In the early 1960s, avant-garde guitarist John Fahey innovated the style that would come to be known as "American Primitive Guitar" - defined as "avant-garde/neo-classical compositions using traditional country blues fingerpicking techniques, which had previously been used to accompany vocals." In American primitive guitar, traditional folk songs become grist for the compositional mill, being drawn out to become extended Indian ragas, gorgeous neoclassicism, raw audio, or about any other way you can slice, mingle and morph sounds from throughout time and across the globe.
Fahey gained a reputation for reinterpreting countless classic Americana tunes, like "Daisy, Daisy" or "Poor Boy Long Ways From Home.” Some of Fahey's most beloved interpretations were of Christmas tunes, like "What Child Is This?" or "Carol Of The Bells,” which were transformed into extended opuses of freewheeling harmonics, extended structures and exploratory microtonality. Fahey actually brings out the gorgeousness and inherent holiness of these tunes, achieving a seemingly impossible alchemical act of making Christmas songs cool.
Songs For Open Cages by Phoenix, AZ, singer-songwriter Eric Dutton has a similar approach to classic Christian anthems, like "Yes! Jesus Loves Me!" or "Oh, How Dark Was The Night? How Deep Was The Woe?" Again, no easy feat. One look at the track listing shows that the first two tracks both have Jesus' name in the title. In these days, when even open-hearted and generally loving people shy away like vampires from garlic to the slightest whiff of organized religion, this is a bold move Indeed. Yes, you'll likely find some acolytes in your congregation, and amongst the faithful, but crossover is highly, highly unlikely.
But it need not be.
Consider "I'd Rather Have Jesus," the first song with vocals. Dutton describes all the things that he'd sacrifice to have Jesus in his life. It raises the question: What is this feeling, that is so valuable to so many?
One slight hint comes from an unofficial, gnostic Christian text, the Nag Hamadi Scroll:
"The Kingdom of God is inside you and all around you,
Not in a mansion of wood and stone.
Split a piece of wood and God is there,
Lift a stone and you will find God."
God, Jesus, spirit... these are simple words for vast complexes. Jesus, in particular, encourages compassion, empathy, loving thy neighbor and trying to suss out a modicum of peace in a pretty dark, chaotic world.
On the other hand, Dutton sings at one point, "Jesus died to set me free." Here's where our theology parts way. I'm afraid I must default to miss Patti Smith, "Jesus died for your sins, but not mine." And I'm sorry to say it, Mr. Dutton, but you were already free.
For those that can peel back the terminology, looking past the surface level of Christian mythology, there's a lot of great things about Songs For Open Cages. I've personally enjoyed the dark and somber imagery of Christianity - "the bloody calvary;” Golgotha, the hill of skulls; the shadowy, furtive disciples meeting in shadowed alleyways. I'm from a religious background, personally, and find that reinterpreting hymns in new and interesting ways, particularly in ways that are current and sonically relevant, heals a part of my soul. This music is in my blood, from birth, and there's no denying it. The close harmonies, like sandpaper against silk, the humble, fingerpicked guitars.
Listening to Songs For Open Cages with an open mind and heart encourages a dialogue that lays down the spite in the spirit of open communication, coming together to solve a problem, which is what the earliest churches were. In those churches, whoever felt moved by the spirit spoke without the hierarchy of the priesthood. THIS is the temple where we all need to be gathering, regardless of your denomination.
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