Arts/Literature

Christmas music (12)–Best Christmas album by a solo guitarist

The New Possibility, by John Fahey. Actually, this was Fahey’s first Christmas album, and there were a number of follow-up albums, but you can get all the first and most of the second on a single CD with the same title. Fahey was a visionary and peripatetic American guitar player who has influenced practically everyone who happened to even walk near a guitar since. Starting out with his own label (Takoma) at a time when crating your own label was practically unheard of, he built an incredibly loyal following during the 1960s and thereafter that stayed with him until his death several years ago. Most of his albums were straightforward and blues-based, but he could get very experimental as well–the first half of Requia, for example, is straightforward guitar–the second side sounds like Charles Ives on drugs.

I saw Fahey only once, at a small church in one of the more nondescript parts of San Francisco in 1972. It was actually my second date with Mrs. W, and considering we spent half the night trying to find the church, wandering around hills for what seemed like hours, it’s amazing there was a third one. She is a very patient person. He didn’t have much of what would be called stage presence until he played–and then you were mesmerized.

This one is a true one-off; practically no one played like Fahey, who developed a number of his own finger styles, and who would work chords relentlessly. Here he takes a bunch of old chestnut carols and reworks them along any number of dimensions–some are exactly what you would expect to hear on guitar, and some have the most amazing variations. And some just, well, bounce right along–his version of God rest ye merry gentlemen alone is worth getting the CD for. If you have never encountered Fahey’s music, consider yourself culturally deprived; this is a good place to start.

Some other candidates: For the more soporific among us, there’s the Windham Hill Holiday Guitar Collection. Which is nice and gentle, and probably better quality than most of the new age stuff out there, but still might put you to sleep. Then there’s all sorts of duet type albums—guitar and flute, that sort of thing.

And then there’s Christopher Parkening, a fine classical guitarist in his own right, who has an album with soprano Katherine Battle called Angel’s Glory. This pairing isn’t as odd as it sounds, and in fact Parkening and Battle have done another album, Pleasures of Their Company, which are songs by John Dowland. The result is, well, mostly Battle, who has legions of fans and legions of critics, with Parkening providing a lovely backdrop. So it’s not actually a guitar album, although it does have some interesting Spanish selections that you’re not likely to hear elsewhere. It would be nice if Parkening had a solo Christmas album, but he doesn’t, although he does have a volume of Bach pieces, which might substitute.

And then there are several jazz classics, by Charlie Byrd, Kenny Burrell and, more recently, Al di Meola. Byrd’s offering, Christmas Carols for Solo Guitar, was originally released in 1967. It’s still an amazingly strong album, but it’s pretty straight up, without a whole lot of embellishment. Byrd was, among other things, one of the artists mostly responsible for introducing Brazilian music to America in the 1960s, and was also perhaps the first great acoustic jazz guitarist—Jim Hall is his natural successor. Burrell is also a very traditional jazz guitarist—he played with Duke Ellington—and his album Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas (released in 1966) is also pretty straight up jazz—again, the song selection is pretty traditional. Di Meola’s Christmas: Winter Nights is probably the most interesting, both in terms of song selection (not just the same old carols, but some of his own compositions) but also in style. And di Meola plays lots of other instruments as well—percussion, of which there is plenty, as well as harp, piano and whatnot. It’s a bit more subdued than some of di Meola’s other albums, but that’s fine. A strong runner-up to Fahey in the “if you’re going to have only one Christmas guitar ablum, this is the one to have” category.

Fahey’s work also shows up on a gem called Must Be Santa: The Rounder Christmas Album, which is an enjoyable hodgepodge of stuff from acoustic veterans like Fahey and David Grisman to rockers like George Thorogood and NRBQ to bluegrassers like Tony Trischka and The Johnson Mountain Boys. A treat. Thank God for Rounder Records.

So when is Ralph Towner going to put out a Christmas album?

4 replies »

  1. I bought Fahey’s “Of Rivers and Religion” album decades ago. It’s remained a mainstay in my library. Thanks for the tip of the Xmas CD. And thanks for this series.

  2. I can’t tell you how much I love “The New Possibility” (and most of Fahey’s work). Agreed: He’s an American original. Incidentally, there’s a sequel to this album that’s quite good as well.

  3. thanks Denny. Fahey had this “Americana” period for a while there, and that’s one of the high points, as far as I’m concerned. Check out America and After the Ball. But Rivers is the best,m I thinnk–it’s right up there with Volume IV. He was just always messing around with all sorts of American music styles. Russ, it’s a bit complicated. The New Possibility CD has both the fist vinyl album (1968) and half the second (1975). There were also the 1982 album, which was a re-recording of 1968. And then there was the Popular Songs of Christmas, which was a new recording in 1983. Hah! And THEN there was The John Fahey Christmas Album from 1991, which had some other instrumentalists as well. I just mentioned the first because it was, well, the first one. And no one had ever done a Christmas album like it before. Lord, the man did love to play guitar, and he loved Christmas songs almost as much as he liked hymns.