Blind Joe Death Transfigured.

Like I did with my earlier post on VOTT, I'm putting this up despite it being very much an unfinished work-in-progress. It'll be considerably expanded and hopefully I'll bring some semblance of coherence and completion over the next few days (make that 'months'!), when I'll enable comment. If it interests you, I hope you'll come back later to catch the full post.

Unless you've started worrying which, if any, of his records John Fahey actually played on, the second big mystery in his canon is 'Transfiguration'. In particular, why exactly did it come out on an unheard-of Boston record label as it did? Well, it's somewhat like 'Turtle' in that there's an established orthodoxy that is correct only in parts. The consensus runs something like this: John Fahey recorded for a mysterious company called Delta. ED Denson stole the tapes from those sessions and sold them to a mysterious Ralph Riverboat; he then released them as 'The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death' on a mysterious and utterly obscure record label called Riverboat. It came out in 1965, ahead of 'Guitar Volume 4', which was released the following year. And in 1968, Takoma re-released 'Transfiguration', numbering it Volume 5.

From that, there is one certain fact. that 'Volume 4' came out on Takoma in 1966. But there are two definite falsehoods. Takoma did not re-release 'Transfiguration' in 1968, nor did they designate it Volume 5. In fact Takoma did not reissue 'Transfiguration' until 1973, a date that is clearly displayed on the label of their release (see my label entry for 'Transfiguration'). And it would have been pretty pointless them pronouncing it Volume 5, given that Riverboat Records had already done that with the original issue. In between, there's a lot of mythology, and very little that can be stated as absolute fact. There's one person who knows of course, and that's Mr. Denson, but he's unlikely to be telling as he knows how Fahey intended and enjoyed such confusions; and if he did say you wouldn't really know if he was giving you the truth anyway, because he played the same games.

'Transfiguration' came out on Riverboat in an initial subscription edition of 50 copies, probably in late January 1966, with the commercial issue following a little while later; the ED Denson review posted elsewhere here was published in late February, early March that year, which dates it pretty accurately.

It's almost impossible to conceive of how the notion came about that 'Transfiguration' only became Volume 5 when Takoma acquired it from Riverboat, let alone how it gained such currency since. Images of the 'Riverboat' sleeve are so easily available,with most reproductions showing the back as well as the front (Stefan Wirtz for example has it on his Takoma discography). But just in case there's any doubt I'm putting up a photo here:

And then there's the question of that 1968 reissue, the one that didn't actually happen. I am at least able to see a possible explanation for this one, and that is that Transatlantic Records released the record in Europe in 1968. Maybe that release credited copyright to Takoma, and given the Eurocentric dominance in the field of 'Fahey studies' that is how 1968 was seized on as the critical date. And 1968 is certainly one powerful snake oil. Fantasy's CD release has notes by Sam Charters in the accompanying booklet which are clearly dated to 1968 and have an explanatory note appended: that 'ED Denson (Takoma's co-owner) asked Sam Charters to write the notes for the reissue of 'The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death' when the master was reacquired from Riverboat, however these notes never appeared in the reissue'. All this makes a lot of sense and adds evidential weight to that 1968 date. Because in 1968 ED Denson was indeed still a co-owner of Takoma records. And in 1968 Sam Charters was closely involved with Fahey and Denson through his involvement with Vanguard Records (he's listed as producer and executive producer for the two albums Fahey recorded for Vanguard, and was producer for Country Joe & the Fish, who were also managed by Denson and on Vanguard). It all starts to fall apart however when you read the notes that Sam Charters actually wrote. He talks not only about JF's spell at Vanguard, but his time with Warner Brothers, where he "had the resources to work with an instrumental group, but to everyone's surprise he used traditional jazz musicians... Since then he has returned to Takoma, and there have been new recordings". Sam then goes on to say (somewhat erroneously) that most of the recordings used on 'Transfiguration' come "from close to the end of the Sixties".

Even the IFC are infected with this 1968-mania. In their site section on 'Transfiguration' in the Fahey Files they offer the reissue notes. They still credit Sam Charters' notes as being written for a 1968 reissue, working their way round his apparent clairvoyance by offering only excerpts and omitting all the awkward bits. And in their own Notes on the Songs they repeat the 1968 reissue date and quote from "the original Transfiguration sleevenote". After an extensive quote they add "This account is from 1968..." but by now they've definitely got themselves into something of a muddle. The account is indeed from 1968, but that is because it is actually the 'Turtle' sleevenotes they're quoting. And there are obvious dangers in taking 'Transfiguration's wonderfully surreal notes at face value too readily anyway.

Even when Takoma reissued 'Transfiguration' in 1973, they allocated it an 'R' series number and, other than for the label on the actual vinyl, it continued to be sold as a Riverboat record. They finally packaged it as Takoma around 1976, and that is almost certainly when Sam Charters wrote his reissue notes (which indeed weren't used but are unlikely to have been solicited by ED Denson who had relinquished his business interest in Fahey and Takoma several years before).