Affirmed: Nathan Salsburg and the Kentucky Derby

Photograph by Tim Furnish

This weekend’s Kentucky Derby offers a fresh chance for folks to revisit the work of musician, writer, and editor Nathan Salsburg. As many readers may be familiar, last autumn saw the release of Affirmed, a record of eight solo guitar compositions that meditate on the lives and afterlives of Kentucky Derby horses — from Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner, to Eight Belles, a filly that won second in the 2008 Derby only to be euthanized minutes later after fracturing her ankles. The songs speak to these contexts, but ultimately exceed their references, in lines that modulate between grief and joy, the terminal and the transcendent.
Thanks to NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concerts, we can give a listen to “Affirmed” and “Eight Belles Dreamt the Devil was Dead:”
Though references to John Fahey accompany many reviews of solo guitar records, Amanda Petrusich writes eloquently of how Salsburg’s music resists such commonplace comparisons. “Affirmed,” she wrote in The Onion, “is more a counterpoint to Fahey’s rhythmic early work than an explicit homage: Bright and elastic, his songs are less concerned with pulses and scales than with the ripples they kick up in your gut.”
This video for “Sought and Hidden,” created by cinemanonymous, works in concert with that quality in Affirmed, here combining “amateur Kentucky Derby footage shot on 8mm in 1936 and 1947 and Super 8 in 1973 and 2000.” Like these songs, an expectation of nostalgia gives way to something more surprising and direct:

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