August 12, 2005
Sheep in Wolf's Clothing
How a high school teacher from Skokie passed for cantankerous guitar genius John Fahey.
Last year Fantasy Records released The Best of John Fahey Vol. 2: 1963-1983, positioning it as an overdue follow-up to a Fahey best-of from 1977. Fahey, the founding father of the "American primitive"steel-stringed acoustic guitar style, had died in 2001, but the label, with access to his enormous archive of tapes, included three unreleased tracks: two rerecordings of Fahey classics from the early 60s and an original called "Tuff" that no one had heard before. But it's not Fahey playing on those tracks, and "Tuff" isn't his song. All three are the work of Charlie Schmidt, a 42-year-old high school teacher who lives in Skokie.
A friend and sometime student of the innovative guitarist, Schmidt recorded the material in 1993 as part of a prank Fahey hoped to play on Shanachie, his label at the time. Fahey had a history of "sowing confusion and blurring attribution," as Schmidt puts it -- he credited a performance on one of his records to a mentor he'd invented for himself, an old black undertaker named Blind Joe Death, and in his liner notes he parodied the mythmaking impulse of folk revivalists, claiming to have made his first guitar from a baby's coffin. But he never got the chance to pass Schmidt's tapes off as his own, and they collected dust for a decade -- until the producers of last year's compilation, fooled by the exactitude of Schmidt's Fahey impression, took the bait. (Schmidt has sorted things out with Fahey's music publisher and informed Fantasy of the mistake, but the label has yet to respond.)
A third Fahey cover from the same session and a new version of "Tuff" -- under its proper title, "The Hyattsville Anti-Inertia Dance" -- appear on Schmidt's own debut album, Xanthe Terra, released in June by the Portland label Strange Attractors Audio House. Schmidt has spent most of his life as a closet musician -- he's played publicly only a handful of times since taking up the guitar at age six, and had never been in a studio before Fahey invited him to record -- but the release of the Fantasy disc started wheels turning for him. "My whole experience has been fairly unusual," he says. "I mean, I was someone who learned to play Fahey in my bedroom as a kid."
Schmidt encountered Fahey's music while in high school in Minnesota in the late 70s. "It took me about six months to be totally smitten," he says. "It transformed me, though." He met his idol during his freshman year at Gustavus Adolphus College, backstage at a show in Minneapolis. "My ruse was to offer to change his strings between songs," he says. "So I just went and introduced myself. I was really anxious around him. He was a very peculiar guy to be around. Made me nervous as hell."
Schmidt moved to the Chicago area in 1985 and kept in touch with Fahey. "I met him backstage like that nine or ten times over the years," he says. "Then he played in the Abbey Pub in late 1992. We hung out afterward and he seemed to be a little more approachable than usual. Much later he told me the reason was that I had passed all the tests."
At that time Shanachie owner Richard Nevins wanted Fahey to cut a new version of his 1963 album Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes, but Fahey was experimenting with the electric guitar and disinterested in revisiting his old catalog. He asked Schmidt to do the recording instead. "To which I kinda sputtered and laughed," says Schmidt. "After all, I was just a fan. I had never even pushed my playing on him. But I thought about it for five minutes and took him up on the offer."
Schmidt went into a studio in Skokie in March 1993, recorded a note-perfect rendition of the album plus four of his own songs, and sent Fahey the master tapes. But then Shanachie dropped Fahey and Fantasy reissued the original version of Death Chants, rendering the project moot. Schmidt's tapes disappeared into Fahey's archive. "In retrospect I'm glad it was never released," he says. "I never gave them another thought."
But the two men's relationship continued to grow. "One day in the mail, there arrived a large box full of archival materials of his life," says Schmidt. "Letters, old receipts, photographs, writings. And then a couple weeks later, more boxes and material. It was his way of thanking me for doing the recording." It was also his way of asking Schmidt to write his biography. "I was flattered, but it was hard to make any progress with him on that," says Schmidt.
Fahey, who suffered from Epstein-Barr and diabetes, spent much of the 90s in poor health. And despite several new discs and reissues -- including the 1994 Rhino anthology Return of the Repressed and the experimental 1997 album Womblife, produced by avowed fan Jim O'Rourke -- by the end of the decade he was nearly destitute and living in welfare hotels or gospel missions. Schmidt visited him in Oregon in 1998, a surreal trip that inspired Xanthe Terra's opening track, "Salem Journeys." ("My notion of 'really messy room' was instantly redefined," he writes in the liner notes.)
The last time Schmidt saw Fahey was at the Empty Bottle in October 2000. "He played beautifully, one of his best concerts," he says. But four months later, at age 61, Fahey died of complications after heart surgery. At the funeral in Salem and at a memorial concert in Berkeley, California, where he was invited to play, Schmidt got acquainted with Cul de Sac guitarist and Fahey disciple Glenn Jones, who recommended him to the Strange Attractors label.
Schmidt is a married father of two school-age girls and teaches ESL full-time at Maine East High School in Park Ridge, so a music career won't be his first priority anytime soon. But Xanthe Terra has already received a glowing review in the Wire, and he seems to have caught the bug. "I want to continue making records and would love to share my work on the stage," he says. "It's been refreshing to hear what other people think about it."
And what would Fahey have thought? "I'd never venture to guess what he'd say about anything," says Schmidt, laughing. "But I like to think he'd approve."