'Song Of The Avatars' Resurrects Guitarist Robbie Basho's Lost Recordings

Dec 4, 2020
Originally published on December 6, 2020 11:41 pm

A few years ago, filmmaker Liam Barker was at work on the film that would become his 2015 documentary Voice of the Eagle: The Enigma of Robbie Basho. Barker's subject was the late guitarist who (along with figures like John Fahey and Leo Kottke) helped invent the acoustic style known as American primitive, and he kept hearing about a collection of the artist's personal recordings that had seemingly been lost after his death in 1986. That's how the director found himself in a ramshackle house in South Carolina, surrounded by stacks of old newspaper and animal excrement.

"When I went there, it was kind of like something out of a horror film," Barker says. "It was like, you know, unbelievable filth all around."

But to his amazement, Barker found exactly what he was looking for: box after box of magnetic reel-to-reel tapes, still sealed. "Miraculously, some of these recordings sound like they were recorded yesterday," he says.

Now, the personal recordings stashed in those boxes are being released for the first time in a five-disc set called Song of the Avatars: The Lost Master Tapes.

Barry Olivier / Tompkins Square

Basho's music never found a wide audience in his lifetime, but it's had a deep impact on generations of fellow guitar players and listeners — including Pete Townshend, guitarist and co-founder of The Who. "I think anybody, any young guitar player that hears his music today, would be influenced by him," Townsend said in an interview in Voice of the Eagle. "It's beautiful and eloquent and profound, and full of love and devotion and melancholy."

Basho had his own way of describing his work. "I don't call a lot of my stuff 'far out' — I just call it a different level of feeling," he said in a 1974 interview with Pacifica radio station KPFA. "I spent years on the road singing folk songs that had no meaning, you know, just emoting these things. And it got dawned on me, music is supposed to say something. Music is supposed to do something. Then I started trying to see how high and beautiful I could go."

An adopted child, Basho grew up in Baltimore as Daniel Robinson. He started playing the guitar as a student at the University of Maryland in the late '50s and early '60s, when he befriended fellow guitarists John Fahey and Max Ochs.

"When I started out, there was a big cult in D.C., in the University of Maryland, of country blues," Basho told KFPA. "It was kind of the only vitality around. The music of those days was so artificial, you know, that we couldn't believe it. ... I was doing that, and thought I was doing something. And then I heard Hindu music."

Basho moved to Berkeley, where he immersed himself in Eastern religion and music, and renamed himself after a 17th-century Japanese poet.

"He was genuine and unselfconscious about what he was doing," says Glenn Jones, a guitarist and collector who became friends with Basho in the late 1970s. Jones says the older guitarist invented his own style, drawing on musical influences from all over the world.

"There was nothing fake or put on about it," he says. "You listen to those records, and it doesn't sound at all Persian. It doesn't sound at all Indian. It doesn't sound at all classical. It just sounds like Robbie."

Basho's friends and family describe a guy who was deeply committed to his music, but was otherwise a loner, plagued by anxiety. "I always felt that there was more going on than he could really express," Margaret Lewis, a former girlfriend of Basho's, said in Voice of the Eagle. "I loved his music. I was convinced that he was going to be the next big thing, but that wasn't really his interest. His interest was in making the music, not in getting a lot of attention for it."

In the '70s, Basho became involved in a spiritual order called Sufism Reoriented, and his records came to feature more and more of his singing, in an earnest, full-throated style that provokes ambivalence even among his fans.

Robbie Basho playing for fans in Cragmont Park in Berkeley, California, in 1977.
Jeff Dooley / Tompkins Square

He was 45 years old when he died from a ruptured artery in his neck. All of his records were out of print at the time. He left most of his possessions to Sufism Reoriented, and they wound up scattered across the country, with his collection of recordings landing in that house in South Carolina. Glenn Jones says the rediscovery of these recordings is a major addition to his legacy.

"Some of the guitar solos just knock me out," Jones says. "Why did this never make it onto any of his records? It's as good as anything he released commercially. And here it has been, moldering in these cardboard boxes since the '80s."

The compositions on those tapes span Basho's entire career, from his earliest experiments with the blues to the sprawling compositions of his later years. But as he said in that 1974 interview, his goal stayed the same.

"Me and [Leo] Kottke and [John] Fahey ten years ago started taking the steel-string guitar and really trying to make it a concert instrument," Basho said. "You know, gut string is great for love music and so forth. But the steel, you can get fire. You can ride, and you can fly."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of the amazing things about music is the recordings that musicians leave behind. More than 30 years after his death, Robbie Basho is getting a second look. He helped invent what's known as the American primitive style of guitar playing. His music was almost forgotten for a time, but now it's back. NPR's Joel Rose reports on previously unreleased recordings prompting a new appreciation.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: A few years ago, Liam Barker found himself in a ramshackle house in South Carolina.

LIAM BARKER: When I went there, it was kind of like something out of a horror film - you know, unbelievable filth all around.

ROSE: There were stacks of old newspapers and animal excrement everywhere. Barker was making a documentary about Robbie Basho. He was hunting for a long-rumored collection of Basho's personal recordings, and he found them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBIE BASHO'S "GYPSY ROSARY")

BARKER: Fortunately, they were kept in sealed cardboard boxes. And miraculously, some of these recordings sound like they were recorded yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBIE BASHO'S "GYPSY ROSARY")

ROSE: Barker's documentary is called "Voice Of The Eagle: The Enigma Of Robbie Basho." One of the people he interviewed was guitarist Pete Townshend of The Who.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "VOICE OF THE EAGLE: THE ENIGMA OF ROBBIE BASHO")

PETE TOWNSHEND: I think anybody - any young guitar player that hears his music today would be influenced by him because it's beautiful and eloquent and profound and full of love and devotion and melancholy. It's wonderful.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBIE BASHO COMPOSITION)

ROSE: Basho has had a deep impact on generations of fellow guitar players and listeners, but his music never found a wide audience in his lifetime. Now, those personal recordings stashed in cardboard boxes are being released for the first time in a five-disc set called "Song Of The Avatars."

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "ODE TO GRAVITY")

ROBBIE BASHO: I don't call a lot of my stuff far-out. I just call it a different level of feeling.

ROSE: That's Robbie Basho in 1974 from an interview at public radio station KPFA in Berkeley, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "ODE TO GRAVITY")

BASHO: I spent years on the road singing folk songs that had no meaning, you know, just emoting these things. And it dawned on me - music is supposed to say something; music is supposed to do something. And then I started trying to see how high and beautiful I could go in a sense, you see.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBIE BASHO'S "CATHEDRALS ET FLEUR DE LIS")

ROSE: Basho grew up in Baltimore. He was adopted and given the name Daniel Robinson. He later renamed himself after a 17th-century Japanese poet and moved to Berkeley, where he immersed himself in Eastern religion and music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBIE BASHO'S "SEAL OF THE BLUE LOTUS")

GLENN JONES: He was genuine and unselfconscious about what he was doing. There was nothing fake or put-on about it.

ROSE: Glenn Jones is a guitarist and collector who became friends with Basho in the late 1970s. He says the older guitarist invented his own style, drawing on musical influences from all over the world.

JONES: The thing is, you listen to those records, and it doesn't sound at all Persian. It doesn't sound at all Indian. It doesn't sound at all classical. It just sounds like Robbie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBIE BASHO'S "A NORTH AMERICAN RAGA (THE PLUMSTAR)")

ROSE: Basho's friends and family describe a guy who was deeply committed to his music, but otherwise sort of a loner, plagued by anxiety, not very comfortable around other people.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "VOICE OF THE EAGLE: THE ENIGMA OF ROBBIE BASHO")

MARGARET LEWIS: I always felt that there was more going on than he could really express.

ROSE: Margaret Lewis, who dated Basho briefly, was interviewed for the documentary.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "VOICE OF THE EAGLE: THE ENIGMA OF ROBBIE BASHO")

LEWIS: I loved his music. I was convinced that he was going to be the next big thing, you know? But that wasn't really his interest. His interest was in making the music, not in getting a lot of attention for it.

ROSE: In the 1970s, Basho became involved in a spiritual order called Sufism Reoriented, and his records came to feature more and more of his singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

BASHO: (Singing) Come, my love, to the green hills of Canaan (ph).

ROSE: Basho died of a ruptured artery in his neck in 1986. He was 45 years old. At the time, all of his records were out of print. He left most of his possessions to Sufism Reoriented. They wound up scattered across the country, with his collection of recordings landing in that house in South Carolina. The compositions on those tapes spanned Basho's entire career, from his earliest experiments with the blues to the sprawling compositions of his later years. But as he said in that 1974 interview, his goal stayed the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "ODE TO GRAVITY")

BASHO: Taking the steel-string guitar and really trying to make it a concert instrument - gut string is great for, you know, love music and so forth. But the steel, you can get fire. You can ride, and you can fly (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBIE BASHO COMPOSITION)

ROSE: And Robbie Basho did. It just took his audience a while to catch up.

Joel Rose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.