The Yellow Princess
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2006, Volume 13, #5
Written by Tracy M. Rogers
When one thinks of John Fahey, adjectives abound — experimental, innovative, and avant-garde, to name a few. Fahey is undoubtedly one of the lesser-known fathers of modern progressive music, be it progressive folk, rock, or jazz. His instrumentals are rooted equally in classical guitar composition, early delta folk-blues, Indian ragas, and Native American melodies. All of these influences meld together to make Fahey one of the few, truly unique forces in American music history, and all of them are apparent on his classic from 1968: The Yellow Princess. Recently reissued with three bonus tracks and new liner notes by M. Ward and Glenn Jones (which augment Fahey’s original commentary for the album), The Yellow Princess highlights Fahey’s inventive guitar melodies and his synthesis of variegated musical styles to create a congruous, if, at times, offbeat whole.
The Yellow Princess was a significant record for Fahey in that it marked a shift from the delta blues of his Blind Joe Death records to the realm of music inspired not just by America’s South but also by the world at large. Nowhere is this more apparent than the title track on which Fahey’s finger-picked steel string guitar alternates with ease between Eastern influences — including Indian sitar sounds and Middle Eastern melodies — and southern blues-folk. Likewise, Lion features a melody that bridges seemingly dissonant genres — this time, meshing Mexicali and ambient folk melodies with classical precision and bluegrass fluency. Trying to identify all of the influences and confluences in Fahey’s work is dizzying on tracks like this.
March! For Martin Luther King provides one of the great melancholic moments on The Yellow Princess. A stunning requiem, the song is also one of the rare places in which Fahey is accompanied by a band. In this case, the tune features a superb, driving military drumbeat from The Byrds’ Kevin Kelley, as well as guitar, bass, and keyboard work from members of the ’60s psychedelic group Spirit. Fahey’s experimental nature is best seen, however, on the sublime The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Tennessee. Instead of guitar, the piece is composed from layered recordings of a draw bridge over the Mississippi River. The melody comes in the form of a man’s lone whistle amid the noise.
The brilliance of Fahey’s work on The Yellow Princess lies not only in his blending of styles but also in his changes in tempo and melody. The epic Irish Setter effortlessly moves from feeling ominous to feeling melancholy to feeling almost rollickingly joyful. Encompassing rock, folk, and countrified melodies within its six minutes, Commemorative Transfiguration and Communion at Magruder Park is another prime example of Fahey’s facility with experimentation.
The three bonus tracks on The Yellow Princess — all of which were recorded in 1965 — are a nice addition to the original set. Each possesses all of the qualities present in the original studio tracks, though to a lesser degree, and each also highlights Fahey’s progression from blues and folk music to a more Eastern-influenced style. The self-reflective liner notes by M. Ward are much less illuminating than those of either Fahey or Glenn Jones, who provides the history of the extra selections.
The Yellow Princess was and is a seminal, minor-key, blues-folk recording — not only for the precision of Fahey’s playing and his musical innovation but also for the emotional and intellectual moods that he evokes with such aplomb. It is truly a shame that the re-release of this classic was all but ignored in the seemingly endless sea of releases this past February.
The Yellow Princess is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box