The solo-guitar record ‘The New Possibility’ combines familiar and age-old tunes with wild-ass playing.
Christmas music can be treacly – overfamiliar – corny and awful.
But the few exceptions out there can be genuinely exciting — music you hear for only a few weeks each year but often have a 20- or 30-year relationship with.
For a lot of people Vince Guaraldi’s ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ record is a great memory that re-emerges every winter.
The classic Christmas songs — many of them written by Jewish men in ties — like Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’ have hardly become dated.
More recent recordings by Sufjan Stevens and She & Him bring an earnest Christian spirit and a sweet retro irony respectively – to the table.
There are also wonderful R&B takes on the winter solstice like James Brown’s ‘Santa’s Got a Brand New Bag’ and collections like ‘Soul Christmas’ with Otis Redding singing ‘Merry Christmas Baby’ and Carla Thomas crooning ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’.
As delightful as all of these but also mysterious and genuinely weird is ‘The New Possibility’ – a close-mic’ed solo-acoustic record by the self-proclaimed American Primitive guitarist John Fahey.
On the surface this is a traditional collection of both classic Christmas songs (‘Joy to the World’ – ‘The First Noel’) with older eerier pieces like ‘What Child Is This’ (the music for which comes from ‘Greensleeves’ which dates back to the 1580s – when Shakespeare was a teenager.)
But listening to this album is not like going to church: It’s full of drones and weird tunings and spooky broken chords and clanging angular guitar playing.
It’s the songs you know all too well but played by an avant-garde madman with an oddly appealing sense of melody.
This is strange stuff but you can hum a lot of it.
Fahey was born in 1939.
Like Bob Dylan who arrived two years later he was part of the movement by American white kids to track down blues legends.
Fahey managed to locate for example the great blues guitarist Bukka White.
Fahey and friends also found an aged and forgotten Skip James in a Mississippi hospital – which helped spark the decade’s blues revival.