The Mystery of the Turtle

The conventional wisdom regarding this album is this: that it was originally released with an orange label in a gatefold sleeve with a book. After a year or so Takoma worked out that it was costing more to produce than they were able to wholesale it, so they reissued it in a single sleeve, and at that point they changed the record itself, with several different tracks (some new, some changed), and gave it a black label. That view was most recently expressed by Kris Needs in his (distinctly muddled and rather error prone) piece in Record Collector last year. I suspect that he largely copied and pasted that particular bit of his article from the IFC site, but they were by no means the first to espouse that chronology.

In one respect it is of course entirely correct. Voice of the Turtle was released in two different pressings, containing a significant amount of different material, some of which didn't feature Fahey at all, but derived from historic 78s. But it is definitely not true that Takoma quickly switched to a single sleeve because they were losing money; the gatefold sleeve with the book was repeatedly remanufactured, and was to my definite knowledge still being used in 1977, with what was then a fairly recent reprinting. I would guess that the single sleeve appeared around 1978, by which time sales of the record were probably slowing to a trickle; and Takoma were no different from the major labels in deciding to abandon a gatefold at that stage of a record's continuing presence in their catalogue.

For those who're interested, the broad sequence of gatefold sleeves for Turtle is this: the earliest sleeves have a pasted on outer, the book was unattached (if you got one at all, a lot of those first records simply didn't contain one), and the underlying sleeve to which the outer was pasted was a very clean white. The second batch of sleeves were the same, but the book was now glued in, as it would be for all subsequent gatefolds. Then the base sleeve became an off-white which tended towards being ivory, with the outer continuing to be pasted on. This remained in use well beyond 1973 and was reprinted at least twice as the first of the reprintings can be easily identified by a black strip about 1/4" wide running down the right edge of the front sleeve; the sleeves had been assembled to a different size than they had been printed, and the black strip was where the inside of the front flap found itself folded forward as a result of this. Sometime after 1974, the sleeve was changed to the more conventional gatefold assembly where it was the inside of the sleeve, rather than the outside, that was pasted on. These sleeves were more expensive to manufacture than the earlier ones. The sleeves have stronger and slightly different colours to the preceding variants; a better printing process was used (enlarge the photo below to see this). This last gatefold was still printed at least twice, with the second run being made of a slightly lighter card than the first.

This photo shows the three major variant gatefold sleeves (just click to enlarge). The one at the back is an original 1968 first issue with no glued book; hopefully you'll be able to see how the inside of the sleeve folds forward and makes a seam which is then covered by the outer paste-over. The edge beyond that pasted sheet remains very clearly white. The second sleeve is circa 1973; despite the staining at the corner you should be able to see the change in the underlying colour, and this particular sleeve is from the run that had the black strip at the right-hand edge. The front sleeve is from 1977 and is as new. You will see the very different print quality as against the two earlier sleeves, and the lack of any outer pasting.

When the sleeve construction was changed around 1975, new printing plates were made. These gave the turtle a different eye, cross-hatching had been added to the pupil. It is likely that this was done to cover up either a problem with the etching for the new plates, or damage to the original artwork. It is also of course possible that it was a deliberate artistic decision, but I would have thought that somewhat less likely (Tom Weller would know definitively, I guess). Further plates were made for the single sleeve which added a second turtle, copied from the first (although slightly smaller) in place of the promise of a book within in the bottom right-hand corner. The cross-hatching remained, with the second turtle appearing to have dots.

Early eye 1968-Circa 1974,original plates for outer paste round:

Later eye, Circa 1975-1977, second plates for printing directly to cover:

Final eyes, Single sleeve, Circa 1977:

There was clearly increased manufacturing costs involved with all this (wonderful) packaging, but Turtle was a good seller despite the content of the record itself being less obviously commercial that some of Fahey's earlier work. I would imagine that the very unusual sleeve tempted many who might otherwise have hesitated before purchasing. And Takoma repeated the exotic packaging in 1971 when they released 'America'.

The single sleeve appeared absolutely at the end of the life of this album; there is no correlation whatever between the switch to the single sleeve and any change to either the record or the design or colour of it's label. Most single sleeves ended up being offered as cut-outs in the run-up to Takoma's sale to Chrysalis. Because of the small numbers made, the single sleeve normally fetches as much or more than a good gatefold with the book still intact, even when it has the corner very visibly cut off; uncut examples are very sought after.

Then there’s the question of the label, and at this point I’ll simply point out that VOTT was originally issued with a black label (plain black & silver); the orange label followed, and finally at least two different designs of black & gold dragons. So talking about orange and black labels can be rather confusing. It is far more straightforward to talk about 11 and 12 track pressings, that is the number of tracks actually on the vinyl, not the label or sleeve. All labels show 12 tracks, and all sleeves show 11 tracks, regardless of the pressing. As to the differences in content, I can do no better than refer you to the substantial IFC piece on VOTT (and Malcolm Kitson's further elucidation as a comment to my earlier post on this album). The pressing the IFC refer to as the OLV is the 11 track version, and the BLV is the 12 track. There is one caveat to what they say: ‘Bottleneck Blues’ is different between the two pressings only in that stanza 2 of the guitar piece is edited out of the 11 track version. So Fahey either plays along on both versions or on neither. The answer appears to be the latter, and I understand that the IFC will at some point be editing their article to reflect that.

So what happened and why? It is in the end a matter of speculation as to why, but what happened can in part be established as fact. I’m going to start with the matrices for this record; not only are they clearly written in the same hand, but they are unusually shallow, almost to the point of illegibility, which is very unusual. The armrest must have been set very high indeed for the mastering engineer when writing them, and it is so unusual that I have no doubt whatever that they were done at the same mastering session. Incidentally, the same handwriting can be seen on the master for ‘The New Possibility’ from later the same year (the only other Fahey record to have it), but it is at an entirely conventional depth. If one accepts that they were indeed mastered at the same time, that entirely rules out any theory that any sort of accident was involved; rather that it was an entirely deliberate decision. This was always likely to have been the case anyway, as remastering a record with different content is not something that could be done casually regardless of when it was done; it would have been very much easier to change the label to match the record, particularly at the point where there was a design change..

Giving the sleeve an 11 track listing while having 12 shown on the label (with the extra track being listed as a #2) neatly covered both options, and lends considerable further weight to my conviction that they knew what they were doing from the outset. It also achieved a very effective concealment of the existence of the two pressings.

And is it true that the 11 track version appears on all early pressings before being replaced by the 12 track? Actually, no. The original issue with the plain black & silver label certainly came in both varients, apparently in a fairly equal distribution. Here are photos showing the first side of each:

Original 11 track pressing, side 1 has 5 tracks:

Original 12 track pressing, side 1 has 6 tracks:

Both the subsequent orange labelled pressing and the earliest dragon labelled pressing can also be found in both versions, although there can have been very few 11 track dragon labelled copies; I have never seen another other than my own. It is unlikely that any 11 track pressings were manufactured much beyond 1972. If you have a later 11 track pressing, get in touch.

Incidentally, most copies of VOTT (probably more than 19 in 20) are found with the last outer paste round gatefold sleeve with a book glued in, containing the 12 track record with the 1972 black & gold dragon label.

So why? I think that it was intended to have both pressings in circulation from day one, but that the pressing plant, who would have been holding the metal masters, didn’t rotate them as often as planned when repressing.

And why use other artists’ recordings? I think that it was an extension of Fahey’s conceit that his audience wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between his own playing and that of the historic blues players he drew a lot of his early stylistic inspiration from. Everyone knew by the time VOTT came out that Blind Joe Death was a fiction; but it was a particular tease to imply that John overdubbed an accompaniment to his own playing on 'Bottleneck Blues' when he wasn’t actually playing on it at all.

Identity games are a particular enthusiasm within the Fahey canon. The article posted here where John apparently encouraged Charlie Schmidt to re-record Volume 3 for Shanachie, with the work passed off as his own, brought to mind a rumour that briefly did the rounds in the late 60s; that it was not Fahey playing on the ’67 re-recordings of Volumes 1 & 2 either, but rather a young and flash Leo Kottke showing just how good he was. I dismissed it out of hand then, but now…