We’re back with another article in our Unsung Heroes of Americana series and, this time out, Gordon Sharpe pitches in with an informative piece about an influential record label that punched well above its weight:
Takoma Records was an important, small scale, and influential label founded by guitarist John Fahey with colleagues Eugene Denson and Norman Pierce, in 1959. Fahey contributed funds saved from his petrol station job and a loan from priest Donald Seaton – so may God be with that man. The label was named after Fahey’s hometown, Takoma Park in Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C
The company began with a pressing of 100 copies or so of Fahey’s debut album, ‘Blind Joe Death’, a Fahey pseudonym intended to humorously mimic a typical blues singer. Fahey had no distribution arrangements (though there is a suggestion that Pierce was to cover that area) and, along with other means, sold the pressing to friends and at music parties. It has, not surprisingly, become something of a cherished rarity.
An article in The Guardian newspaper from 2013 highlights Fahey’s penchant for such pranks and obfuscation (even when he was unknown and thus no one knew enough about him to be confused). This aspect of his personality was not always that helpful.
‘Even a cursory glance at Fahey’s discography will reveal, he was also someone who, unconsciously or otherwise, continued to make mischief at the expensive of collectors and completists. His debut album proper, 1959’s, Blind Joe Death, is not to be confused with the aforementioned, The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, (1965). And, to make matters more confusing, The Legend of Blind Joe Death, released on CD in 1996, is an extended version of the debut’.
Fahey moved to California and with partner Denson sought out bluesman Bukka White, producing White’s first recording in 23 years. It was released in 1963 along with Fahey’s second album; the dates indicating that this was something of a relaunch for the label. Fahey had an abiding interest in a lost generation of old bluesmen and the label eventually had a subsidiary, the Takoma Blues Series.
Takoma expanded to include other guitarists, such as Robbie Basho, Leo Kottke and Peter Lang. The compilation, ’Contemporary Guitar’, was recorded in 1966 and featured Fahey, Basho, White, Max Ochs and Harry Taussig demonstrating diverse guitar styles, from plantation blues to raga. At the same time, Takoma released the album, ’The Psychedelic Saxophone of Charlie Nothing’, (those were the days!) evidence of what a broad church the label represented. Nonetheless, the focus was on acoustic guitar music, especially Fahey’s own.
The label also produced records by New Age pianist George Winston (a personal favourite of mine) as well as Mike Bloomfield, Bernie Krause, Sir Douglas Quintet, Gene Clark, Doug Sahm, Maddy Prior and Steeleye Span. Around 370 different albums were produced in total. Perhaps one of the more outre artists was Charles Bukowski, poet, novelist and chronicler of the dispossessed and destitute and associated, as he was, with The Beats.
Fahey is given credit for a style of guitar music eventually dubbed, ‘American Primitive’, in which he applied traditional finger-picking to neo-classical compositions whilst also incorporating elements of modern composers such as Bartok and Charles Ives. This was a style utilised by several of the labels players though not all used dissonance in quite the same way – such as Lang and Kottke were always likely to be more melodic. In an article on this site from August 2020, there is further discussion regarding this school.
Denson left to become manager of Country Joe and the Fish and put together a quite remarkable CV that could never be encompassed in this brief article. Most interestingly he became something of an expert on the stamps of the Falkland Isles – perhaps not the broadest or most demanding field of expertise? He was also a whitewater guide for a while – before his legal pursuits led to civil rights activism. In contrast, it seems Norman Pierce was subsequently a less conspicuous figure and my researches turned up very little.
Fahey became the sole owner of Takoma, which moved to Los Angeles whilst he studied at Berkeley and later UCLA. In late 1969 the album, ‘6 and 12 String Guitar’, by Leo Kottke was released. It was a surprise hit selling around half a million copies (a painting of the Armadillo cover adorns my living room wall). The profit from the release funded an expansion of the label which now boasted a number of employees.
In 1970 Jon Monday joined the label as promotions manager, eventually becoming general manager in 1982. In 1973 Charlie Mitchell became Takoma’s president. The label was one of the founders of the National Association of Independent Record Distributors (NAIRD). In 1979 Fahey sold Takoma to Chrysalis Records and albums were released by The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Canned Heat and T Bone Burnett. Chrysalis sold to Fantasy Records in 1995 and in 2004 Fantasy was purchased by the Concord Music Group. The Takoma label is now controlled by Ace Records.
Ed Denson went on to co-found and manage Kicking Mule Records with Stefan Grossman, a label with a similar catalogue of acoustic guitarists focussing on country blues, fingerstyle guitar and bluegrass. In 1995 Denson left the music business and became a criminal defence lawyer (as I understand it that’s a lawyer who defends criminals and not just a very poor defence lawyer).
John Fahey died in 2001 having created a niche independent label that encompassed a wide variety of musicians and musical styles. In addition, as a musician, he developed a style of self-taught playing, that was both influential and lasting. Gwenifer Raymond is just one contemporary artist who acknowledges a debt,
‘Fahey was playing instrumental guitar too and it was completely mesmeric and articulate. From then on, I focused more on trying to express myself through instrumental composition.”
Ill health and a degree of misfortune dogged some of Takoma’s brightest lights. Kottke suffered partial deafness and tendon injuries that threatened his career and required a change in his playing style. Basho died surprisingly early,
‘At the age of 45 due to an accident during a visit to his chiropractor, where an “intentional whiplash” experiment caused blood vessels in his neck to rupture, leading to a fatal stroke’.
Fahey suffered a decline in fortunes and health in his later years and died at the relatively early age of 62 of complications following heart surgery. Before his passing Fahey used an inheritance to fund Revenant Records. This label focussed on reissuing more obscure recordings of early blues (including an award-winning 7 disc retrospective of Charley Patton), old-time music, and albums by the British guitarist Derek Bailey and the American pianist Cecil Taylor. Both the latter two artists were at the furthest end of improvised / free jazz and offer a clue as to where Fahey’s music went in later years. His outings became rather chaotic and disappointing affairs. As Wikipedia would have it,
‘Gone were the melodic dreaminess and folk-based meditations of the 1960s and 70s, which Fahey had later described as “cosmic sentimentalism“.
Or as we might say – gone was the music by which Takoma initially became known and which inspired so many.
If you are interested and wish for more, Spotify offer an hour-long sampler of the kind of guitar playing that is always likely to be associated with this label. Happy listening.
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