Until he took a more deconstructionist course on albums like City of Refuge and Womblife, John Fahey wrote songs that drew largely from his love of country blues and folk music. These early American (and European) forms were assimilated into his own unique fingerpicking guitar style. He spent his late teenage years canvassing for 78 rpm records in America's Deep South. In 1997, he launched the Revenant reissue label to document the history of music as he saw it. Surprisingly, releases ran the musical gamut from the raw rockabilly sounds of Charlie Feathers to the otherworldly blues of Captain Beefheart. More than anything else, however, American Primitive, Vol. 1, a collection of early gospel-blues, feels like a labor of love. One of Fahey's fascinating stories has him feeling physically sick upon hearing Blind Willie Johnson's "Praise God I'm Satisfied," only to find that he was unable to get the sound out of his head. Hearing it for a second time, he was reduced to tears. While Johnson is not featured on this compilation (his entire recording career is documented on two exceptional Yazoo compilations), the music here is rooted in the same soil. One of the fascinating things about American Primitive is the wealth of little-known musicians it turns up. The biggest names here are Charlie Patton and Booker "Bukka" White. But alongside them are artists as obscure as Blind Mamie Forehand, Dennis Crumpton, and Robert Summers. Many of these musicians came face to face with the dichotomy of playing sinful blues and redemptive gospel. Patton was known for his attempts to cleanse himself with intermittent periods of church attendance. Collected here are a recording under his own name (with his common-law wife, Bertha Lee) as well as under the religious pseudonym Elder J.J. Hadley. Throughout American Primitive, warnings abound from the converted. Some titles alone tell it all: "Sinner You'll Need King Jesus," "You Better Quit Drinking Shine," and "This Time Another Year You May Be Gone." The material ranges from the harsh tones of William & Versey Smith (singing from the gut, the sound is a rawer version of the recordings Blind Willie Johnson made with his wife) to the calm strength of Mamie Forehand's gorgeous "Honey in the Rock." Charlie Patton is obsessed with the other side on "Oh Death" and "Prayer of Death." On the former, he comes face to face with the dark angel himself, waking up to find him in his room. "Hush! Oh hush! Somebody is calling me," he sings, accompanying himself and Lee with some biting slide guitar and adding, "Lord I know my time ain't long." On the latter, he wrings the notes out of his instrument in his typically hard style, yet sings like he's come to terms with his fate. Blind Roosevelt Graves & Brother make a joyful noise on "Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind on Jesus)" and "I'll Be Rested (When the Role Is Called)." Purely as a historical document, American Primitive is absolutely indispensable. It becomes difficult to imagine these precious recordings being lost. The titles here date back to the time electrical recording first became a feasible concept (1927). As a group of songs unlike anything anyone is likely to hear today, it's one of the most unique and rewarding listening experiences available.
AllMusic Review by Nathan Bush