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John Fahey, "Christmas Guitar"The prickly heart of folkie John Fahey seemed to grow three sizes when faced with the true meaning of Christmas. His solo guitar instrumental versions of Christmas favorites are achingly honest and emotionally naked while retaining only a hint of his usual misanthropy. Fahey lends subtle new interpretations to tired old yuletide tunes, and they blow away any superficially similar "new age" Christmas albums.

Fahey visited this music several times throughout his career, most notably with his two LP's on Takoma Records, The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album (1968) and Christmas With John Fahey, Vol. 2 (1975). Generally, these records present a kinder, gentler John Fahey, but the strange touches that distinguish him from your average acoustic folk or blues player creep in at odd moments, especially on his original, 12-minute "Christmas Fantasy."

Christmas Guitar, Vol. 1 (Varrick, 1982) is largely a rerecording of The New Possibility (an excellent one, by the way), while Popular Songs of Christmas & New Year's (Varrick, 1983) is entirely new material. Accompanied by guitarist/producer Terry Robb, Fahey sounds almost jaunty, and it's a delightful album. (Rounder Records reissued both Varrick albums in 1990 with new cover art.) Fahey went to the Christmas well one last time before his death in 2001, bringing in an entire band for The John Fahey Christmas Album (Burnside, 1991). Pleasant enough, but I prefer the solo and duo recordings.

John FaheyReissued and retitled with alarming regularity over the years, Fahey's Christmas records are now fairly easy to locate on compact disc. Fantasy Records reissued the Takoma material on a highly recommended CD, Christmas Guitar Volumes 1 & 2 (1993). The disc contains all the music from The New Possibility and all but one track from Christmas With John Fahey, Vol. 2, including cover art from both albums plus insightful liner notes from Barry Hansen (a.k.a. Dr. Demento) - altogether a sterling reissue.

The Varrick recordings, generally lighter in tone than the Takoma albums, are generously sampled on Rounder's 26-track CD Christmas Guitar (1986). Bearing a cover and title similar to the first Varrick LP, the disc encompasses all but a handful of songs from both albums. In addition, the Takoma and Varrick LP's have all been reissued separately on CD, but these two CD compilations represent much more bang-for-your-buck. At least one of them deserves a slot in any self-respecting Christmas music collection - or pick up Christmas Soli (2013), which selects 14 tracks from the Takoma and Varrick recordings.

Personally, I find it difficult picking favorite tracks from these discs (though my choices follow), in part because Fahey's Christmas songs have a marvelously projective quality to them. If you are melancholy, it is mirrored in the music; if you feel joy, despair, or hope, it is there as well. This aspect of his records makes them holiday classics - perfect for contemplating the true meaning of the season, or for simply enjoying as background music. [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • Away in a Manger (version 1) (1982)
  • Christmas Fantasy (1975)
  • The First Noel (1968)
  • God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen Fantasy (1968)
  • It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (1968)
  • Jolly Old Saint Nicholas (1983)
  • Joy To The World (1968)
  • Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming (1968)
  • Medley: Christmas Time's A-Coming/Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1983)
  • Medley: Hark the Herald Angels Sing/O Come All Ye Faithful (1968)
  • O Holy Night (1975)
  • Santa Claus is Coming To Town (1983)
  • Silent Night (1968)
  • The Skaters Waltz (1983)
  • We Three Kings of Orient Are (1968)
  • What Child is This (1968)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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