Last year Fantasy Records released The Best of John Fahey Vol. 2: 1963-1983, positioning it as an overdue follow-up to a Fahey best-of from 1977. Fahey, the founding father of the “American primitive”steel-stringed acoustic guitar style, had died in 2001, but the label, with access to his enormous archive of tapes, included three unreleased tracks: two rerecordings of Fahey classics from the early 60s and an original called “Tuff” that no one had heard before. But it’s not Fahey playing on those tracks, and “Tuff” isn’t his song. All three are the work of Charlie Schmidt, a 42-year-old high school teacher who lives in Skokie.
A friend and sometime student of the innovative guitarist, Schmidt (above) recorded the material in 1993 as part of a prank Fahey hoped to play on Shanachie, his label at the time. Fahey had a history of “sowing confusion and blurring attribution,” as Schmidt puts it — he credited a performance on one of his records to a mentor he’d invented for himself, an old black undertaker named Blind Joe Death, and in his liner notes he parodied the mythmaking impulse of folk revivalists, claiming to have made his first guitar from a baby’s coffin. But he never got the chance to pass Schmidt’s tapes off as his own, and they collected dust for a decade — until the producers of last year’s compilation, fooled by the exactitude of Schmidt’s Fahey impression, took the bait. (Schmidt has sorted things out with Fahey’s music publisher and informed Fantasy of the mistake, but the label has yet to respond.)