Peter Lang
Records and Performs Once Again
By Gloria Goodwin Raheja

With his very first album, The Thing At The Nursery Room Window, released under the Takoma label in 1973, Peter Lang established himself as a leading exponent of what is sometimes termed "American primitive guitar." The foundation for this style of steel-string guitar playing had been laid by John Fahey in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with his profoundly innovative solo instrumental responses to the blues guitar music preserved on the old 78 rpm "race records" he had managed to unearth. Peter Lang was eventually inspired by the same music, though he came to it via a different route. Lang’s interest in acoustic guitar was sparked by the folk revival music of the late 50s and early 60s, and especially by his exposure to the performances of Koerner, Ray and Glover in Minneapolis coffeehouses. It was the vast blues repertoire of John Koerner, Dave Ray and Tony Glover that led him to explore for himself the original country blues recordings from the 1920s and 30s. He has written that it was that journey to the sources that hammered a shape to his own music. He was further inspired by John Fahey when he went to work for Fahey’s Takoma Records in the early 70s. The Thing At the Nursery Room Window is a fingerstyle guitar classic, and that recording, along with the 1974 Kottke/Lang/Fahey compilation, established him as a now-legendary master of solo acoustic guitar music, on both six and twelve string guitar. While there are many guitarists who claim an affinity with Fahey, there are few of them who have gone back as he did to the country blues traditions in the way that Peter Lang has done, to craft such an original and distinctive body of solo instrumental work. His 2001 release, Dharma Blues, looks back once again, for inspiration, to early blues guitarists such as Sylvester Weaver, but the result is distinctively Peter Lang. With the release of the album in June of 2001, Peter Lang has returned to recording and performing, after a hiatus of nearly fifteen years. After a recent concert, opening for Emmylou Harris, Lang talked about his past, and about future plans.


Interview

GGR: What were the most important early influences on your music?

PL: Although I usually cite Dave Ray as the first major influence, I had some rather eclectic influences going back to early childhood. My first introduction to anything akin to real music was Saturday morning television With Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers. Later we would tune into the country shows like Porter Wagner. In the late 1950s the Kingston Trio ushered in the folk boom. It was engaging music and I bought some of those albums. I think it was in 7th grade though that a friend dragged me off to a coffeehouse at the University of Minnesota. That changed everything, in 1961 or 1962, when I first saw Koerner, Ray and Glover. What a rush that was. It was a shock to the system at first, but it was immediately engaging, and there was so much power there. I would go down there as often as I could afford, to watch them spin the magic. I patterned my picking style after Dave "Snaker" Ray’s, but the experience also led me on to other music that would have a major impact on me. That was a starting point, along with the early Dylan stuff. That music led me back to the original purveyors of country blues music. The one that stands out perhaps the most in my mind was John Hurt. It is hard to explain why, as he is certainly not as flashy as a Blind Blake or a Bill Broonzy. He had melody and clarity like spring water. I still play his pieces for the fun of it and I never seem to get tired of them. I guess Blind Blake and Blind Willie Johnson and Blind Willie McTell fit in there, and so do Gary Davis, and Elizabeth Cotten.

GGR: You've referred to your style of playing as "American primitive guitar." What does that label mean to you?

PL: American Primitive, hmmm. I don’t know if John Fahey coined this phrase or not, but he was using it all the way back in the sixties, and refers to it on a Laura Weber show taped in the late sixties. Fahey intended it to mean untutored, as in the case of the "French Primitive" painters. I think it refers to something new and unexplored, a feeling which his music certainly seems to convey. John saw and heard everything with new eyes and new ears and that came out in his music. Because I was part of that whole thing people stick the label on me. I guess it works okay.


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Gloria Goodwin Raheja is a Professor of Anthropology and former Director of the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Minnesota, where, alas, her professional obligations are entirely unconnected with music. She studies guitar with Wade Oden and is interested in contemporary fingerstyle guitar and country blues. She is a Society member.

 







GGR: How did you become involved in the writing of 20th Century Masters of Fingerstyle Guitar, with John Stropes?

PL: John was a great player in his own right, but his true gift was that he could figure out the way other people played and reproduce it perfectly. And, he could write it down. The idea for doing the book came out of our mutual whining about how bad the guitar tab books of that era were. We wanted to raise the bar on what was acceptable for a guitar method. We also chose players we felt to be the most important practitioners at the time. Were we to do it today, obviously there would be more artists, but at the time we singled out Fahey, Norman Blake, Leo Kottke, Joseph Spence, Ry Cooder, and two of my tunes, When Kings Come Home and V/The Connecticut Promissory Rag are included in the book.

Although it has been out of print for several years, the book is now scheduled to be re-released. It will be updated (probably in the forward, and hopefully with a new missing chapter on Taj Mahal (which was part of the original but which we had to drop because we could not come to an agreement with the publisher) and we think there will be a companion CD to go along with it.

GGR: What impact did your association with John Fahey have on your playing technique and on your compositional style?

PL: I had not heard Fahey until I actually signed with Takoma. When the label gave me his records to play I held my head in disbelief, wondering how this guy could have fallen through the cracks in the floor of my world.

When I started at Takoma I tended to think in two and three minute segments with square tempos and major triads. Though John did not actually produce my first record he provided a great deal of input on that work. Fahey suggested the idea of joining similar themes, and exploring both time and space. He also wanted me to try using dissonance and minor tunings. Maybe the biggest thing he put into me was the idea that a major part of music exists in the space between notes and chords. The results of his input were many of my favorite pieces from the first album (Future Shot at the Rainbow, Bituminous Nightmare, Young Man Young Man Look At Your Shoes) where those new ideas shine brightest.

GGR: You've written a remarkably beautiful and compelling tribute to John Fahey, Witness to the Messenger, which seems to be a subtle amalgamation of the sound of Peter Lang and of John Fahey. How did you come to write the piece, and how precisely did you achieve that effect?

PL: Witness to the Messenger was written without a recording in mind. I was caught by surprise at John’s illness and subsequent death, in February of 2001. I had been out of the business for quite a few years and had little contact with Fahey in the 1990s. I returned from his funeral in Oregon quite conflicted and full of guilt. I wrote the piece more as a way to try and process it all. I tried to incorporate Fahey’s history along with his techniques and styling and create a retrospective sort of thing. It was near completion when I received a call about a Fahey tribute album being proposed by George Winston (another Takoma artist). I recorded it last May using Fahey’s old Recording King guitar. The album will be out sometime this summer and features a host of people who’d been influenced in one way or another by Fahey, including George Winston, John Renbourn, Stefan Grossman and many others.

GGR: What are your current recording projects?

PL: I actually had a new album in the can before I released Dharma Blues last June. I took two years off to record those pieces and ended up with two albums. Nearly a year later though, and having had time to reflect, I am going to re-record a number of those pieces, and add several others I have written in the interim. I am re-recording in part because I have the use of Fahey’s Recording King Guitar which sounds amazing. John recorded many of what I consider to be his best works on the "King"-- Of Rivers and Religion, America, After the Ball, Fare Forward Voyagers, and several others. I also own all my previous masters, and will be re-releasing them over the course of the next year or two.


Discography

Dharma Blues. Horus, 2001
American Stock. Aspen Records, 1986
Back to the Wall. Waterhouse Records, 1978
Prime Cuts. Waterhouse Records, 1977
Lycurgus. Flying Fish, 1975
Leo Kottke/Peter Lang/John Fahey. Takoma, 1974
The Thing At the Nursery Room Window. Takoma, 1973

---- Originally published in The Guitarist, the newsletter of the Minnesota Guitar Society, pages 6 & 7 - May/June 2002.