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Wednesday, April 16, 2014 
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New Compilation Spotlights Forgotten Folk Guitar Heroes

In 1967, Takoma Records, the label started by the late blues-folk guitar innovator John Fahey, released Contemporary Guitar, a collection of tracks from 1960s finger-picking masters including Fahey himself, Max Ochs, Harry Taussig, Bukka White and Robbie Basho. That same year, that same season, one Joshua Rosenthal entered the world, and while he never became a guitar player himself, years later, when he was a record company executive, that LP became a touchstone, an inspiration and finally the launch pad for an ambitious guitar-centric project known as Imaginational Anthem. In this new album, Rosenthal collects acoustic guitar cuts from old artists and new, unearthing forgotten pickers like Suni McGrath and Steve Mann, revisiting acknowledged icons like Fahey, and drawing connections to latter-day guitar innovators including Cul de Sac's Glenn Jones, Pelt's Jack Rose, Kaki King, Harris Newman and Brad Barr. Accompanied by archival photos and extensive liner notes, the disc conjures a lost era of folk guitar playing and argues its continued relevance in the contemporary musical scene.

Rosenthal described finding the original Contemporary Guitar album in a used record store some years back and immediately sensing its possibilities: "I loved the Ochs and Taussig tracks and wanted to seek these men out," he explained recently, in an email interview. "It was so mysterious that there were no other instrumental recordings by them. Also, spring '67 is precisely when I was born, and I felt a weird cosmic connection to the album. I also like the way Bukka White is included as a nod to where American primitive guitar is derived from — rural blues."

Later, as he launched his label, Rosenthal got the idea to try to revisit the artists and sounds of Contemporary Guitar. Some of the artists had disappeared, others, including Fahey, had passed away. But others, such as Max Ochs, cousin of the more famous folk singer Phil Ochs, were relatively easy to locate. Max Ochs had been running an open-mic show at the Fabulous Coffeehouse in Annapolis, Maryland for years when Rosenthal came calling, and he responded immediately to the call for new material. "Max was the first guy I contacted. He agreed to come to NYC and record a new version of the title track, which is a '60s composition dedicated to John Fahey," Rosenthal said. "After the session, he told me he'd known about a '60s recording of 'Imaginational Anthem.' I traced that back to a 1969 session he cut with Fonotone Records."

Ochs was as surprised as anyone to learn about the older recording. "It was kind of embarrassing when Josh asked me if I had ever recorded 'Imaginational Anthem' and I said no," he recalled in a separate email interview. "Then he produces this old Fonotone record of me doing it," he said. "I still don't remember anything about it, except that I wrote it. Tape recorders at the time in my life were always or often going, I was always or often playing, didn't pay much care to it."

Ochs' two versions of the title track bookend the record, with the newer one kicking it off and the older one closing. Of the older cut, Ochs explained, "I was wearing fingerpicks all the time back then. Now I have been playing exclusively without picks, like for 30-some years. I like the old version's slip-quick tortoise texture that one obtains when wearing picks. At frantic fingers striving to keep the beat I smile. In spite of right-hand spasticity I am happy with the variety of ideas. The 1969 version fills my heart with recollections of the soaring spirits of the 1960s."

And yet, despite this nostalgic fondness, he said he preferred the newer, pickless version. "Playing with the fingernails and calloused fingertips gives me a softer, more varied menu of sounds. There is a nice immediacy and sense of control in playing with unclad fingers," he said. "The most shocking difference at first was the difference in tempo. Why did I play it so slow? Was I asleep? Should I record it again, slightly more up-tempo? But when I shake off those show-off clothes, and stop my ego-competing and being critical, dig it, then I can and have allowed myself to relax and just enjoy, and not be prejudiced against a perfectly good piece of music, just because I made it."

With Ochs' contribution locked up, Rosenthal went on to try to locate material from some of the remaining original players. Harry Taussig had recorded only one LP other than his track on Contemporary Guitar, the privately pressed Fate Is Only Once from 1965. His cut "Dorian Sonata" came from that long-lost recording, which Tompkins Square will be reissuing next year. John Fahey, whose presence looms large over the whole enterprise, would be represented by "Oh Holy Night" from his Christmas album of 1991. Of his now legendary presence, Ochs recalled, "I knew Fahey. We hung in and out of the same places houses, coffeehouses, studios. We blatantly studied him and he seemed not to mind. But he often did seem far away, and there seemed to be a demon that made him different, special like Thelonious Monk, some remote affect like almost like Asperger's Syndrome or some form of autism. He'd go into a spell when he played, rolling his head around with his eyes closed."

Fahey was gone, but several of the original artists were still alive, Rosenthal believed, and still, perhaps, able to record new material if only he could locate them. "I wanted to find Suni McGrath," Rosenthal said. "I was told by several people that he was deceased. I located him chatting on a Web site about the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1960. I also wanted to find Janet Smith — her last album of folk music was released in 1968 and I thought it'd be damn impossible to find someone with such a common name who might have married. But I searched and called her up, and she was running her own publishing outfit and taking care of legendary guitarist Steve Mann's affairs."

He added, "Another interviewer asked me if I thought I was re-discovering these guitar players the way Fahey and others re-discovered bluesmen in the '60s. My response was, those guys traveled down South and went door to door looking for people. It was hard work ! I have the Internet."

The final piece came when Rosenthal began inviting like-minded contemporary guitar artists to contribute to the project. "I was getting into a lot of modern-day players. I helped get Kaki King a deal at Epic Records. I was digging Jack Rose, people like that," he said. "So I saw the thread between the generations, even if the artists didn't know each other; for example, Jack never heard Suni McGrath, yet there is common ground in their approach. And when you listen to Max Ochs followed by Brad Barr on Imaginational Anthem, it could be the same artist, although they'd never heard of each other and are 35 years apart in age."

"Glenn Jones is wonderful," Ochs said, when asked about the younger players. "Sean Smith [who will appear on an upcoming second volume in the series], he's 24; he is awesomely quick to learn. He asked me to show him certain parts of 'Imaginational Anthem' and he got it right away. He's going to play it at the West Coast release event." Ochs added, "It's a tradition. We pass the dharma around like a football. Jack Rose and I both like to bow the guitar like a viola, with a piece of steel or glass."

The first Imaginational Anthem is now in the stores; a second volume, tentatively called Berkeley Guitar Scene, will showcase more finger-picking guitar music, including contributions from the very young, very talented Sean Smith. Rosenthal's label, Tompkins Square, will continue to be active on other fronts as well, releasing solo piano records from Charles Gayle and Ran Blake, as well as new work from folksinger Sharron Kraus and Christian Kiefer. And, in his spare time, Rosenthal is fielding a spate of offers from film and TV producers, asking to use the Imaginational Anthem tracks in a variety of settings. "The solo guitar stuff sets such an evocative, perfect backdrop for so many different situations. And the non-new age heft to the material gives the scenes a lot of substance," he said.

And though the music is timeless, Rosenthal speculated that Imaginational Anthem's release may have come at a particularly opportune juncture, as fans of psyche-folk continue to broaden their listening universe. "I am blown away by how much good music there is in the underground, in the genre now referred to as freak-folk or post-psych/folk — whatever the press wants to call it," he said. "A lot of the values and influences that artists had in the late '60s and early '70s are back in play. I took Jack Rose up to WNYU and the 19-year-old DJ was playing Dark Holler on Smithsonian and the Old Hat comp of '20s medicine-show tunes. Fursaxa, Earth, many solo guitar players like Shawn McMillen, James Blackshaw, etc., etc., all channeling something of that earlier music and spirit." He added, "I think the 'quiet is the new loud' slogan is apt — people are yearning for something that's meditative and introspective and literate. There's never been more of it than right now. Imaginational Anthem is as good an entry point as any." — Jennifer Kelly [Monday, January 30, 2006]


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