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Remembering Robbie Basho

By Maurizio Angeletti

It has now been thirty four years since I first met Robbie Basho at his California home, in Berkeley.
Before that, there had been the discovery of his music through a simple chain of events: the discovery of
various traditional forms of American music starting from that all-time wonder, the blues, my falling in
love with the music of Elizabeth Cotten, the subsequent discovery of a unique guitar sound (John
Fahey), of his own recording label (Takoma Records), of two distinctive records ( Greenhouse and 6- & 12String Guitar) played by a unique guitarist (Leo Kottke), the discovery of another excellent player (Peter
Lang) and along with that the exploration of the whole Takoma catalogue, starting with this completely
original, definitely one-of-a-kind player: Robbie Basho. His sound was, literally, awesome, suggestive of a
combination of purity and depth, with the presence of Oriental moods and sounds, and also with a
classical approach and quality; his style was not to be compared to any of the players I have listed
above; his voice was wonderful; his compositions had a breadth of expression, like an enormous
background not so much explicitly stated but to be intuited, guessed at, or even imagined.
The interest for such music ought to be compared to a wildfire that is started by a simple spark and then
catches on and spreads around on a grand scale and at an incredibly fast speed. There was no stopping it.
Furthermore, there was a major issue that was to become clarified over the years, that is, the approaching
of such music from a different culture and a different language. But I shall leave that aside for the
moment and stick to the facts.
In the summer of 1981 I flew to the United States from Italy and then travelled across the continent with
two friends in order to meet and interview some of the guitarists that I would later write about in my
book American Guitar which was then published the following year. I did not manage to meet all of them,
but did succeed in talking with some. I met up with Peter Lang in Minneapolis, and before that (or after,
I cannot remember) I also met in California with a number of early Windham Hill players (Will
Ackerman, Alex De Grassi, Daniel Hecht, Michael Hedges, George Winston) and, above all, with
Robbie Basho.
I had, at that point, each and every record that Basho had put out, from the early Takoma LPs to the
Vanguard ones and the later Windham Hill masterpieces (Visions of the Country and Art of Acoustic Steel
String Guitar 6 & 12). I had not even attempted to learn some of his music and guitar pieces. His style was
remote, complicated, beyond me and my technical capabilities of that time. Also, I had immersed myself
so much in the musical world of John Fahey that I had unwittingly ended up making it very difficult for
myself to look at other ways, other directions. But Bashos music was wonderful. When Art of Acoustic Steel
String Guitar 6 & 12 was released, I thought that was the ultimate statement about his own blend of folk
and classical music. Curiously, Bashos twelve-string sound was what I spontaneously was after. Most
curiously, I made no effort to study it as such, and in a sense I am happy about that today, as Bashos
music flooded me and stained me in terms of content, not of form. It was absorbed in those inner, deep,
dark pools of the self where ideas take shape even before they acquire their own outer structural form.
My English at that time was rickety to say the least. I was to understand in the following decades the
enormous and far-reaching implications of that even as regards instrumental music making. But on one
level my English was generally enough for getting by and communicating up to a point, though. I could
speak and tell people what I wanted, but the American accent was often impenetrable. When I tried to
hire a car in New York with my two friends, our English was so bad that we just could not understood
what the guy at the car rental was trying to explain to us. In the end he refused to give us the car! I
cannot blame him.

We did get a car in the end, drove across the US, reached California, and met the people I had previously
contacted from Europe. My meeting with Basho took place on a torrid day in which everything was
absolutely new. That was my first time in the U.S., my first time in California, my first time in San
Francisco, my first time drinking Tropicana orange juice, my first time in just about everything American.
Many details escape me now, but I remember reaching his flat and ringing the bell. Basho welcomed my
wife and I in. For some reason we had got there later than expected. He had prepared some lunch for us,
so we sat down and ate.
There was far too much to take in. He was kind, but he also seemed anxious and generally struggling in
his life and not in a good way as regards his own health. I think we both had a warped image or idea of
one other. I was in the presence of a master of my favourite instrument, of a genius; he was hoping that
my visit might help him come to Europe. After the food we talked, and he played, too. His playing was
beautiful, crisp, fresh, like a mountain spring. But it was clear that he lived in a dimension of nearpoverty, struggling to stay alive financially and physically, but also struggling to get understood. Other
people regarded him as a crank, as an eccentric, and would not take his music seriously enough.
He gave me some tablature transcriptions of his pieces together with some charts detailing his own
associations of colour, moods, keys and tunings. I made notes later on in my hotel room, trying to retain as
much of the meeting as I could. To be fair, I was none the wiser in purely technical terms as regards his
style of playing. There were things I understood, things to be said, much to be learned. But beyond the
technical aspects, the beauty of the music remained.
Eventually, after returning to Italy, I completed my book. I still regard it as being the best thing I did
during those years. It was a book written with an approach similar to some of the books that used to be
written about classical composers. Mine was a rigorous, anti-commercial, serious approach. If I had
known music better, I would have come up with a book along the lines of The Classical Style by Charles
Rosen. As I have said, my theoretical and technical equipment was that of a folk musician, not of a
classical one. But I will always defend the integrity of this book and its vision, which reached almost
preposterous levels when I even saw things and values that were not there but, in actuality, inside
No one ever wrote a book like this anywhere in the world. No one ever saw a common denominator as
binding a number of solo American fingerstyle guitarists which were not out there selling tablatures but
creating music that could have qualified as something like contemporary classical music. There were
flaws in the book, of course, and usually it is me having to explain this to others. But many guitarists in
Italy were to report, over the following two decades, that they had found this little book almost by
accident in a bookshop, bought it, laid it permanently open on their desk, and entered the musical world
of some of its heroes through the essays, the commentary and information about each guitarists recorded
work, and the tablature transcriptions at the end of the book. None of that was available anywhere else at
that time and in that form. Above all, there was strong medicine coming out of the pages of American
Guitar, a veritable blend of poetry and madness that sparked off other wildfires and had consequences.
Inevitably, the core of the book was the work of a few masters: Basho was one of them together with
Fahey, Lang and Kottke. I listed as much information as I had been able to gather, including a list of
Bashos open tunings and his charts on colour, keys and moods. Again, today that would not be a
particularly revolutionary thing; but at that time it equated with serving on a silver plate a whole concept
and the key to a whole world that was otherwise simply invisible, not present anywhere.

In that same year, I managed to organize a concert tour for Basho in Italy. We played thirteen concerts
from the 1st to the 17th of October. I opened all the concerts and Robbie followed next as the main act. It
took an unquantifiable amount of work to get that going. Basho was disappointed because the money was
ludicrously low but that was the best that I could achieve. I was up against an impossible task. Nobody in
Italy was interested in a kind of music that no one knew anyway. The problem was not just one of
selling Robbie Basho; one had first to attempt to explain who Robbie Basho was and what his music was
about, and that would require far more than just a quick mention of both. I managed to put together this
tour in which we both played in the evening with me driving us from one place to the next during the day.
It was pretty much like a war, as the task was, first and foremost, one of convincing people that what we
did was worthwhile and worth their acknowledgement.
During the tour, I further realized how
poor Basho indeed was, and how much of
a struggle his life was on all levels. He
lamented lack of understanding of his
music, not making enough money, and
being very lonely due to not having a
partner or companion in his life. Other
people I mean some of his American
colleagues were dismissive of everything
about him, from his music to his
personality. That, I believed, was unfair.
Others were downright horrible. He told
me that on occasion he almost had to beg
people in order to be allowed to play at an
important event. Now that I am becoming
an old man myself, I feel even more
intensely the measure of his difficulties
and the strength of his sorrow.
The tour was a small success. As per usual,
in the end there was glory, but the money
was just ludicrous. I think the highest we
were paid was something like US$250, the
lowest, $100. He was depressed about it;
myself, I thought this would be a way for
him to get known and hopefully attract the
interest of a proper concert organizer for
another and better paid tour.
To this day, I own not a single recording of any of those concerts. For some reason, whatever was in my
possession got lost during a certain sequence of events. I still have a little notebook, though, where I
logged all of my own concerts that I played anywhere during my career as a steel string guitarist. There
are dates, place names, and short notes: some concerts are defined as good, some excellent, some so
and so.
There were special moments, though. Earlier in the tour Basho and I were invited to dinner by some
friends of mine who lived on a mountain overlooking Lake Como, in the Italian Alps. As we were there,
waiting to sit at the table, Basho looked out of the window at the landscape with the mountain peaks
above and the large expanse of water below, and then went to the piano and sang pieces from Visions of the
Country, also improvising at the piano. Spellbinding.
Then there were the concerts that we played in Rome on October 12th and 13th at the now defunct Folk
Studio. Robbie could not grasp the immensity of the effort to find a venue in Rome. One ought to reflect
on the seeming paradoxical fact that when I managed to bring Fahey to Italy, there was no way to have a
single concert organized in Rome, the largest Italian city, and the capital at that!

Anyhow, we had played in Forl on the previous night (the 11th) and in the morning of the 12th, as we
drove down to reach Rome, we decided to stop off at Assisi, a small town in Umbria where Saint Francis
had lived several centuries before, from 1182 to 1226. This had been planned: Robbie wanted to find the
cave where Saint Francis had lived and prayed, in utter poverty but in blissful silence. We got there late
in the morning, parked the car, and reached the cathedral. We were given directions as to how to find the
path that Saint Francis customarily walked every day, and were told that we would find his cave along
the way.
We followed the directions, walked and walked, but could not find the cave. In the end we had to give up
as it was getting late and we were expected in Rome for the first concert that evening. The concert went
very well, although we only made $175 (inclusive of travelling expenses) between the two of us for both
concerts, but that was all that the organizers could afford and I was thankful anyway. But Robbie was
quite disappointed and depressed for not having found Saint Francis cave. The following day, I came up
with an idea. We were to play again the evening at the Folk Studio, and then our next concert would take
place three days later in a northern city. Just before going on stage, I said to Robbie, Look, we have
three days off after this. Lets go back to Assisi tomorrow and find that cave. Basho beamed. According
to my notes we played a good concert again that evening.
We set off in the morning and soon reached Assisi. We went down the same path - and this time we did
find Saint Francis cave! Basho went in and stayed inside a good half an hour, perhaps longer. Eventually
he came out. He seemed restored and fulfilled, and the first thing he said to me was, C major. He said
that the cave was tuned to the key of C major. I had no reason not to believe him, and certainly found
nothing strange in that statement, although I could not connect a perception of my own to it.
Inexplicably, one concert is missing from my list, and that is the concert Basho played in Milano at the
very end of the tour. I cannot recall the name of the venue, but I do remember that the concert was
organized by the biggest and oldest Italian free radio, Radio Popolare. Attendance was amazing thanks to
the publicity aired by the radio over the previous few weeks. That meant, easily, at least 500 people, but I
would believe it if anyone put me right by raising the number to 1,000 or more.
The performance was a complete triumph. Basho was applauded after each and every piece with warmth
and enthusiasm, and that concert remains in my mind as the epitome of what might and should have been.
That evening I saw Basho relieved and happy as I had not seen him previously. Backstage, after the
concert, he felt strong and moved about lightly and playfully, at some point brandishing his twelve-string
and pretending to do some fencing with it.
In my opinion even that success had an element of precariousness: it was a typical one-off situation that
came off successfully in a foreign country due to an exotic element whose newness had received a blanket
publicity: in turn, that convinced so many people to come that evening to get an idea of what the whole
thing was about. Basho was American, not known, highly spoken about for once, instead of being the
usual recipe for disaster, a well-advertised concert of solo acoustic guitar music turned out to be a recipe
for success. It could have gone the other way, and I say this not to contribute a negative note but because
I remember with real sadness the dimension of constant difficulty in which this and other attempts existed
in Italy, when peripheral or irrelevant factors could swing peoples reactions unpredictably one way or
another, whereas simply presenting the facts (great players, great music) might leave them utterly

Accordingly, in spite of such well-deserved success, I am not sure that Basho earned many new followers,
and I am not sure either that such success would have been earned if the same situation had been
repeated in the future. Truly, that kind of guitar music existed, or tried to exist, within a world made up of
inattentive, absent-minded or downright careless people.
By the same token, that evening proved that in an ideal world, if the media had cared more, then that
music would have reached a larger audience but this is a bit of a platitude that applies to everything
else. On my part, although I never felt nor wanted to be an elitist, and did what I did precisely to spread
around the knowledge of that music, I must say that that sense of isolation had another side: it was the
clear, intense, and uncluttered focus on the music, in a dimension of utter purity, away from all the games
involved in trying to sell it. Naturally, the contradiction is evident: at the end of the day even the most
uncompromising artist has to put bread on the table and pay the rent.
Late in August 2015 an old friend, Gianfranco Zanco Bettega, was able to find the following
photographs taken by Luciano Gadenz at S. Martino di Castrozza, in the Italian Alps, either on the day of
the concert we played in Fiera di Primiero on October 6th or the following day. The pictures of the
mountain landscape are breathtaking; those of Basho, looking up at the mountain peaks in awe and
kneeling down to drink the crystal-clear water from a mountain spring, are moving, and so are the
pictures of the few people gathering happily together.
But there is more in the images than their visible subjects. Think about it: it is 1982; no cell phones;
hardly any computers around; no Windows, no YouTube, no Facebook, no Macs on a grand scale, no
These photos contain pure essence - mountains, water running, a bunch of people in a minuscule Italian
hamlet in the mountains who managed to put together a concert by a distant, out-of-reach hero,
something that had proved impossible in many of the largest Italian cities in spite of their thousands or
millions of people.
For a day, or perhaps two days, the hero appears in the flesh. He is a human being - two legs, two arms,
one head, just like everyone else. Around the hero there is scant information - only Maurizio Angeletti
possesses and talks and writes about all his albums. Most people have just one; some have none. What
there is is feeling. Expectation about what is only partly known, if at all. Memories, dreams, projections.
All of it wrapped up in pure mountain air and sustained by a blind and all-consuming love for American
Music. Many of these people hardly speak any English, but are mesmerized by a language that seems, at
least for a day or just for an evening, to transcend all language barriers. It's the music, and yet it's not just
or only the music. It must be a sort of dream encouraged by all that natural beauty; a sense of goodness,
of life being, after all, truly wonderful.
Then the hero goes as everything inevitably does after a time, and what remains is a memory made up not
of information that remains scant and incomplete, but of experience and feeling, a kind of "I was there for
a time short and magical", or simply a wordless awareness that cannot be erased, cannot be lost. The
memory will linger, and thirty-three years later when I call for help (any photos or a recording of the
concert?) the call is answered.

The tour came to an end, and I dont think I saw Basho again. We kept in touch regularly, though, and at
times he sent me some newly recorded material (Rainbow Thunder) and harrowing reports of the difficulties
plaguing his everyday life.
My third, last and best solo record came out in Italy in 1983, but by 1984-5 I had reached a sort of
saturation with everything that was connected with music. I was deeply dissatisfied, and as I discovered
the world of kites I simply let go, perhaps unwisely, of the musical world. I was to return to it in a
completely different way many years later in the wake of my interest and studies in linguistics and
semiotics, this time as a cellist, and also rediscovering my own original music for twelve-string guitar and
this time analyzing it through a newly acquired background in music theory and harmony.
In 1986 I heard of Bashos death. It was a shock, especially as regards the way he had died due to the
seemingly wrong manipulation of his neck by a chiropractor. I think I heard that his ashes had been
scattered at sea outside the San Francisco Bay Area. I think I heard that his adoptive father (Dr. Daniel
Robinson) was still alive. To me, to this day, Bashos life remains connected with heart-rending feelings of
sorrow and difficulty. At times I find that I simply cannot bear thinking about it. He certainly did not
deserve any of that, but scores of other human beings could say the same.
Living is a difficult exercise, I have learned. It is difficult to retain full control over ones life and
circumstances, and I for one do not believe that that is even desirable as such. But then there is the
opposite, randomness and chance creating havoc when they come in in too large amounts and end up
destroying even the idea of balance. Yet somehow, somewhere, there can be that natural balance of
finding oneself harmoniously aligned with time and chance almost in Biblical fashion, and that is in itself
another art form.
In the spring of 1959 John Steinbeck spent a few weeks in an old cottage in Bruton, a small village in
Somerset (Southern England) where he attempted to write what was later to be published as The Acts of
King Arthur and His Noble Knights. The experience was overwhelming: he thought, felt and knew that he
had found himself. For a few weeks he felt that things had fallen into place in his own life as they never
had before. Eventually, his work there did not bear fruit and he had to abandon that project. He returned
to New York with his wife, and the hectic life of the city, so completely contrasting with the quiet and the
natural rhythms of rural Somerset, was a shock that he could not handle. But the most important - and
poignant aspect of that experience was that he could not take back to America that part of himself that
he had found in England, and he never found it again.
Likewise, I think Basho looked for himself all through his life, and the world surrounding him did not
help him much. Where he needed and looked for understanding and appreciation, he found little or none;
where he needed focus, safety, companionship, closeness, a sense of belonging and of being needed, I also
think he hardly found anything. He was ground to pieces by the contradiction of having this gem in his
hands his art, his music and having to sell it to a world who did not normally take much notice and,
when it did, might ask absurd questions such as whats that?
And yet Whilst in Somerset Steinbeck wrote this to a friend: Lift your mind up to the hills ().
Criticize nothing, evaluate nothing. Just let the Thing come thundering in accept and enjoy. It will be
chaos for a while but gradually order will appear and an order you did not know. No one survives in
other people more than two weeks after his death unless he leaves something he has much more lasting
than himself. Those words seem to fit Basho, too. Look, here we are, talking about him, about his music
that still is here, in the memory of the world, and makes us feel and say that it is great music. Even though
Basho is now gone in his physical form, all is definitely not lost - indeed, nothing is lost at all.
In 1989, for various reasons, I lost my entire music collection which included the full original Takoma
catalogue and all of Bashos records. I havent listened since to a single piece by him, and only a while ago,
as I was writing these words, I went to YouTube and found Rocky Mountain Raga (from Visions of the
Country) and played a couple of minutes of it. Then I just had to switch my iPad off.

Much has happened for me during the past thirty-odd intervening years, much has changed in my mind
and in that whole thinking apparatus that once produced American Guitar. Much has changed also in my
own perception of guitar playing and of my own music for twelve-string guitar. I perceive the mighty
twelve as a completely different instrument from the regular six-string, and hardly think of it as being a
guitar. Music is now for me first and foremost a language, and I have tried to find my place in it, first of
all on a personal, intimate, inner level.
I like to think that I have managed to sort many things out, resolve contradictions, clarify issues, see
music and other things (such as its linguistic, cultural and national corollaries) with a sharper, more
focused eye. I hope I know where I am now in regard to all of that, and living for over twenty years
outside Italy certainly has cured many false, incoherent or invented myths and the misunderstandings
such myths stemmed from. But thinking of Basho, again, I wonder how I would assess his work now, and
I am almost afraid to find out. Perhaps the easiest answer to that is that only an American mind could
properly do that because Bashos was and remains American music and should be comprehended and dealt
with as such. John Fahey wrote once, referring to his erstwhile idol, country-blues guitarist Charley
Patton, that great loves are often followed by great hatreds, or something along those lines. That did
happen to me in connection with Fahey, whom I had idolized, to say the least, for many years yet, later
on, I started objecting in my head to a lot of things he had done. But perhaps the issue was the same, and
I was objecting to my own perception of and involvement with his music, and yet again, such music did
not exist in a cultural and linguistic vacuum: it was, and remains, American music, and I have countless of
times observed the warped and distorted perception of Europeans in that respect. For myself, I tried to
sort that out and certainly at a price, but the joy of the truth, whatever its cost, is that it frees mind and
Would I now regard as exceptional or as illegitimate Bashos use of raga techniques and moods, the
classical component of his music, his forays into the dimension of Native Americans, his lyrics, and so
on? I do not know. I ought to find out. I might. Or I might not. I have often perceived, in the by now
remote past, a sort of awkwardness in Bashos music on all levels but then, I still perceive a similar
awkwardness in the music of Brahms and others. At any rate, that is not and could not possibly be a
criticism. What is there to criticize anyway? I think ones first and perhaps only duty is to try to
understand what other people are doing, to understand their language. Understanding takes time. There is
no way that one can understand anything completely or at all through a single listening or on the basis of
faulty convictions and knowledge. Furthermore, understanding others often implies de-structuring a lot
of bad personal thinking habits.
But in any event, God Bless Bashos soul and that spirit that endeavoured to manifest and express himself
through his music.
Maurizio Angeletti
Canale Monterano (Rome), Italy
August, 2015



Villa Carcina (Brescia)
Villa DAlm (Bergamo)
private impromptu performance - Menaggio (Como)
Primiero (Trento)
Rovereto (Trento)
Roma, Folk Studio
Roma, Folk Studio
Sestri Levante (Genova)
Gandino (Bergamo)
Milano (all-Basho concert)

very good
very good
very good
very good
so & so
not good
very good

My rating of the concerts was based mainly, but not exclusively, on the response of the audience on each
evening not in terms of mere approval, but of engagement. Whereas the level of our playing was fairly
consistent, a responsive audience meant an interest in the discovery of a hitherto unknown or little known
master of the instrument (Basho), and an effort on their part to listen to and understand instrumental music
for solo acoustic guitar. A good concert meant more than the audiences approval of the performers: the
concert was good because it had generated a kind of creative enthusiasm and excitement, thus rewarding the
performers and establishing a whole new concept in some of the listeners mental and aesthetic landscape.
Some such listeners did come up to us asking all kinds of questions. On the contrary, on the bad evenings
we still got applauded, but the concert came down to mere survival for us and to a missed opportunity for an
uncaring and unresponsive audience. Maurizio Angeletti

Maurizio Angeletti is an Italian 12-string guitarist who in the early 1980s recorded three solo guitar LP records, wrote a
book on acoustic American guitar styles (American Guitar), and toured in Italy with Robbie Basho, John Fahey, Alex De
Grassi, Daniel Hecht, and Preston Reed.
Photo of Robbie performing on stage by Gianluigi Bresciani
Photos from Italian Alps location by Luciano Gadenz, found by Maurizio Angeletti through the help of Gianfranco Bettega
Text and art layout for PDF by Kyle Fosburgh
Published by Grass-Tops Recording
Maurizio Angeletti and Grass-Tops Recording 2015

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