The Private Press is the latest, and eighth volume of the Tompkins Square label’s Imaginational Anthem series ‘focusing on acoustic guitar, particularly in the American Primitive vein‘. However, this fascinating collection brings together guitarists from a much wider sphere than just that of John Fahey and his acolytes. Many of the fourteen tracks making up this compilation were self-released, pressed in small numbers and sold at gigs, given away or, as Rick Deitrick did, were left in the middle of the wilderness next to trails, “so people would find them.” Here, we are dealing with musicians who pursue their own paths, as Deitrick’s idiosyncratic approach to distribution suggests.
The fourteen tracks which make up The Private Press cover the period 1968 to 1995, with the bulk of the material shared between the 70s and the 80s, and their content is diverse. Whilst essentially an album of acoustic guitar there is some electric playing, a couple of slide pieces and a jazz track. It is one of the slide tunes, One Kind Favor (sic), from Perry Lederman, who is perhaps the best known of the players, which opens the album. This is a fairly straightforward tune strongly reminiscent of the traditional tune ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Fault but Mine’ first recorded by Blind Willie Johnson. The following track Snow Queen is similarly fairly straightforward, this time it’s Fahey influenced fingerstyle but more unusually provided by a guitar pairing, namely The Keithe Lowrie Duet.
After this, some of the tracks illustrate the influence of Indian music and also perhaps that of the gamelan prevalent at the time of writing/recording. This starts with Obadiah from Michael Kleniec in which the guitar is accompanied by tabla and is at its most obvious in the long electric piece Raga by Joe Bethancourt. Quite a few of the players included in The Private Press took to home recording quite early and made use of layering, overdubbing etc. to enhance the basic guitar composition, the use of bells being not uncommon. The track from Herb Moore, Wen (sic) Also Found, is particularly strong in this respect. From an acoustic guitar perspective, Tom Armstrong’s White Pines is interesting in its use of a very pretty repeated figure with overlaid harmonics.
Viewed from today’s perspective, influenced as it is by the ease of digital editing, some of the longer pieces might be said by some to err on the downside of noodling and some of the home recordings could be better. However, the joy of this album is partly in the changes it encompasses and the discovery of something new to one’s ear. The playing of Nancy Tucker on That Spanish Thing was my own pet discovery. The tune has some echoes of Malaguena, Davy Graham’s Anji and possibly even Classical Gas but the playing is wonderful with precision , drive, and control in equal measures. Tucker is an established entertainer but still pursues the acoustic guitar. Somehow, the fact that she cites Fahey, Michael Hedges, and Preston Reed amongst her influences seems indicative of the players on this album. One gets the impression that none of the surviving musicians have stood still, nor ever could. Stan Samole, who contributes the jazz piece Prayer Blessing continues to make highly original music whilst also teaching at College level; Russell Potter whose Fahey influenced Blue Wind Boy closes the album is also an author.
To sum up, The Private Press is a very interesting collection of music, much of which might have been lost but for the efforts of the Tompkins Square team and Michael Klausman, Brooks Rice and Josh Rosenthal should be commended for their work in compiling both the album and its informative liner notes. Given his well-known annoyance at being treated as a folk rather than a classical musician, The Private Press is a piece of true scholarship which I think Mr. Fahey would have applauded.