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'American Primitve' Captures Young Performers

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'American Primitve' Captures Young Performers

Music Interviews

'American Primitve' Captures Young Performers

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There's a new old style of music--Or is that an old style becoming new again? I don't know--that's spreading across the country. Some people call it freak folk. Others prefer the name new weird America. As part of this movement, young musicians are rediscovering acoustic instruments of the 1960s and, more specifically, a style played by a handful of guitarists based primarily in Maryland. Now a new CD unites some of the old masters with their younger followers. From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE reporting:

When Jack Rose was a teen-ager, his guitar teacher told him to stick with the electric guitar because that's where the money is. Rose went on to play electric in the respected but decidedly unprofitable noise rock band Pelt. A few years ago, Rose decided to switch back to the acoustic.

Mr. JACK ROSE: I hadn't played finger style for, like, 15 years. So I knew if I was going to be any good at it, I would have to just work on that exclusively.

ROSE: Four albums later, Rose says he's finally getting the hang of it.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Rose says he made the decision to sell his electric guitars after hearing a record by John Fahey.

Mr. ROSE: To me, hearing Fahey, it sounded like from another time and it sounded weird to me, and messed up. That's what attracted me to it, just the strangeness of it.

(Soundbite of music, dog barking)

Unidentified Man: Ssh!

ROSE: John Fahey grew up in Tacoma Park, Maryland, outside of Washington, DC. He bought his first guitar in the early 1950s and started teaching himself to play the blues. Fahey came up with a style of his own, one that's now called American primitive, says music journalist Byron Coley.

Mr. BYRON COLEY (Music Journalist): The best description I ever heard of it was from Fahey and it was the idea of combining the untutored sort of power and weird fingering and weird chording of blues musicians with a sensibility that included dissonance. I mean, I think the way that he said to me is like `You know, wouldn't it be great if you could syncopate Bartok?'

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Fahey's influence has only continued to grow since his death in 2001. It's apparent in the playing of Jack Rose and most of the other young guitarists who appear on the new compilation called "Imaginational Anthem."

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Boston guitarist Glenn Jones performed and recorded with John Fahey in the 1990s. Jones isn't exactly sure why the American primitive style is so popular right now, but he says it may have something to do with the music's handmade feel in a digital age.

Mr. GLEN JONES (Boston Guitarist): That quality of obscurity and emotional playing had its hold on the sensibilities of people like John Fahey and other players and collectors of the time just as Fahey's music has on some of younger players now.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: The producer of "Imaginational Anthem" is Josh Rosenthal. A former VP for Sony, Rosenthal started his own independent label last year just so he could put out this CD. Rosenthal says he got the idea after finding a 1967 compilation on John Fahey's own Tacoma label, an LP that included players Rosenthal had never heard before.

Mr. JOSH ROSENTHAL ("Imaginational Anthem" Producer): There's no information on these people. There's no other music available from these guys. That's kind of what got me started on doing this record, as well, was trying to find Max Ochs and Harry Taussig because I just had to do it.

ROSE: Eventually, Rosenthal did track down Harry Taussig, who put out one rare LP on his own label in the 1960s. Rosenthal found Max Ochs, too, living not far from Annapolis, Maryland, where he grew up. Like many of the older players, Ochs tunes his guitar in unusual ways, and even modifies it to make it sound like something else.

(Soundbite of guitar-tuning)

Mr. MAX OCHS: Now usually when I play the guitar like a sitar, I stick a nail or something under the strings to raise them up off of the fretboard because otherwise you hear this...

(Soundbite of knocking sound)

Mr. OCHS: ...knocking sound when the metal hits the wood.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Max Ochs remembers getting a phone call from record producer Josh Rosenthal.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. OCHS: It made me smile because when I was in my 20s, we were in the process of discovering old guys, old blues guys who inspired us, and bringing them back, or something, and now there's a young guy calling me and I'm the old guy.

ROSE: Ochs is the cousin of legendary folk singer Phil Ochs. Max went back into the studio for the first time in 30 years to record for this new CD. He's one of several old guys who made new recordings for the disc, including Suni McGrath.

(Soundbite of music)

ROSE: Suni McGrath learned at the feet of the Reverend Gary Davis in New York City, but some of his colleagues, including Max Ochs, traveled through the South in search of blues 78s and the players who made them. These young fans played a role in helping to rediscover their old guys, including Mississippi John Hurt, Booker White and Skip James. At the time, during the height of the civil rights movement, this could be a dangerous thing to do, says writer Byron Coley.

Mr. COLEY: Fahey would tell stories about these white college students riding around in these cars down South and they would have to explain over and over and over to the state cops that they were not trying to register people to vote, they were looking for old musicians.

ROSE: But Max Ochs did have explicit political leanings.

Mr. OCHS: I got thrown in jail for two nights for stopping the Armed Forces Day Parade in New York City, protesting the war in Vietnam, and I marched for civil rights with SNCC.

ROSE: Ochs was living in New York City in the late 1960s when he was moved to compose his own alternative to "The Star-Spangled Banner."

(Soundbite of "Imaginational Anthem")

ROSE: It's called "Imaginational Anthem," a play on national anthem, and it hints at the driving force behind music on the new CD that bears that name, a re-imagining of America and its music, inspired by those who have gone before.

Mr. OCHS: You know, Woody Guthrie seemed to be a little bit of a bridge to America and to make me feel an identity in a way that I liked. I was proud of--to be an American.

ROSE: Max Ochs is not alone. A second volume of "Imaginational Anthem" is already finished. It's planned for release in the spring. A John Fahey tribute CD, featuring Devendra Banhart and Sufjan Stevens, among others, is also slated for release early next year. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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