Takoma Records: The Legacy and Spirit of John Fahey’s DIY Label

The Roadhouse
John Fahey // photo courtesy of the Wayne Knight Collection and Chansley Ent. Archives

Tune in to KEXP on Wednesday, March 23rd, from 6-9PM, for a special edition of The Roadhouse with Greg Vandy, spotlighting John Fahey and his legendary label, Takoma Records. During the show, we'll also featuring a unique in-studio session that bridges generations of guitarists exploring folk, blues, and beyond, as '60s-'70s era guitar visionaries, and Takoma Records alums, Peter Lang, Rick Ruskin, and Toulouse Engelhardt perform together the first time ever and are joined by young Seattle gunslinger Michael Wohl.

Takoma RecordsThe 1950s and 60’s folk revival - a resurgence of interest in pre-WWII rural American music - was filled with towering personalities: Baez, Dylan, Van Ronk, Odetta, Ochs and many more. John Fahey was singular among them. An utterly unique artist, visionary, and musician, John was largely responsible for taking the steel string guitar from a role as an accompanying instrument to one that could speak all on its own.

Fahey’s guitar instrumentals, powerful fingerpicking and fretwork, and wellspring of knowledge of the traditions of blues, country, and folk music were unparalleled. His music and deep memory of these forms would have been enough to carve out a career, but John was a true polymath. He left us with a career of 50 years of music, but perhaps his greatest legacy is the new musical ground that he broke with the cadre of artists that he signed to his own Takoma Records, perhaps the first true “DIY” record label.

Fahey worked as a gas station attendant and borrowed money from an Episcopal priest to finance his first record in 1959, still a teenager. Thus Takoma Records was born, named for his Maryland hometown, Takoma Park. The story of the label began with the issuing of “John Fahey/Blind Joe Death”, an LP featuring John’s music on one side, and that of a mythical rediscovered blues master on the other - later revealed to be John himself. John issued more of his own records on the label, and as he built a name for himself, he began to expand his roster, featuring Booker (Bukka) White, the legendary Mississippi blues musician that John tracked down on a trip canvassing for old blues 78s.

Beyond re-launching recording careers of musicians from the Depression-era, John became aware of other contemporary players who were treading the same ground. Takoma Records became the home of some of the most innovative, artistically daring, and virtuosic guitar sounds that have ever been recorded. Robbie Basho blended Eastern motifs, Japanese poetry, and raga forms into his own sort of Zen cowboy blues. Leo Kottke became perhaps the most successful steel-string player of all time with his 6-and-12 String Guitar album on Takoma.

Peter Lang, Rick Ruskin, and Toulouse Engelhardt were three other pickers in good company on the roster. They all released albums with the label, and went their own separate ways. Though never reaching the level of name recognition or album sales as Kottke, all three were a part of the most fertile and creative time for music at Takoma Records.

This brings us to the current day where Fahey’s influence runs deep. There’s a resurgence of interest in American folk music that is almost suggestive of that special time back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. One need not dig too deep before encountering the legacy of Fahey and Takoma, and through doing so, Michael stumbled upon Peter, Rick, and Toulouse. “After discovering that they were still around and playing music I was able to get in touch with them, drawing inspiration from the blues freaks of the 60’s who would send letters to towns mentioned in old songs, hoping to find an old master. I was fortunate - they were all happy to talk to a young musician. But that wasn’t enough. I wanted to see them play”, says Michael Wohl “One thing lead to another, and the idea of the three of them getting together for a sort of Takoma reunion began to snowball. We pulled it off, booking the first date here in Seattle at the historic Columbia City Theater”, says Michael. “This was the first time the three had ever shared the stage. Beyond that, it was the first time they’d seen each other in decades. The night was a huge success, and a rare sort of music experience. Getting to open for them was like a bridging of the generations, much in the way that the players of the ‘50s and ‘60s carried on a legacy from an earlier time. When Peter Lang introduced me to the crowd as, ‘the next link in the chain’, I was given an immense sense of perspective, and of how deep that legacy went”.

The three are continuing on a full tour, dubbed Takoma Records Guitar Masters / The Spirit of John Fahey, with hopes for many more such reunions. The KEXP session (taped) is unique in that all musicians sitting round-robin style, and each took turns telling stories and playing songs. This presentation represents the best of the old ways. This is not music to be queued up on a playlist and spit out when the next thing comes along; this is music to be heard in context, music that is meant for an audience. More importantly, it’s part of a living history.

Tune in Wednesday from 6-9PM to hear more!

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