A Lang Road

[from Lycurgus]
It's a lang road that's no goat a turnin'.--Old Scottish proverb.

Author: David Hoehl - TNT USA
Published: April, 2018

For a time in the early 1970s, the dominant ducks in one of music's more rewarding little puddles were three exponents of six- and twelve-steel-string guitar playing in a fingerstyle school that has come to be known as "American primativism." All three recorded for a label called Takoma Records, named for the Washington, DC suburb Takoma Park, Maryland, home town to label founder John Fahey. As "senior duck," he had more or less invented the genre, melding classical traditions and Far Eastern influences with the style of playing he heard from blues guitarists featured on 1920s and 1930s "race records";[1] he established the label, investing his savings from work as a gas station attendant and money borrowed from an Episcopal priest, out of conviction no existing label was likely to be interested in his new style of music.

Fahey--a complicated man, or, as another Fahey "discovery," Toulouse Engelhardt, put it, "a very strange cat"-- was one of us, an inveterate record collector who started with rare jazz and blues records and, during a rough period when his career appeared to have petered out, subsisted in part by selling collectable records he harvested from thrift stores. As a guitarist, he recorded in the neighborhood of 40 albums for Takoma and other labels, the closest to a "major" probably being Vanguard. He also discovered and promoted other artists, including the second of the Takoma guitar triumvirate, Leo Kottke. If Fahey was the patriarch, Kottke was the most successful while at Takoma, even though he appeared on only two records. The "big hit" was titled Six- and Twelve-String Guitar, and profits from its 500,000-unit sales figures enabled Fahey to expand his operation. Since then, Kottke has gone on to record for a variety of labels including the undeniably major RCA.

Then there was Peter Lang.

[The Thing at the Nursery Room Window]

Like but independently of Fahey, Lang came to his playing style through the influence of earlier bluesmen. Like Kottke, but unlike the now-deceased Fahey, Lang is an active musician. Like both, he has followed a "lang" road with many a "turnin'" to where he is today. Summarizing briefly, his 1973 debut album, The Thing at the Nursery Room Window, was decently received and has become something of a cult classic. As Lang's concert career took off, there followed a series of records on various labels in reasonably rapid succession: the next year he appeared with Fahey on Leo Kottke, Peter Lang, and John Fahey, a Takoma "split" intended to promote the other two by exploiting Kottke's surprise success. Lang moved on to Flying Fish Records, where he garnered a Grammy nomination for the 1975 album Lycurgus (so it always seems to be called, although the cover reads in full "Lycurgus the Wolf Driver"), and then to Waterhouse for Prime Cuts in 1977 and Back to the Wall the following year. Presumably at least in part because of legal issues involving two record labels, resolved only in 1980, eight years would pass before his next album, an Aspen Records LP called American Stock, mostly new performances of material Lang had released on earlier albums. After which...

Silence. Elvis famously left the building, but Peter Lang went him one better: he left the music business entirely to pursue a career in animation and special effects. By his own account, he continued playing, at least for his own pleasure--"Dogs howl, people play music. When the moon is full, I howl."--but the record-buying public heard nothing more from him in the 1980s or 1990s. Only in 2002 did his name re-emerge on a recording, Dharma Blues (Horus Records[2]), which he "dedicated to John Fahey 1939-2001 who saved me from a career in public health and changed my life forever." Lang himself gives an account of the album's genesis in the brief program booklet:

The endeavor itself turned out to be a good deal harder than I had anticipated. My last studio album was in the fall of 1978 when I was a young man, recording with a young man's hands. It wasn't that I hadn't contemplated doing this; I had threatened to do it for years. Of course, no one took me seriously after a while.

A friend...called one day and asked me again, as he had many times before, about my doing an album. I gave him my stock answer; I was working on it. He was quiet, then said: "You know Pete, you might wake up some day, in a drainage ditch in the middle of the freeway with one eye sticking up out of the muck and think to yourself, gee, I wish I'd made that record."

You can't argue with the truth when it comes up and bites you on the buttocks. Nothing lasts forever, particularly the hands of an aging guitarist.

[Back to the Wall]

Horus released another Lang album, titled simply Guitar, the following year, and in 2008 an album called Testament devoted to the American blues tradition, with songs dating as far back as the 19th century. Then Lang's road took a most unfortunate "turnin'," one eerily foreshadowed by his friend's "what if" that had led to Dharma Blues: Lang was injured in an automobile accident that impaired one of his hands, followed shortly by surgery for a major infection, all made more difficult by legal wrangling with recalcitrant insurance carriers. Happily, those difficulties seem to be behind him; no more albums have been forthcoming, but last year Lang and two other Takoma alumni held a reunion tour in tribute to John Fahey.

Peter Lang's music has been part of my life for a long time. When, as a green-eared college kid,[3] I "discovered" him, it was through the then recently-issued Back to the Wall, with its eye-catching, surreal monochrome cover art and eccentric range of cuts, some solo; some with an ensemble of other musicians; and some in which Lang, no longer at Takoma, broke with that label's ban on vocals as imposed by founder John Fahey. Only several years later, in a trip to a much-celebrated record store in the Maryland DC suburbs called "Joe's Record Paradise," would I discover The Thing at the Nursery Room Window. With that I was well and fully hooked, although I found Lycurgus (the Grammy Nominee) uneven by comparison and have yet to warm to Prime Cuts, a recent acquisition despite its long-ago release date. Dharma Blues and Guitar are both purely solo efforts, and I've been giving them a lot of play while at work lately.

OK, enough history; what about the music? One striking aspect of Lang's approach to the guitar heard on all his albums is that, when appropriate, the man, fretting (sorry!) about "aging guitarist's hands" notwithstanding, has been blessed with fast fingers. Take, for example, the 12-and-a-half minute "All Through My Life" in Guitar, in which some melodic passages recall the kind of digital velocity so often on display in the work of Lang's mentor John Fahey, or "Snaker Ray Has Come & Gone," also on Guitar; at the outset, the melody notes move right along, but what really sets up a hard-driving cut is the rapid-fire foundation in the bass, and when the bass comes to the fore midway through everything really takes off. That said, Lang by his own admission focused more on sheer technical wizardry before his temporary retirement from the music business. In a 2008 interview, he said, "Technically, I am as good as I was back in the earlier days, even though I no longer have a young man's hands. ...[W]hen I was younger, I was obsessed with ideas like 'how fast can I cut it?' and 'how high can I stack it?' Those notions are gone now. I'm more relaxed and my main concerns today are ensuring the performances are heartfelt and full of nuance and tonal contrasts." In other words, Lang, always accomplished and innovative, has matured as all the best artists do with age.

In evidence from his very first track and clearly noticeable across the span of an album: Lang's rich and widely varied tonal palette, the result in part of his fondness--in the tradition of baroque violin master Heinrich Biber--for scordatura, or alternative tunings. In The Thing at the Nursery Room Window, for instance, Lang adopts at least six tunings for the 13 tracks; if his tuning choices are more restrained in Dharma Blues, they still number three, of which "standard" appears only in "Lost on Chainbridge Road" and the title track. I'm sure his alternation between six- and twelve-string guitar plays a role here, too, and for further variety he sometimes plays with a slide, as in "Halloween Blues" on Back to the Wall.

No catalogue of Lang's virtues as a player would be complete without mention of the geniality that shines through nearly everything he does. He has a wry sense of humor; for instance, here is what he wrote about the 12-string guitar in his album notes for Guitar: "The twelve-string is a wonderful instrument for bold, powerful, sweeping pieces, but it is not really geared toward more delicate and complex compositions. In many ways it's more akin to a three foot cheese grater than a musical instrument." Like Eric Satie, Lang often gives his music whimsical titles--"Round Worm Reel," "Snow Toad," "Wide Oval Ripoff," "Future Shot at the Rainbow"--but, as with Satie, the titles may be amusing but the music is deadly serious. I think the same can be said for him personally: he doesn't take himself all that seriously, but without question he takes his music very seriously indeed. Everything is carefully crafted and beautifully finished, even a selection like "This World Is not My Home" from Back to the Wall, a traditional hymn arranged to give the impression of a little community band or church group that isn't quite together, much in the way Charles Ives would try to capture the sound of small town Americana.

Which brings us, in roundabout fashion, in general to Lang the singer and in particular to his last album, Testament.

As John Fahey did not like singing with the guitar, Lang's first album, The Thing at the Nursery Room Window, and all Lang's contributions to the Leo Kottke, Peter Lang, and John Fahey split were instrumental. Much of what followed, I'd say the best part, has been the same. Lang can be heard as singer, however, in Lycurgus, Back to the Wall, Testament, and the on-location Prime Cuts. He is not a trained vocalist, and, from an objective standpoint, singing is not really his forte--but then, the same could be said of Flanders and Swann or Tom Lehrer, and they all delighted audiences by virtue of their high spirits and sense of fun. So it is with Lang, at least in the earlier albums: when the material is right--generally, when it is humorous, particularly if the humor is a bit cynical, sarcastic, or dark--he carries the day with elan. One signal success is the wry title cut of Back to the Wall, and to my way of thinking a high point of Lycurgus is "Let the Old Boy Go," a jaunty ditty about, of all things, how a dysfunctional family treats an uncle's cremation urn.

[Testament]

The largely vocal Testament, however, reveals Lang the singer to be a good bit more versatile than one might have thought at first. In contrast to his prior, in some sense generally forward-looking issues, the album is a look back, a tribute in which Lang acknowledges his influences: after opening with "Freight Train," a brief duet he recorded with John Fahey for Minnesota Public Television in 1979, it continues with 15 blues numbers arranged and performed on 6- and 12-string guitar and mandolin by Peter Lang with minimal backing by percussionist Dave King and Steve Larkin and Michael Tanner on upright bass and harmonica, respectively. Some of the songs go back to the late 19th century or maybe even earlier; a few have put in appearances in earlier Lang albums, but in very different arrangments and presentations. The attractively designed booklet includes a brief but informative paragraph about each of the selections and the early artists who first or most famously championed them on records.

Admittedly, Lang's lightweight voice really isn't ideal for this material, and his attempts to evoke the depths of an old-time black bluesman's by injecting some "gravel" into it--something foreshadowed by his spoken introduction to the otherwise instrumental "Halloween Blues" on Back to the Wall--are, for the most part, not always entirely successful. No matter. At their best, particularly in the touching "Delia" and dramatic ballad "Stackolee"--to which, in the way of oral tradition singers everywhere, Lang contributes a ribald lyric of his own creation--these uninhibited, often off-color old songs of love, loss, hardship, humor, and sheer cussedness give Lang all the space he needs to speak (or sing) from the heart. I'd say the best demonstration of Lang's range is the song "Jimmy Bell," possibly my favorite track in the Waterhouse album Back to the Wall and the closing number in Testament. In the earlier recording, the atmosphere is lighthearted and a bit self-deprecating.

"Jimmy Belly's in town,
babe, he's bald and he's round.
He's got greenback dollars and other sweet lies!"

If you look at Lang's photo from that period (reproduced at the top of this article), the sense of winking self-reference is obvious, even as he delivers an old text very pertinent to events that would unfold in subsequent years, when the misdeeds of celebrated televangelists would be hot fodder for American news outlets. Helping no end is that Lang is fronting a crack ensemble in a fine arrangement, which grows bigger and more complicated with each verse.

By contrast, in Testament the song is much more a thing of menace; as a subtle change in the lyrics shows, the poking fun is gone:

"Jimmy Belly's in town,
babe, he's bald and he's brown,
He got greenback dollars and other sweet lies!"

Here, the accompaniment, notwithstanding smaller forces, is at least as intricate as in the earlier recording, but from the outset it has an air of threat and danger about it, not the more lighthearted feel of its predecessor. Considering that Lang's recorded legacy has sprawled across 35 years and five labels, with two sides captured in concert settings at two universities, the sonic quality of his recordings has been remarkably consistent. A Peter Lang record will feature a lifelike guitar front and center with well-registered backup instruments, if any, and fully intelligible vocals. This being a magazine for audio enthusiasts, I expect some of you may be interested in what he had to say about his instruments and microphoning technique for Testament during a 2008 interview:

Lang's primary six-string on the session was a Yamaha CPX 900 Acoustic Electric guitar featuring the A.R.T. Acoustic Resonance Transducer preamplifier system that includes four contact pickups and a solid spruce top, with flamed maple back and sides. He relied mainly on an all-Mahogany Martin J12-15 for the album's 12-string duties.

[Dharma Blues]

"The A.R.T. system provides a very natural sound and represents the best onboard electronics I've heard," says Lang. "I also like the neck a lot. It's similar to the Gibson fretboards I'm very partial to in terms of radius and its fat fret wires. The Martin J12-15 has a Martin Thinline pickup and offers a wonderful fat, warm, and rich sound like a lot of the old blues guitars. In particular, the Mahogany provides a very sweet resonance reminiscent of a Spruce-topped guitar that has aged for years."

Lang employs many open tunings on Testament, including open-G, open-A, and dropped-D tunings, but his core favorite is D, A, D, F#, A, D, as featured on several of the album's tracks. [It also was his choice for four tracks of The Thing at the Nursery Room Window and eight of Dharma Blues.--drh]

"It's the greatest, all-purpose open tuning I know of," says Lang. "It's very versatile in that it lets me play really snappy, bluesy stuff, while also being really magnificent for richer, more complex material. It lets you access some really colorful sounds as you work out the melody lines in the higher strings, and also get really rich notes out of the bass strings that are missing in a lot of other open tunings."

Lang and [producer Michael] Tanner used several micing techniques during the Testament sessions to capture the truest guitar sounds possible.

"We mainly used AKG 451 mics, which I've used since the '70s," says Lang. "I've never found an acoustic guitar mic that sounds better or is more accurate. It produces very tight, clean lows with no barking, hiss, feedback, or wolf tones. We used my favorite technique, which is to cross two AKG 451s over the guitar at 90 degree angles with the 'X' going over the guitar between the sound hole and the twelfth fret, placed about six inches back to capture an accurate stereo image. The crossed pair works well, but it relies on being positioned precisely. If it's too close, there will be too much direct sound. If it's too far away, there will be too much reverberant sound. We also sometimes used an AKG 452 mic aimed parallel to the top of the guitar, down at the bottom edge between the bridge and the butt of the guitar. You have to be careful when micing this way because it's really easy to bang into the mic when you're playing, but it's worth it because it offers such a beautiful, natural sound. Another technique we used was placing a Rode NT1-A Large Diaphragm Studio Condenser mic further down the neck halfway between the guitar and peghead, along with an AKG 3000B condenser mic placed a foot back from the Rode and pointed toward the sound hole to really warm up the sound."

A surprise opportunity

Like its subject, this article has traveled a "lang" road and made more than one "turnin'" to reach its present state. At its outset, I had heard Lang only on recordings, never in person. As luck would have it, just as I thought I'd finished, late in the afternoon on April 15 I spotted a notice in the newspaper that he was to play that very night in Takoma Park, Maryland--the same Washington, DC suburb where he had his start as a new Takoma Records artist, and about a 25 minute drive from my home--to close a music festival called The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose--A Festival of American Primative Guitar. According to the paper, tickets were already sold out, but I hurried to the event location anyhow in hopes of finding a way in, and I was in luck: my credentials as a reporter for the storied TNT-Audio magazine proved sufficient to secure me an opening. Better yet, as I waited for the wheels of volunteer administration to do their thing, I noticed an amiable, bearded figure sitting at a table to one side, chatting with an apparent acquaintance, wearing one of the blue "artist" tags on a lanyard. Could it be? Yes, it was: Peter Lang himself, passing the time before his scheduled gig. I proceeded to introduce myself, and he proved to be every bit as friendly as I'd expected, granting me a short interview in the time before he was due on stage.

I asked whether any new records were in the offing, and the good news is that the answer was "yes." First planned is a 2-CD retrospective set, one CD being "big" pieces and one faster, peppy ones. In discussing this project, Lang allowed that the pieces nearest and dearest to his heart are the longer, more classical/exploratory ones. Following that set, he intends to release another of new material.

[Peter Lang at the festival]

Discussing Testament, he spoke at some length about the blues, their African roots, their early practitioners, and their influence on American popular music. He describes the blues as "the DNA of American music": rock and roll and jazz are both fruits of African influences first manifested in the blues. Lang expressed particular interest in how blues songs are living things, with performers adding their own verses over time. He himself has followed that practice in "Stackolee"; he he acknowledges adding one verse in the program notes to Testament, and during our conversation he said he'd added one more (the one about the electric chair). As to how he came to record an entire album of blues songs, he recounted how a friend had suggested he do so, but he had at first dismissed the idea, saying, "Those songs are best represented by the singers who originally recorded them." Came the reply, "But they're all dead," and he realized that if the music is to remain a living tradition, it's up to today's performers to keep it before the public.

The brief time before he was due to play was enough for only one more question. Noting he had begun recording for LP but now records CDs, I asked if he assembles programs differently for a format with longer uninterrupted play time. His answer: "No--it's all music." He did, however, express pleasure with the resurgence of LPs. Not surprisingly for one who spent some years practicing visual arts and has a history of impish annotations, he likes the larger format for its artwork and the extra space for program notes.

The time arrived for Peter Lang to take the stage. Although he and John Fahey had toured together regularly during his youth, last year's John Fahey tribute tour marked the first time Lang, his youth now long past, had engaged in that "young man's game" in eight years. Nonetheless, he remains a real pro: rather than his own instruments, he was playing borrowed guitars, one six and one twelve string, and he was nursing a left-hand finger injured when a car door closed on it a couple of weeks earlier, but he still offered up a substantial, crowd-pleasing program interspersed with entertaining observations and anecdotes. I particularly enjoyed the story of how he came to be a professional musician and his early days at Takoma. He originally had planned to go into science as an epidemiologst, but someone taped him playing at a party and sent the cassette to John Fahey at Takoma. Fahey famously listened to everything anyone sent, and he promptly took Peter Lang on as a Takoma artist. For some reason, however, there was a delay in the release of his first album, and in the interim Lang worked at the label as self-described "Director of Distribution," meaning he was the company "go-fer," picking up records at the pressing plant, taking them to the distributor or record stores, running checks to the bank, procuring office supplies, and sometimes going out to get the rest of the office coffee--or beer!

At the festival, Lang's program comprised (by my count) nine numbers plus--after a brief delay while some of the festival volunteers tracked down his slide, which somehow had not come on stage with him--what you might consider a pre-encore: he played and sang "This World Is Not My Home" complete for a sound check, drawing the audience to sing along in spots. Having warmed up the crowd, he treated us to a series of pieces for which he is well known, mostly instrumental on the six-string guitar; in deference to the injured finger, he was sparing with the more hard-driving pieces from his repertoire. That said, he did pick up the 12-string for a couple of numbers, including a rousing rendition of "Guitar Rag." (For an account he played in 2007, see the YouTube link below.) Of note, he added further verses to "Stackolee" beyond what he offered in Testament. Throughout, he showed complete command of his borrowed instruments; I was impressed with his hands' economical, decisive motions drawing out the music. His concluding number, a nod to the Takoma years and companions, was "When Kings Come Home," which he recorded in the split with John Fahey and Leo Kottke.

As I'm sure you can tell by now, I think Lang is a very special artist; he and John Fahey are two of the few exceptions who justify my telling people I listen almost exclusively to classical and operatic music. When I began writing, I had heard Fahey perform once; now I've heard Peter Lang in person, too. Fortunately, his numerous records also are there to bring his artistry into my life and keep it there. From the stage, Lang told us that when John Fahey heard that unsolicited tape submission, he admonished the staff to "go get that chicken-pickin' guy!" To stay with the poultry metaphor and paraphrase an old Kentucky Fried Chicken slogan, if you have any susceptibility to solo guitar at all, I urge you to give his music a try; I think you'll find it's finger pickin' good!

My thanks to the volunteers at the Thousand Incarnations of the Rose festival for their kind permission to attend Peter Lang's performance on short notice. Even more, thanks to Peter Lang himself for graciously making time to talk to me when he was due to perform in short order.

[1] - During that period of sharp racial segregation in just about every aspect of American life, generalist domestic record labels commonly maintained separate catalogue series, known as "race records," for issues aimed at what today we in the United States would call the African American market. Records intended for other ethnicities--Scandinavian, German, Polish, Armenian, Jewish (Yiddish), etc.--similarly might have their own designated catalogue blocks.

[2] - I think the Horus label issues are another instance of Lang following in Fahey's footsteps; as far as I have been able to determine, just as Fahey founded Takoma as an outlet for his own aspirations to record, Lang founded Horus.

[3] - For me, at least, among the more rewarding aspects of writing for TNT has been stopping to reflect on my own "lang," "turnin'-infested" road to my present taste in and knowledge of music. ("The one questionable, the other a lot less than he thinks," I hear some of you mutter. In the immortal words of Nero Wolfe, "Pfui!").

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Copyright 2018 David Hoehl - drh@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com