Perfect Sound Forever

George Winston


Photo courtesy of Dancing Cat

Ballads & Blues & Fahey
by Jason Gross
(May 2001)

Most people wouldn't associate the "rural folk piano" of George Winston with the work of John Fahey.  The fact is that Fahey was a huge inspiration for Winston's work and gave him his first break in the industry.  As he tells it below, John was the most influential person in his life, giving him the courage to pursue solo instrumental work and his own label (Dancing Cat) and his own unique path.  Anyone who has been responsible for releasing records from Professor Longhair and Hawaiian slack key guitarists has definitely done good work for humanity.


PSF: How did you first meet up with John?

 I met up with him at a concert in 1972. I had a tape of some of my piano pieces. Then I met him after and played them, he said 'sign him up' to his assistant who was there. So, that was that.

PSF: Obviously, you knew something about his work beforehand.

 Yeah, I had been playing around the Bay Area (at) open mikes and stuff like that. I met a guitarist (John Creger) that did the same thing I did- solo, instrumental stuff. He said 'are you familiar with John Fahey?' I didn't know him and I wasn't really interested in guitar until I heard Creger. I really was busy changing from being an organist to a pianist so I had my hands full with Fats Waller and his recordings. When I heard John Fahey, I went 'Wow- (that's) just like you and me!' He was doing some traditional (songs), some of his song, some adapting other tunes.

 Then, I went to see John's show and played him my tape, which wasn't actually the work that ended up on my 1972 album (Ballads and Blues) but the ones I re-recorded. I played him three songs and that was enough for him. It was that fast.

 PSF: So that was your first big break?

 Yeah, and then later, the Windham Hill people, I was talking to them and they founded a label. They were doing John Abercrombie and Robbie Basho solo guitar records like John (Fahey) had done. On one of the calls, they asked me about the record I did with John but I said 'Oh, you guys are probably badgered with tapes. I'm not looking to record, I'm looking to get these people recorded.' Later, I founded Dancing Cat and started recording them myself.

But everything I do comes from that break that John gave me. He was also a role model- playing solo concerts and making solo records and record other people. It all comes from what he did. Here was a guy doing exactly what I wanted to do but he was already doing it. I was barely envisioning it. If he hadn't done that first record with me, I wouldn't be doing anything that I'm doing now. Who's going to record a piano playing in 1972 or 1980? That's not classical or jazz? What market is there for that? So both those companies (Takoma, Windham Hill) just did music they liked.

 But John's the first to found a company just to record himself that I know of. Maybe there were other people who did for the occasional one record or something. But (he's) such a pioneer. I started playing guitar before I heard the slack key players, I modelled myself after John Fahey and John Creger.
 

PSF: What was it about John's style that got to you?

 It had elements of impressionism and blues and ragtime and melody and dissonance. Kind of what I was doing on the piano. On the piano, I more had three separate styles: rhythm and blues, blues and melodic. That's what I call 'folk piano' and that's closest to what John did. John's the greatest I ever heard at playing a slow song. Slow songs are really hard. Every note counts and the feeling has to be there. You can't get by with pyrotechnics or anything. I was playing slow songs so it was encouraging to see someone else doing what I was doing, but way ahead. Creger heard him and said 'wow, there's three of us.' And with Basho, there was four. It was a real minority thing.

 I just learned a lot about older blues players and from his influences. I'm glad that in the last few years, he started another label. John without a label just isn't right. He had to have to his own record label to be reissuing things. That's very much a part of who he is. He had to sell Takoma for business reasons back in the '70's but it was great that he got to start another one.

 PSF: They're going to have a Charlie Patton box come out soon.

They are? Oh... what could be more fitting? John used to say 'I even like bad Charlie Patton records.' He composed a song called... "Some Summer Day" I think it was. It was a Patton track that was never found. So he was kind of imagining what it would sound like, but not at all really. Composed his own impression of what "Some Summer Day" would be and it wasn't Pattonesque at all, which was great. It was Faheyesque. But nobody could play a slow ballad that I've heard like John. I guess the equivalent would be Ray Charles on piano to play really slow. It's hard. When you're fast, you kind of got the momentum.

I just can't say enough about him. The only wedding and memorial both that I've ever gone to are his. It's different with John. Somehow it was right for me to do that and played "Steamboat Gwine ‘Round De Bend" on harmonica, then I played it on piano. I'll never go to another one but it was the right thing to do. I didn't even go to my dad's or grandfather's. I don't deal with those things. I don't deal with things in a conventional way- I'm kind of like John. (laughs)
 

PSF: When you first met John, what was your impression of him on a personal level?

 Just very real, humorous, spontaneous. Loved his influences. My main influence at that time was Fats Waller so I'd always talk about him. John was into Charlie Patton, John Hurt. You never knew what he was going to talk about, like 'why did America fight Hitler?' That could be a two hour thing. It could be almost anything. In the moment completely. He knew I loved cats and he did too. He'd go take a bike and we'd look for ones. He'd say "George understands cats!" The world is definitely different without him, isn't it? It just feels different.

 PSF: I'd say so.

 I've done eight albums and he's done 45. He's like Vince Guaraldi, where the influence is maybe not known. But it would be very different if he hadn't done what he did. Without John, there wouldn't be a lot of people playing guitars by themselves and these labels but people don't necessary know that- that this came from some place. I was just so glad I knew him. How do you explain him?

 PSF: He was an interesting fellow.

 I'm not a hanger-outer myself- I like to stay by myself to work. But hanging out with him was great.
 

PSF: What was your experience of working with John for Takoma?

 Well, neither one of us did the business. We just did the music and signed a simple contract. He would say something like 'you got to do the song again' or 'you need to go back and do it later' or 'it's sloppy- you need to work on it.' Just was encouraging and stayed out of the way and was right there at the same time.

 PSF: So his suggestions helped a lot?

 Yeah. I didn't know I wanted to do theme albums yet so I just did my ten best tunes that I could play at the time. He never said 'you should do that one.' Nobody could tell him what to record. Basically, it's the same thing with me when I record people- I know what they do and I like what they do. There's not an issue there- we just make the best record we can. I'll let the artist have the final decision but I'll definitely want to tell him what I think. But we don't have too much disagreement because I did agree to record them in the first place so I like what they're doing and we have a lot in common. It was the same thing with John- we had a lot in common. I even did one of his pieces on that record- "Steamboat Gwine ‘Round De Bend" and "Brenda's Blues," a ragtime piece I do on piano, not on guitar. 99% of the guitar I play is Hawaiian these days.

 What John did was the means for me to do the Delta bluesmen of Hawaii. I eventually said that I wanted to do what he did with those players with the Hawaiian players. It was great to have the role model thing there. Wow, I wanted to record people like he was doing too. The world would be different (without John) but mine would be more different than anyone else's on the planet if he wasn't around. I can't tell you how drastic... I mean, I wouldn't be doing anything I'm doing right now. I wouldn't be recording people, I wouldn't be making albums and I wouldn't be doing concerts. And that's 99% of how I spend my time.
 

PSF: Did you have much contact with John after the Takoma album?

 We stayed in touch but he was a little hard to get a hold of later, when he was living at hotels. I'd talk to him when I could. Probably for every hundred times I tried, I'd get him once. We always stayed in touch. It was for different frequencies, depending on our schedules. Definitely always called him when I could. He would keep his line off the hook for days sometimes though. At his house in L.A., he had a light in the phone- he'd have to see the light on there or he wouldn't know anyone was calling him.
 

PSF: Were you in touch with him much in the '90's?

 Fairly often. Just when I could. He just never answer the phone or the front desk (hotel) would say 'he's not taking calls right now.' He was sick and stuff.

 PSF: He had a big change in his work and mindset then.

 He really re-invented himself, as an electric player. Many, many years ago, with John, it wasn't whether I liked it or not, it was 'what is he doing?' If you listen to an artist enough, that's what you get. It's never whether I liked it or not. I did. But it was deeper than that. It's like 'now what's he doing?' Which was fun for me, much more than saying 'is that good or not?' I just transcended that whole thing completely.
 

PSF: Did his views change about his own work then?

 No, he's like me... He liked what he did and he likes a lot of other stuff better. I probably like my stuff better than he liked his. I like it OK- I give myself a B, he probably gave himself a C. He really didn't like to talk about himself or go off into autobiographical things or 'is this song good?' He'd be bored with that if he did it. I'm the same way. I would ask him stuff about himself because... I didn't want to talk about me. You just never knew what was going to happen with him. It was always great. If you had any nonsense going on, he'd call you on it right there. He didn't care. That was good. Even if he was wrong, it always... He didn't care if it mattered what he thought. But it did matter what he thought. It mattered to all of us what he thought. He didn't want it to matter- that made it matter more! (laughs)

It isn't really a linear situation here. It's a whole phenomenon like... There's nobody that even resembles him in any way at all. Just a wonderful, unique experience knowing him. Not a lot of people did but he had a lot more friends than he thought he did.
 

PSF: In the last few times you spoke with him, what was of interest to John?

 About the electric guitar, reinventing himself, tired of the old stuff that he moved past. I said 'Got it- know what you mean 'cause I do it every day.' He was interesting. He did talk about himself in the later years.

Fantasy asked me to participate in the reissues and stuff. I had unopened copies of records that they couldn't find tapes for. They asked him to do notes for The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, which was one of the ones that influenced me the most. I did "Brenda's Blues" off that record. So what happened was... I wound up interviewing him for the notes, which was... (laughs) what's wrong with this picture? I had all these songs of his that I knew so well and I asked him 'you don't mind this, do you?' I said 'John, I never thought I could ask you these questions.' It was a little too much of a groupie in awe of him in the beginning, which is very uncomfortable for a person. That's done to me a little bit. But he wouldn't let me get away with it. I lasted about 5 minutes like that. Made sure that didn't happen anymore, which is good. Why shouldn't anybody say what they're feeling? Let's get this thing down to earth here.

 He got mad that I called him 'one of the great American composers.' Later, he accepted that. But he didn't like that back then. I'd get mad if someone said that about me too. I do understand. But he accepted the contributions he made later on and understood it better. He had some sense of peace in the last five years.

PSF: How so?

 He quit drinking and he quit smoking, which is what those lovely scientists put in there to make those things really addictive. He was getting along with his ex-wife well and his friends. Got the electric guitar thing going. He exhausted everything that he wanted to do with the acoustic guitar. Living at the hotel, without the burden of a house. It just kind of came together. I didn't think he'd make it past 40 'cause he was drinking a lot. But he did- he quit. I was going to get him some natural herb stuff in tincture and he said 'I can't take it 'cause it's preserved in alcohol.' What's right with this picture? Wow, it was so great to hear him say that. His wife always liked that I hung around him 'cause I never drank. He wouldn't have been drinking more if I wasn't around, that's for sure. Maybe he would (have) 'cause I'm not going to be sharing it. I didn't hang out in those places though- I hate the whole alcoholic culture with a passion. I don't hate the people, just the culture.

But yeah, he was a great friend and changed my live more than any other person ever has.
 

PSF: For the people who just know John through his music, what would you tell them about John that they might not know?

 I'd just say that he was really REAL and unique individual that was just right out there and in the moment. It was just always a great experience knowing him and hanging out with him- I could never do it enough. Just like with every person, there's a lot more than the music. Not everybody can get to know everybody else. His writing, his slant on life, his slant on history, his sense of humor, his total reality. He was a total real person. Did have love for people. Had a lot of empathy for people. He's probably the hardest person to describe...

One of these very distinct individuals. The world of music as we know it would be very different without him, although a lot of that is the underground. It's not as obvious as the Beatles or Stravinsky or Louis Armstrong but it's definitely there. One of the great ones to play his own instrumental compositions and just focus on that and have it be different from blues or folk. He threw in European classical, not for guitar techniques but from the symphonies and just had his slant on trying to portray something in music. It was almost always solo instrumental, which is where I came from. I said 'wow, someone else is doing this. That's great. I can learn something here and move ahead quicker.' And that was on a different instrument 'cause I didn't want to play guitar. I used to play some of his pieces though and that was great, getting me started on guitar with the finger style. It's hard to play John's stuff- you got to kind of be him to do it. You just became yourself more from the inspiration of how much of an individual he was. So you had to play it his way or play something else.

 You never knew what the next record was going to be with him. That was just like you didn't know what the next minute with him was going to be. It was great. It wasn't just entertaining, it was also educative and real.
 

PSF: Are there any pieces of music that you remember most fondly from John?

 God, there's so many! I can't really pin it down to one... It's like saying 'how do you remember Bach or Armstrong?' 20 come to mind instantly. I guess I'd answer that in a backhanded way. The two I play currently and I don't even play them on guitar- "Steamboat Gwine 'Round De Bend" was a slide piece and I play it on harmonica solo and piano solo and also "Brenda's Blues." It was ragtime guitar (piece) and I play it as stride piano, which I used to do more. I kind of do it in a rhythm and blues way.

John adapted pieces- he did them completely his own way, exactly the way he wanted. Pretty much didn't use much from the originals- had his own way of playing, based on his skills and limitations. That was another lesson. When you're just playing a guitar solo, it's going to be limited so you got to go down there and get it, get the depth of the thing. Get the sound right out of the guitar. Not just all the notes, but they got to sound good too. He explored the tunings other than standard.

"When the Springtime Comes Again," "Wine and Roses" (aka "The Approaching of the Disco Void" aka "Red Pony"), "Transcendental Waterfall," "Some Summer Day." He was great in those A minor slow ballads. He played in C major tuning and C drone tuning with the two top strings tuned to a C, he played G major, G minor. There are a lot of Hawaiian tunings- most Hawaiians play in three or four. He definitely actively played in 8 or 9 if you count standard tuning. Most Hawaiians don't even do that.

I just have a debt of gratitude beyond words for him... I'm just so glad that he had some peace in the last five years. He wasn't perfect but who is? He was real.


See the rest of our John Fahey tribute


Dean Blackwood/Revenant Byron Coley on the '90's Byron visits John
Dr. Demento George Winston Fahey interview

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER


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