Suni McGrath, June Symonds, and Jon Wallen, during the late 60’s or early 70’s
As the 1960’s came to a close, the culture of American folk music found itself in flux. It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint where the movement began. The roots of America’s indigenous folk traditions, which are distillations and hybrids of the many cultures which reached its shores, are as old as the country itself. By the beginning of 20th century there were countless rural and urban forms – The Blues, Hillbilly / Bluegrass and Cowboy musics, Gospel and Sacred Heart singing, the list goes on, each displaying distinct geographic specificity in their many realizations.
Part of difficulty in defining American folk traditions draws from the fact that they have always been evolutionary musics – never static, always changing in the hands of new generations who take up their reigns and under the influence of other traditions with which they connect. That said, there was a turning point. Most of the music documented during the 1920’s – the early stages of the recording industry, was created by everyday people who worked jobs and toiled the land. These were the songs that helped them survive. Their distinction often drew from a sustained, relative isolation. There was only so much you could hear, and only so far music could travel. The distribution of recorded music changed this, and with it how musicians conceptualized themselves.
During the 1930’s and 40’s a new form of folk music emerged, largely sung by members of the middle class who saw themselves as professional entertainers. Though the broad landscape was relatively benign, from it grew a generation of artists – figures like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, Alan Lomax, Millard Lampell, and Lee Hays, who harnessed these sounds as a tool in the fight for social justice. Rather than rather than the voice and experience of an individual or community, it became a means through which the scope of society’s ills could be understood, and rallying cry around which people could join together in the quest for the collective good. It became political. Because of its message and direct connection to the Communist party and unions, it was also among the first creative efforts to be directly attacked and suppressed during America’s post-war Red Scare.
During the 1950’s and throughout the 60’s a new, young generation, growing out of the Beat counter-cultural movement, particularly those engaged with the fight for civil rights, gathered around America’s folk traditions, carrying forward the efforts of the generation before. What had begun as a seed in a small corner of the political left, soon became a vast movement of youth. Seeing money to be made, the recording industry took heed, signing bright young singers like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Judy Collins, Tom Rush, and Phil Ochs, catapulting them to fame.
What is crucial to recognize about most of the prominent folk singers during the 1960’s, is that they saw the idiom an extension of their individual creativity – a platform or style, rather than a tradition. Traditionalists do not consciously push forward. Artists do, and are expected to. Seeing themselves as the later, this is exactly what this generation did, eventually giving birth to psychedelic era of Rock & Roll, trading the lyrically topical for emotive realizations in pure sound.
As the 70’s dawned, the idiom of Folk increasingly found its presence in pop culture waning. While it still had an unquestionable place within the counterculture, it was no longer seen as the voice of forward thinking rebellion and youth. There was still plenty of it on the airwaves, much of which was manufactured by the major label industry, stripped of its politics, barbs, and thorns. The stuff that gives music a bad name. A number of the 60’s great voices had died or fallen into obscurity. Most of the others had followed Dylan down the electric path. With them went the fans. This is the era when the medium returned to it base, drifting back underground.
When view from afar, and through the lens of popular culture, it might appear that folk music had begun a slow death during the 1970’s. This is because most of its best realizations remained hidden from view, issued on small labels and private presses by artists whose names were obscure. In recent years, record collectors, and subsequently reissue culture, have begun to mine this world, pulling remarkable albums from the shadows of time, highlighting the fact that this movement had not died, it had flowered underground.
There are fundamental components of the folk revival which often remain under-recognized or unsaid. This music was a partial response to a rapidly modernizing world, cocooned in a romance for a “simpler” way of life which was being lost. There is a vast chasm between the character and purpose of the music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez, and the figures captured on 1920’s 78s, or by field recordists like Alan Lomax – individuals for whom music was without artifice, a simple means to commune and draw some joy from the toil from an otherwise hard life. Part of what makes the context of folk music during the 1970’s so interesting, is that, as it faded from the spotlight of popular culture, it became the soundtrack of a counter-cultural movement which attempted to live the life it described, returning to the land. If folk music of the 1960’s is simulation, that of the 70’s underground is simulacre. Once again, it became the music of everyday people, occupying everyday life.
Among the most interesting contexts of underground folk musics during this era are those of Guitar Soli, the traditions of solo guitar composition which extend from the innovations of John Fahey, made during the late 50’s and through the 60’s. This is an exploration of that world and its artifacts, the third installment of The Unaccompanied Guitar (Soli, Raga, and Beyond), a series of articles which began with Fahey, continuing with those who followed behind him, contributing remarkable invitations of their own.
Nearly every fan of Guitar Soli entered this world through John Fahey. We devoured his discography, which is notably vast by comparison to others, and then began to look for more. We uncovered artists like Robbie Basho, Sandy Bull, and Peter Walker, and then pushed deeper into the catalogs which housed them – Takoma and Vanguard. It wasn’t long before the material ran out. In the early days of this quest, a friend or word of mouth would occasionally uncover an unexpected artifact, almost always by an unknown artists, housed on a tiny independent or private label. Slowly, piece by piece, a world began to open.
Over the years I’ve been slowly collecting LPs of rare, underground Soli. Some are derivative and mediocre, others are as astounding as albums come. During this time, a small revival sprouted. Young artists began to take on the tradition as their own, expanding the interest in it. Consequently, there have been a number of compilations drawing on some of the material here – Numero’s Wayfaring Strangers, Guitar Soli, and Tompkins Square’s Imaginational Anthem series being the most notable.
This installment of The Unaccompanied Guitar (Soli, Raga, and Beyond) is the first of two focused on albums issued privately or by small independent labels. It deals with those which are slightly more well known, forming the base for serious collectors of this music. The second will delve toward the even more obscure. A number have been reissued in recent years. I will make a point to indicate this when appropriate, especially because, even in the era of Discogs and Ebay, original pressing are very hard to find, usually commanding large sums. These LPs represent a small window into the world of the underground folk music of the 1970’s – what lived, thrived, and innovated beneath the surface of the counterculture. I hope there are some discoveries within, and you love what you hear as much as I do.
Suni McGrath – Cornflower Suite (1969)
Of all the albums on this list, Suni McGrath’s brilliant Cornflower Suite from 1969 is by far the most coveted and well known. It’s astounding from back to front. The broader awareness of it is largely down to the fact that it was issued by Adelphi Records, an independent highly regarded for its issue of Folk and Jazz. In the simplest terms, Cornflower Suite got better distribution and exposure, allowing it to reach more ears.
There isn’t a great deal known about McGrath. He seems to have drifted from view after the mid-70’s. This shouldn’t be interpreted as a lack of seminal importance. There are a lot of under-recognized casualties from that era, individuals overshadowed by the subsequent popularity of their peers – fame which obscured vision of the Folk Revival’s breadth, and with it, many of its artists and the contributions they made. McGrath was one of these. He was particularity unique because, by the time he arrived on the Greenwich village scene in 1961, he was already dedicated to playing instrumental music on the 12 string guitar. During this era, despite its growing popularity, the instrument was almost exclusively regarded as accompaniment for the voice. McGrath was ahead of his time. This was only shortly after Fahey had first emerged, and when almost no one had heard him play. It was four years before Robbie Basho’s The Seal Of The Blue Lotus. Sandy Bull, just out of his teens, was already present in Village folk circles, while Peter Walker had yet to arrive. While Fahey did occasionally the 12 string during this period, (thanks to Glenn Jones for pointing directing my attention to this, amending my error in presuming that he didn’t come to it later), a subsequent staple of Guitar Soli, his recordings featuring it would not emerge until the release of Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You: The Fonotone Years (1958–1965) in 2011. The only person who might have served as inspiration, at least that I’m aware of, was Fred Gerlach, who was present in Village during this period and played a 12 string, in some cases instrumentally. McGrath was unquestionably one of the first in the country to cement what would later be called Soli.
Like many artists of the era, a direct connection to McGrath’s contribution has been lost due to the fact that his first recording didn’t emerge until years after it was made. Few know what his playing was like when he first appeared, but by the time Cornflower Suite was released in 1969 he was clearly a remarkable and singular player. While, to a small extent, his playing flirts with the territories of Fahey and Robbie Basho, McGrath’s is like few others. It is entirely his own thing – fluid and percussive, sloppy and precise, challenging as it beautiful. During his short recording career he released three albums on Adelphi – Cornflower Suite, followed by The Call Of The Mourning Dove and Childgrove in 1971 and 72 respectively. Each is as incredible as the last. Tompkins Square also issued a 7″ in 2005 entitled Seven Stars / Fantasia. It’s fantastic and highly recommended, presenting the first new recordings by McGrath to have appeared in over 30 years. Tragically the guitarist passed away earlier this year, but there is some good news for 2017. Adelphi, to little fanfare, has just reissued all three of his incredible LPs. You can pick them up from the label direct. I highly recommend that you do. This is near enough as good as Guitar Soli gets.
Suni McGrath – Cornflower Suite Part 2, from Cornflower Suite (1969)
William Eaton – Music By William Eaton (1978)
I hunted for William Eaton’s Music By William Eaton for years. Its elusiveness was a source of endless frustration. I was introduced to it by my dear friend Koen Holtkamp, one of the great aficionados of unaccompanied guitar recordings, during one of our regular, boozy listening sessions. Ironically, despite my endless hunting, it was he who turned up my copy in a shop in Holland. For both I owe him a great debt. It’s definitely one of my favorite Soli records of all time.
There isn’t a lot of information floating around about Eaton. It seems he has lived in Arizona for most of his life. He became a luthier during the 70’s, making unusual harp-guitar hybrids which have become the focus of his playing in the years since. He has continued to release albums, mostly falling under the banner of New Age, regularly accompanied by Native American flutist Carlos Nakai, and, believe it or not, has been nominated for a number of Grammy awards. Beyond that I don’t know much.
Music By William Eaton is his debut album, and falls solidly within the Soli tradition without straying too closely to either Fahey or Basho. His playing is singular, and deeply sensitive, drawing as much on classical traditions as it does folk styles. Soaked in brilliant, delicate melodies, unfortunately it’s never been reissued on LP, but there was CD issue by EM around ten years ago which Forced Exposure still has in stock. Highly recommended for those that don’t mind digital formats.
William Eaton – Untitled 2, from Music By William Eaton (1978)
William Eaton – Untitled 4, from Music By William Eaton (1978)
Scott Key – This Forest and the Sea (1976)
Privately pressed in 1976, Scott Key’s This Forest and the Sea is absolutely stunning. Recorded in Colorado, drawing on the guitarist’s attempts to free himself from the trappings of mainstream American life, the album is raw and emotive, and in many ways foreshadows a style of playing favored by the generation of players who have emerged in recent years. It’s definitely ahead of its time, paying little head to traditionalism or the eastern influences that inspired many guitarists of the era. While attempting to stand outside of American culture, it became American to the core. Almost entirely instrumental, it does feature a few songs accompanied by voice. They’re equally good. Little information about Key remains, but This Forest and the Sea more than makes up for the lack. It’s absolutely killer. It was reissued on LP back in 2013 by Lion. For some reason it never caught a lot of attention, it goes on Discogs for a handful of change. Definitely one to grab.
Scott Key – Cat Soup, from This Forest and the Sea (1976)
Harry Taussig – Fate Is Only Once (1965)
Harry Taussig’s Fate Is Only Once stands slightly apart on this list, not the least for the fact that is was issued in 1965, placing it the forefront of the unaccompanied guitar movement. At the time of its release, only a tiny number of albums of the genre had been issued. I struggled over whether to include Taussig in the previous installment of this series. He was unquestionably one of the first players to take up the challenge levied by John Fahey, and appeared on the seminal Contemporary Guitar compilation with Robbie Basho, John Fahey, Max Ochs, and Bukka White, issued by Takoma in 1967, and featured in the aforementioned article. I chose to hold out because, unlike Max Ochs, Taussig issued a sole privately pressed LP during the period – Fate Is Only Once.
Within the history of American fingerstyle guitar playing, and the movement of Soli, there are two dominant geographical localities – Maryland, from which John Fahey, Robbie Basho, Max Ochs, and a number of other players all come, and Berkeley, California, where Fahey went to graduate school, and Basho ultimately settled. Taussig was also in graduate school at at Berkeley during the same period, and it is from here that Fate Is Only Once emerged.
Taussig, like a number of other musicians of his generation, not the least of whom was Fahey, is intellectually brilliant. It seems likely that he would have found success in whatever he bent his mind to. Fahey was already a well respected anthropologist of American indigenous music before his career as a musician took off. Taussig’s never did, so he became a physicist and biochemist, before shifting toward photography and fine art, eventually having his work exhibited widely at museums across the world.
Fate Is Only Once is fantastic – filled with energy and life. It was recorded in a single take, and is partially improvised. It definitely owes a great deal to Fahey’s American Primitive style, to the degree that, at times, most ears would he hard pressed to tell the two players apart. That said, it’s a seminal piece in the history of Guitar Soli, and in all the years I’ve owned it, it has yet to get old. Tompkins Square reissued it back in 2008, before giving him a chance to record his first album in 47 years in 2012 – Fate Is Only Twice, which is also definitely worth picking up.
Harry Taussig – Sugar Babe, Your Papa Cares For You, from Fate Is Only Once (1965)
Rick Deitrick – Gentle Wilderness (1978)
As far Guitar Soli records go, Rick Deitrick’s Gentle Wilderness from 1978 is as rare as they come. Only three copies have ever surfaced on Discogs, with another two popping up on Ebay. Needless to say, it took me a while to track it down. There were 500 pressed. Who knows what happened to the other 495. He reputedly left a number at the side of hiking trails for passers by to find. Deitrick is an Ohio born, California based player about whom little biographical information exists. Gentle Wilderness is his only LP. It’s absolutely stunning, shimmering with emotion and delicacy. Definitely one of my favorites of all time. With drifting tempos, and sheets of tone, its melodies stand apart from the pack, in part because Deitrick played in standard tuning, where most others in the field have always gravitated toward open or alternate tunings.
Fortunately, a great piece of luck has come our way. After almost 40 years out of print, Tompkins Square has just reissued it for the first time, raising the bar with a second LP of archival recordings from the period, which is also stunning. I seriously recommend picking them both up as fast as you can.
Rick Deitrick – For Marsha, from Gentle Wilderness (1978)
George Cromarty – Grassroots Guitar (1973)
George Cromarty privately issued two albums in 1973, The Only One … Music For People Who Are Still Growing – a hippie children’s record which hold a special place in my heart, and Grassroots Guitar, unquestionably one of the greatest Guitar Soli records of all time. He wouldn’t be heard from again until the mid 80’s when he released Wind In The Heather on Dancing Cat Records, George Winston’s imprint, part of that era’s movement of New Age tinged solo guitar.
Cromarty first appeared on the folk scene during the early 60’s as a member of the Goldcoast Singers, receiving some fame for their song Plastic Jesus, and more recently for Please Mr. Kennedy, which was nominated for a Golden Globe Award following its inclusion in the film Inside Llewyn Davis. The later is a plea to president to disband the draft. Somewhat ironically, Cromarty was drafted shortly after his releases, thwarting his music career. Following the end of his service, he settled on the coast between San Fransisco and Los Angeles, where he seems to have remained until his untimely death in 1992 at the age of 50.
Grassroots Guitar, while not widely known and never reissued, is unquestionably Cromarty’s triumph, standing among the best Soli guitar records ever recorded. It also is one of the more obtainable records in the genre. Clean copies are not hard to find and generally hover between $20 and $30. Cromarty was a player of unusually astounding skill. His playing is flawless and incredibly precise, imbued with complexity and originality, the heights of which few players reach. With hints of Raga, classical, and American Primitive styles, sending the heart racing after his notes. For the money, if you have to pick one, this might be it. Unquestionably one of the greatest unaccompanied records of all time. As beautiful as they come.
George Cromarty – Grassroots Guitar (1973)
Richard Crandell is part of the generation of guitarists who came up behind, and were inspired by, John Fahey. That said, he was a very different kind of player. His compositions, as they appear across his 1980 debut In The Flower Of Our Youth, have an inward reflection and sadness which often stray toward a the tradition of the English folk ballad, rare in most American guitar playing. About half the album bears a stronger connection to closer to players like John Renbourn and Bert Jansch, over Fahey or Basho. For that reason, with his restraint and preference for slower tempos, the album is reasonably unique in genre – more diverse and thoughtful.
In The Flower Of Our Youth is Crandell’s only solo guitar LP. He recorded Oregon Hill, a duo album with guitarist Bill Bartels, which was released in 1983, and then seemingly drifted from view. Tragically, a number of years ago he came down a with tremor disorder which stole his ability to play the instrument so dear to his heart. Remarkably, in recent years his rare talent has found new life through the Mbira. He has since issued a number of albums on Tzadik and panai. In The Flower Of Our Youth was reissued in 2008 by Tompkins Square. Second hand copies tend to be incredibly affordable as well.
Richard Crandell – Diagonal, from In The Flower Of Our Youth (1980)
Vincent Le Masne et Bertrand Porquet – Guitares Dérive (1976)
My inclusion of Vincent Le Masne and Bertrand Porquet’s Guitares Dérive LP, issued my the seminal Shandar imprint in 1976, is a subtle jab of at any attempts to construct an orthodoxy within the Guitar Soli tradition. It is also one of my favorite records of all time, and is almost never spoken of. I’ve been looking for an excuse to draw attention to it for years.
Generally speaking, Guitar Soli is thought of as an American idiom, one growing out of that country’s long traditions of folk and Blues. While most Soli does bear this connection, and these traditions where entirely connected to the project which John Fahey embarked on, geography and history are not inherent components of definition. Fundamentally, Soli is the result of approaching the guitar as its own orchestra. While rarely mentioned by any other but himself, Fahey maintained a strong connection to Western Classical and avant-garde music, drawing a great deal from them into his playing, often to a greater degree than folk musics.
While the American and British folk revivals have long occupied our vision of the periods in which they took place, there were similar movements across Europe, one of the most interesting evolving in France. French folk music is unquestionably among the most striking of those growing from the ancient European traditions – often more tense, modal, and reductive, straying closer to the sonic territories which became emblematic of certain movements within the 20th century avant-garde. This is why French folk musics from the 60’s and 70’s, with figures like Brigitte Fontaine, Areski, Emmanuelle Parrenin, and Valentin Clastrier, are often double categorized as experimental.
Rather than drawing from the folk traditions of America, North Africa, and Indian Classical music, as so many others of the era did, Vincent Le Masne and Bertrand Porquet drew from the indigenous sounds of France. Most importantly, while sounding nothing like what is generally classed as Soli, they approached the guitar as its own orchestra, and thus, by my standards, are worthy of inclusion here.
Whatever you want to call it, Guitares Dérive is one of the greatest unaccompanied guitar records of all time. It’s perfect, astounding, and overwhelmingly beautiful. Rippling sheets of notes and tone, dancing through tense, tightly wound compositions. The album, like many of its French peers from the era, falls somewhere between folk and the avant-garde, displaying particularity strong connections to Minimalism. Fortunately, since the advent of Discogs, it has become slightly easier to track down. For many years while I hunted for it, particularly during digging trips to France, this was one of those records, when an inquiry was made, about which shop owners would laugh and give you a pitiful look. Absolutely stunning on every count. It’s never been reissued on LP, but there was a CD edition released in 2010.
Vincent Le Masne et Bertrand Porquet – Guitares Dérive (1976)