November 3, 2005

Test Spin: American Primitive Vol. 2

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The venerable guitarist John Fahey’s first volume of American Primitive was a compilation of withered Depression-era 78s, featuring such obscure titans as Blind Roosevelt Graves and Bo Weavil Jackson. Although the second collection was produced after Fahey’s death in 2001, it preserves his devotion to devastating music of spiritual solitude. This music has nothing to do with O Brother’s polished nostalgia or Devendra’s spastic yippie jams; Primitive’s two discs chronicle dark, grueling backwoods blues from an era of poverty and nihilism. Homer Quincy Smith’s “I Want Jesus to Talk With Me” is howling desperation backed only by a skeletal organ. Alfred Lewis’ “Mississippi Swamp Moan” could not be more aptly titled: banshee bawls and murderous harmonica. Despite the sincerity of the performances, there’s also some fleeting gallows humor. (Red Hot) Old Mose was a street vendor with uncanny sales pitches: “Shrimp is the thing you love best / Almost jumping out the basket, how about it?” And Mattie May Thomas’ “Dangerous Blues” is a corrosive ode to matrimonial violence. Mostly, Primitive teems with bizarrely affective shouts and hollers. Like most unsung gems, the music’s revelatory impact is inversely proportional to its fidelity.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt
Sun Senior Writer