John Fahey is one of the most well respected acoustic guitar instrumentalists in American history. His style—which he called American Primitive—has been widely influential in the decades since he released his first album; however, few realize that Fahey’s playing was, in many ways, a culmination of many early styles of American guitar playing.
In the 1850s-1860s, parlor guitar music became popular. According to Stefan Grossman, wealthy housewives began learning guitar, playing what he calls “pseudo-classical music” – music that sounded good, was arranged simply, and wasn’t terribly difficult to play. The most popular two pieces of music at the time are still widely played today – “Spanish Fandango” and “Vestapol”.
“Vestapol’s” evolution since the 1800’s is almost as interesting as the music itself. The song seems to have taken two distinct paths – continuing on as an instrumental under its original name, but also becoming a popular early blues song called “Poor Boy’s Blues” or “Poor Boy’s a Long Way from Home.” “Poor Boy” was recorded by quite a few early blues players, from Mississippi John Hurt to Bukka White. The original “Vestapol” was widely recorded as well, notably by Elizabeth Cotten, who called it “Vastapol.”
Most importantly to Fahey, though, the song was recorded by an Atlanta slide-player by the name of Barbecue Bob. According to Fahey’s book, The Best of John Fahey 1959 – 1977, he acquired a 78 of Barbecue Bob playing “Poor Boy,” and learned how to play it without a slide. Fahey was also hugely influenced by Cotten’s playing (he recorded a version of her ubiquitous “Freight Train,” for example).
And that is where Fahey’s number one hit on YouTube – “Poor Boys Long Way from Home” – came from. In fact, he recorded both versions; with “Poor Boy” on his 1959 album Blind Joe Death, and “Vestapol” (recorded under its original title, “The Siege of Sevastapol”) on his 1965 album Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites. Fahey’s “Poor Boy” is a perfect combination of Elizabeth Cotten and Barbecue Bob, and while Fahey certainly made it his own, the song was actually about 150 years old when that video was recorded.