Although hardly a sentimental bloke, John Fahey’s catalogue was littered with hymns and Christmas carols. Perhaps bolstered by 1968’s “The New Possibility”, “Christmas Songs For Guitar Soli” becoming the biggest selling album of his career, he continued to trot them out for years with varying results and success.
YES! JESUS LOVES ME, subtitled “Guitar Hymns”, saw him take down the tinsel and dedicate a whole album to religious hymns, but became his worst selling Takoma record after various problems. Until now, it’s only been reissued as a two-fer with Maria Muldaur’s “Gospel Night”. The fact that it is now available again after 27 years is a miracle in itself.
Fahey’s first album was recorded in a church and, from 1963’s “Volume Two”, he made a point of closing his albums with a hymn. “Yes! Jesus Loves Me”, despite being recorded in Santa Monica’s Gingerbread Studios, carries a stately resonance which paints a picture of Fahey sitting in a centuries-old church extracting mercurial ghosts from hymns which have rang around its rafters for centuries.
Fahey was unstoppable at this time. His almost ragtime treatment of the Sunday school favourite title track prompted him to remark, “Wow! I really changed this song around, didn’t I?” This can be said of practically every track, although it’s far from frivolous deconstruction, more respect, as Fahey taps into the very heart of pieces mainly dating from the 19th century, bringing out their essence. If school made hymns dreary, symbols of Victorian stoicism and old-fashioned values, Fahey stripped away the pomp, not to mention vocals, making them work as pieces of music in their own right.
Fahey made them come alive, mixing the familiarly traditional (Holy Holy Holy, All Through The Night, Stand Up, Stand Up For Jesus) with obscure gospel-blues (1927’s Lord, I Want To Be A Christian All My Life comes from pre-Patton South Mississippi bluesman Crying Sam Collins). There is a homage to his beloved Vaughn Williams on 1906’s For All The Saints while Henri Hemy’s Faith Of Our Fathers was sung at the funeral of President Franklin Roosevelt. Was he aware that Just As I Am was tub-thumping evangelist Billy Graham’s altar call song during his crusades, as well as the title of his autobiography? If he was, it could be a sly Fahey joke, which could put some of the album in a different light! Fahey’s version of Wesley Charles and Giardini Felric’s early 1900s hymn Come Thou Almighty King sounds terribly like the melody of Ralph McTell’s Streets Of London while Fahey credited one Jeff Lynn!
Ultimately, music of this beauty and virtuosity transcends any religious stereotypes or stigmas, denominations or creeds. Give thanks and praise John Fahey took this chance and pulled it off in such fine style.
By Kris Needs