PERHAPS it was the day’s sun. Or the wine. Or, more likely, the fingerpicking skills of my friend S.
Whatever the reason, quite early one September morning in the bar of small château near Bordeaux in the south of France, I experienced an epiphany.
It came by way of a performance of a short piece of music on a guitar.
Sligo River Blues had been first recorded 50 years earlier, in a church in the United States by the person who wrote it, John Fahey (or Blind Joe Death, if your prefer).
Fahey, then 20, named the three-minute acoustic piece after Sligo Creek, a small river near where he grew up in Takoma Park, Maryland.
Written for solo guitar the piece is a repeating cycle based on first, fourth and fifth notes. Broken down it appears simple, if not repetitious.
But it can assume a dynamic of its own when played, shifting from a series of notes to a melody to a mantra.
That’s how I heard it that night in France – a three-minute experience that cleared my mind, emptying the room of everything but me and Fahey’s music.
I asked S to play it again. And once more after that.
CAN a song change your life?
John Fahey thought so. In 1956, at the age of 16, a friend played him a recording of Blind Willie Johnson’s Praise God, I’m Satisfied.
He later described the experience as an epiphany, a conversion, which left him nauseated and weeping. He felt, he stated, like he had been “smote to the ground by a bolt of lightning”.
So, what changed for me?
That evening in France was not the first time I had heard Sligo River Blues. I was familiar with the song from a 1996 CD reissue of Fahey’s Blind Joe Death, the album it was first heard on.
That version had all the cracks of the first vinyl pressing and the ambient noise of the room it was recorded in half a century ago. It was an authentic as you could expect.
But, off the recording and in the room, it assumed a whole other power, a hypnotic, calm-inducing effect, a feeling of purity in mind and music.
This was Charles Bukowski’s “curious feeling“, a feeling “that everything was beautiful there, that it would always stay beautiful there”.
This was music as mind, as opposed to music as rhythm or pitch, sound and silence. I had never heard music this way before – almost as a Zen mantra.
Since then I searched out other compositions or performances that have the same effect.
They’re rare; likewise ‘Sligo River Blues’ itself doesn’t work for me every time, but when it does it is a remarkable experience.
And you don’t have to be in France, or even in the company of a guitarist, to encounter it.