For the vast majority who have followed Gen X, and likely many within that generation as well, Robbie Basho would have faded into obscurity were it not for a handful of reissues within the past decade.
I stumbled upon his name when Visions of the Country was reissued in 2013 by Gnome Life Records. In the years to follow, I happened upon a few originals, eagerly snapping them up while crate digging. First was The Falconer’s Arm II sometime around 2016, then The Grail & The Lotus the following year.
Each found a welcome home in my collection.
Enter a verifiably new release, Robbie Basho’s Songs of the Great Mystery, which had never officially been issued in physical form until this debuted in 2020. Housed in a vibrant gatefold sleeve and pressed on two clear vinyl discs, the first issue of Songs of the Great Mystery is limited to an edition of a mere 1,000 copies.
Basho met an untimely demise in 1986, in what I’ve seen dubbed as a freak chiropractor accident. That means it took 34 years for Songs of the Great Mystery to grace our ears–a mystery in and of itself.
So what happened?
A Rough History of Robbie Basho and Vanguard Records
The early works of Robbie Basho date back as early as 1965 with The Seal of The Blue Lotus. Between 1965 and 1971, he released records predominantly on Takoma Records, and there were a plethora of them as well including three in 1967 alone.
For his 1972 and 1974 releases, Voice of the Ealge and Zarthus respectively, Basho made the jump to Vanguard Records, following the footsteps of his college friend John Fahey.
A little over a decade before the release of Songs of the Great Mystery, Vanguard reached out to guitarist Glenn Jones about a recorded session that had been found, but it was another 12 years before the epiphany happened. Jones discovered that what Vanguard had found was actually a third release recorded at the same time as Basho’s other two Vanguard albums.
And by same time, I mean that: the three albums were recorded in tandem during a single session with Vanguard engineer Jeffrey Zaraya in New York City. You see it referenced in the notes: recorded 1971 or 1972.
Early Iterations of Later Songs
Admission: the recounting above is a highly condensed reworking of the single paragraph found on Rough Trade’s website, where I purchased the album. I added in my own flare, only drawing reference points. The next part, though, I will quote from that page:
Some of the tunes showed up on later albums in much different forms; 1978’s Visions of the Country featured “A Day in the Life of Lemuria” (re-titled “Leaf in the Wind”) and “Night Way,” and “Laughing Thunder, Crawling Thunder” went through various permutations before appearing on 1981’s Rainbow Thunder as “Crashing Thunder.”Rough Trade
I didn’t know that upon my first two cycles through Songs of the Great Mystery, yet it makes complete sense. I could pick up hints of familiar songs throughout the album, not quite able to pinpoint the tracks of which they reminded me. So reading that came as no surprise.
In particular, the early moments of “A Day in the Life of Lemuria” sparked memories of “Leaf in the Wind” while drawing me in to the differences. Take a listen above.
A Different Origination Story
Perhaps my favorite track off Songs of the Great Mystery is Basho’s “Death Song.” There’s a hint within Basho’s early vocal inflections in the song that has parallels to the song that originally drew me to the artist: “Blue Crystal Fire” off 1978’s Visions of the Country–the album that started me down the path to loving this man’s music and appreciating his creative genius.
“Death Song”, like “Blue Crystal Fire” is equally haunting, and that’s where I personally find Basho at his best. When the mysteries abound, when darkness takes over, and when his penchant for tales that draw influence from the land, nature, and non-western cultures mesh together for a sound, voice, and style that is wholly unique.
You can find this album and more from Basho on Amazon by clicking one of the paid links below.