Sam Goldner
Sam Goldner

Greetings everyone! You may recognize me as the guy who usually writes the "On-Air Next @ Radio 1190" column on Tuesdays, but I'll be doubling up in the Daily now with my own music-themed column! I'm looking forward to covering a wide variety of musical subjects, so let's dive right into one of my favorites.

Anyone who's ever sat down with me to seriously talk about music has probably, at some point, heard me spout the virtues of the vastly under-acknowledged American Primitive movement. It's a style that I've been playing myself for several years now, and find to be one of the most fascinating and all encompassing styles of Western music to arise in the past century.

For those not familiar, American Primitivism more or less stands for any type of music primarily fronted by a lone guitarist, an artist using not his voice, but his fingerpicking to convey his own particular style of sentimentality. There are of course many exceptions to this formula, but the idea is consistent: a late-night, solitary improvisation rooted in the ideas of folk music, the carving out of a song from the barest of musical elements.

It may sound unnecessarily simple to the uninitiated, but the amount of variation that exists in a genre devoted entirely to fingerpicking is both astounding and inspiring. Whether it's recent Merge Records signee William Tyler's rapid-fire style of epic Americana, or ex-Harry Pussy guitarist Bill Orcutt's demented, frightening blues, finger-style guitarists are constantly finding new ways to twist old patterns of folk music into something new and deeply individual.


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The entire development of the American Primitive movement can be attributed mainly to one peculiar figure: John Fahey. Self-releasing his debut album "Blind Joe Death" in the late 50s, Fahey's avant-garde interpretation of ancient folk idioms gained a small but passionate legion of followers such as Leo Kottke, Robbie Basho, and eventually, underground heroes like Jim O'Rourke and Thurston Moore. His legacy is present in all iterations of the Primitive movement, and his body of work serves as an essential introduction to the possibilities inherent in the acoustic guitar.

It should be acknowledged that a single guy playing an acoustic seems about as uninteresting and cliché as musical genres come. Yet in stripping down songs to their bare essentials, the American Primitives are still able to convey some of the most universal qualities of music itself, and have hybridized it into something equal parts Western blues and Eastern raga. Though it may be destined to be a niche genre by nature, the Primitive movement has offered up some of the most melodically engaging and profoundly American music of the past century, and is wholly worth the effort to dive into. If you get the chance to see a fingerpicking show live, go, sink in and be mesmerized.

Sam Goldner is the music director at CU-Boulder's Radio 1190. Email him at sam@radio1190.org.