counting down (already!) to the holidays. Here are a couple of box sets you may have missed so far this year, but will likely wish you hadn’t. Luckily, you still have time to earn a spot on Santa’s Nice List. Here are some sets you’ll want to have next to your name.

To What Strange Place The Music of the Ottoman-Armenian DiasporaVarious Artists, “To What Strange Place: The Music of the Ottoman-American Diaspora, 1916- 1929” (Tompkins Square): “To What Strange Place” is aptly titled, both from the point of view of its original musicians and audience, and from that of the modern-day listener.

To the first named, the strange places were those corners of Manhattan to which what we might call the Ottoman-American Diaspora had traveled during the last brutal years of that Eurasian empire — places that became known as Little Syria near City Hall, Little Armenia around Lexington Avenue, and all of the other places to which Greeks and Turks, Sephardim and Romaniotes, Kurds and more made their way to live, to love and to make the magical, magnificent music that has been gathered up now on this haunting box set.

It is haunting because, with the best will in the world and the sharpest eye for the obscurest corners of antique Americana, chances are that the efforts of New York’s Ottoman music industry will be a stranger to you. Labels like Pharos, MG Parsekian and Oriental flourished within their immediate community but were barely heard of elsewhere; they were played in the cafés and clubs of their respective neighborhoods, but probably nowhere else.

Theirs was a world of almost pristine self-containment, with music formed and informed not by the currents that swirled elsewhere through the city — not at first, anyway — but by the music that the emigres brought to America with them, precious and fragile 78s that were often the most tangible link with home that many had. Music that recreated that link could not help but be precious, too.

Available on both CD and as truncated LPs, “To What Strange Place” is a three-disc set, but the third disc is unusual in that it anthologizes the records that traveled across oceans and continents to get here. The majority were even released in the U..S, although not in the kind of quantities that guaranteed their survival; that said, compiler Ian Nagoski remarks, “Many discs of great musicians that cannot be found in the archives in Egypt, Greece or Turkey today turn up in the estates of immigrants in American cities.”

Fifteen of these recordings pack out Disc Three, and the unschooled ear is unlikely to discern much difference between a “genuine” Ottoman recording, and its American cousin, which is as it should be, and as it was intended. The music that is coiled around the first two discs here is archetypal home thoughts from abroad: the tales and traditions of the homelands reawakened for dusty, noisy New York City.

Names like Kosroof Malool, Kemany Minas, Naim Karakand, Nishan Sedefjian and George Katsaros were stars within the worlds they performed for, but they were also shopkeepers, tradesmen and restaurateurs. One of the performers here, Achilleas Poulos, ran a couple of Eighth Avenue cafes with his wife, Mary. Nishan Keljikian was a barber. Ian Nagoski’s liner notes tell all of the performers’ stories, even as he tells the stories behind the music.

Though we may not understand the lyrics, the tone of the songs, the sounds of the instruments and the emotions in the voices often flesh out the writers’ words even before you’ve read them.

The result is one of the most remarkable boxes of recent years (it was released in 2011) and one of the most haunting, as well. Sadly it is currently available only as a download, but used copies do surface occasionally, and are well worth the hunt.

JohnFahey_FI_YourPastComesBackToHauntYouJohn Fahey: “Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You: the Fonotone Years (1958-1965)” (Dust-to-Digital): A couple of minutes that kick off Disc One explain everything you ned to know about this box set. Well, almost everything. It’s John Fahey reflecting on the years he spent visiting record collector and producer Joe Bussard, recording the mad bursts of primitive guitar that would then be cut to shellac for what became America’s last 78 RPM record label, Fonotone. Mad bursts that Fahey recalls were largely in pursuit of Bussard’s sonic ideal — the sound of a genuine 1920s country bluesman freaking out.

Elements of these recordings have been released in the past, not only by Fonotone but also, most recently in 2005 on Dust-to-Digital’s all-consuming box set of Fonotone itself. That box, lest we forget, appended the expected CDs and booklet with a bottle opener, cardboard cigars and sundry other ephemera.

The Fahey package is not quite so eccentric, but still an 88-page page book is loaded with obsessive detail and ephemera, a treasure trove in which the first ever photo of Fahey with a Gibson F-hole guitar rubs shoulders with a spotters’ guide to Bussard’s hand-drawn record labels; the receipt for his Holzapfel 12-string with a lengthy and reasonably revealing 1968 interview, a few track by track guide to the Fonotone recordings, packed with the kind of minutia that drives collectors wild … and then, the music.

Tracing Fahey and Bussard’s relationship between the first sessions in November 1959, and the last in 1965, five CDs flit back and forth between Fahey and his period alter-egos (Blind Thomas, the Mississippi Swampers) and might initially attract the most attention for their shameless depiction of Fahey the singer, a t talent that his later, regular and otherwise albums kept well tucked away.

Titles like “Bean Vine Blues” remind us that there’s a degree of parody here, pursuing the bluesy tangent to a point where even parody fears to tread, and those cuts are probably those that the general listener will return to least often. Elsewhere, however, and for the bulk of the collection, this is a young John Fahey finding his way around his instrument and his style, while already knowing exactly what he wants to do and where he wants to go: into the darkness without a map.

The nature of Bussard’s operation, cutting music direct to 78, ensures that few of Fahey’s excursions exceed 3 minutes. A very early version of “Transcendental Waterfall” stretches to the 5-minute mark, and there’s a “Yazoo Basin Blues” that tops 6 minutes, but these are the exceptions. The nature of Fahey’s playing, however, even this early, allowed songs to simply blend into one another, as he pursued ideas from one track to another even as his musical inexperience both held him back and offered him too much freedom.

That mapless darkness is a thrilling destination, but it can also be a fraught one. At least from Great San Bernadino Birthday Party on, Fahey was what he became. Earlier than that — “Blind Joe Death,” “Death Chants,” “The Dance of Death” —he was walking a very thin line between frayed genius and flawed jamming, and the music here captures him both on and off the tightrope. Nothing, it seems, has been omitted from the box; if Bussard recorded it, it is here.

It’s an exhilarating journey, quintupling at a single blow the available evidence of the young Fahey’s vision. But beyond that, it’s akin to unearthing an hitherto unheard Alan Lomax field trip, with Blind Joe Death in his naked prime, tapping into his own most primal roots. Elsewhere, though, a bunch of pieces cut with woodwinder Nancy McLean around 1965 could easily have escaped from a suburban folk club any time in the previous five years, while a handful more accompanying Berea College student Fran Vandiver remind us just how far from the period norm Fahey strayed, by painting him as a very straightforward accompanist indeed. The couple’s rendering of “Pretty Polly,” incidentally, rates among the prettiest around.

Five CDs, 112 tracks, close to six hours of music. Some is sad, some is spellbinding. Some will have you reaching for the off button, while others will send you searching for more of the same. The sound quality is exquisite, the packaging (once you’ve shifted the CDs from the hardbound gatefold pseudo-album cover in which they reside, into somewhat less abrasive sleeves) is stunning. But, most of all, “Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You” will haunt you with a story of Americana that you’ve always needed to hear, but could never find before.

A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950—1990, 8th Edition” and “Record Album Price Guide, 7th Edition,” both of which are available at www.krausebooks.com. Thompson is hard at work on the 8th edition of the “Record Album Price Guide,” which is scheduled to be released in spring 2015.

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