February 22, 2010

John Fahey - Guitarist

On this day, Feb. 22nd, 2001 John Fahey left this world. But he is hardly forgotten. I’m going to devote the following week on Delta-Slider to John Fahey.
It will be a Benjamin Button sort of week as I start on the anniversary of his death and wrap up the tribute on Feb. 28th, Fahey’s birthday. Don’t expect cake, but gifts will be in order, so stick around!
It’s “Fahey Week” here at Delta-Slider. I hope you enjoy it.

We’ll kick off with a look at his obituary in the New York Times.

John Fahey, 61, Guitarist And an Iconoclast, Is Dead
Published: February 25, 2001

John Fahey, a guitarist who carved out a private corner of Americana only to see it become a foundation of new age music, died on Thursday at Salem Hospital in Salem, Ore., after undergoing sextuple heart bypass surgery, said Mitch Greenhill, the president of Folklore Productions and Mr. Fahey's executor. Mr. Fahey was 61 and lived in Salem.
Playing a six-string acoustic guitar, Mr. Fahey used country-blues fingerpicking and hymnlike melodies in stately pieces with classical structures. Wordless and unhurried, his music became a contemplation and an elegy, a stoic invocation of American roots, nameless musicians and ancestral memories. Behind its serene surface, the music was both stubborn and haunted.
''I was creating for myself an imaginary, beautiful world and pretending that I lived there, but I didn't feel beautiful,'' Mr. Fahey said in an interview with The Wire magazine in 1998. ''I was mad but I wasn't aware of it. I was also very sad, afraid and lonely.''
From the beginning, he was an iconoclast and a maverick. He started two independent labels. In 1959 he founded Takoma Records, which released his own albums, blues albums and recordings by other guitarists including Leo Kottke. And in 1995, he and his manager started Revenant Records, dedicated to what it called American Primitive music.
Although he didn't sing or write lyrics, Mr. Fahey was a voluble author of liner notes. His albums were crammed with parodies of academic analysis and tales of a fictitious blues guitarist, Blind Joe Death, and his disciple, John Fahey, who purportedly ''made his first guitar from a baby's coffin.'' He shared a Grammy Award for the liner notes to the 1997 ''Anthology of American Folk Music'' (Smithsonian Folkways).
Mr. Fahey was born in Takoma Park, Md., on Feb. 28, 1939. His father and mother both played piano, and his father also played Irish harp. On Sundays, the family went out to hear bluegrass and country music. Mr. Fahey said that hearing Bill Monroe's version of Jimmie Rodgers's ''Blue Yodel No. 7'' and Blind Willie Johnson's ''Praise God I'm Satisfied'' changed his life.
He started teaching himself guitar when he was 12. He also began collecting and trading old 78-r.p.m. recordings of hillbilly songs, blues, gospel and jazz, going door to door in the rural South to find them. A fellow collector, Joe Bussard Jr., recorded Mr. Fahey on 78-r.p.m. discs for his Fonotone label, under the name Blind Thomas. In 1959 Mr. Fahey recorded his first album and pressed 100 copies, the first Takoma Records album. One side of the LP was credited to ''Blind Joe Death,'' the other to ''John Fahey.''
Mr. Fahey studied philosophy at American University in Washington and then at the University of California in Berkeley, where he played at folk clubs in his first paid engagements. In 1963, he recorded his second album, ''Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes.'' He and his partner in Takoma Records, ED Denson, tracked down two Mississippi bluesmen, Bukka White and Skip James, and recorded them for Takoma, bringing them to new audiences on the folk-revival circuit.
Mr. Fahey entered a graduate program in folklore at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1964, and wrote his master's thesis about the Delta bluesman Charley Patton. After he received his degree, Mr. Fahey turned to music full time.
His compositions expanded, embracing the modalities of raga along with dissonances not found in country or blues; he used unconventional tunings and turned some traditional picking patterns backward. He also experimented with tape collages, often to the annoyance of folk fans. Though hippie listeners may have heard his music as psychedelic, he was a bourbon drinker.
Along with his Takoma releases, Mr. Fahey also made albums for Vanguard and Reprise Records. His pristine 1968 solo album of Christmas songs for Takoma, ''The New Possibility,'' sold 100,000 copies initially and has been perennially reissued. Mr. Fahey spent time at a Hindu monastery in India; a 1973 album of extended solo pieces, ''Fare Forward Voyager'' (Takoma) is dedicated to a guru. Takoma was sold to Chrysalis Records in the mid-1970's, and in the 1980's Mr. Fahey made albums for the Shanachie and Varrick labels. New age performers like the pianist and guitarist George Winston, who made his first album for Takoma, prospered with a more ingratiating solo-guitar style.
Mr. Fahey suffered setbacks in the late 1980's. He divorced his third wife, Melody, and lost his house. He suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome and diabetes. His drinking grew worse. For a time, he lived at the Union Charity Mission in Salem. He often supported himself by scouring flea markets for used classical records to sell to collectors. He sometimes pawned his guitars.
But he was rediscovered in the 1990's. Rhino Records compiled a retrospective, ''Return of the Repressed,'' in 1994, and alternative rockers working on ''post-rock'' instrumental music sought out Mr. Fahey. He sobered up and restarted his career. In 1996 he released ''City of Refuge'' (Tim/Kerr), followed by two albums in 1997 and one each in 1998 and 2000. He continued to experiment, playing electric and lap steel guitars and freely using electronic effects.
Last year, he published a book of loosely autobiographical stories, ''How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life'' (Drag City Press).
''I never considered for a minute that I had talent,'' he wrote in 1994. ''What I did have was divine inspiration and an open subconscious.''

A little over a week after Fahey's death this article ran in the New York Times.

The Spirit Of America In His Guitar


Published: March 4, 2001

JOHN FAHEY, the American primitive guitarist who died on Feb. 22, six days short of his 62nd birthday, was so often accused (by those few who acknowledged him at all) of being the accidental father of New Age music that it's easy to dismiss him as a crank who gave birth to an era of fake bliss and bogus musical rapture.

Alternatively, members of the folk-revival community are likely to point to him as a musician who synthesized the delta blues, early country music and other American folk roots with Eastern ragas and sound effects, producing a kind of elaborate acoustic music that ran on a parallel track to the more exotic experiments of the Beatles, the Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa.

While these lofty attributions aren't wrong, they miss the point entirely, for Fahey was a musician almost by accident. He was quick to acknowledge that his technical skills were limited (though his sound was unique) and that his gift had less to do with mastery of the guitar than with what he called ''divine inspiration and an open subconscious.''

Fahey was a sonic painter of the American landscape, whose guitar solos captured the vast spaces, the loneliness, the desolate dreams and the antic dance rhythms of a melting pot in turmoil. It was a hard-edged music that stared down the listener, even when it employed the ragtime progressions of the Memphis jug bands and blackface minstrel troupes. It never blinked. There is no point in comparing it to any other music; it was closer in impact to the writings of Raymond Carver, the paintings of Edward Hopper or the photographs of Walker Evans and O. Winston Link.

Like Link, Fahey was fascinated by railroads, by the restless solitude and wanderlust that their sound and visual imagery implied. Link's famous photograph ''Main Line on Main Street,'' which depicts a locomotive plowing through the main drag of a blue-collar town at midnight, while a man sits alone in a single lighted tenement window, is like a Fahey piece come to life. Even the titles of his songs, -- ''The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith California,'' ''Revelation on the Banks of the Pawtuxent,'' ''The Downfall of the Adelphi Rolling Grist Mill'' -- juxtapose the ironic with the iconic, mixing landscape, vernacular and vision into a uniquely evocative stew.

No one did more to confuse the actual nature of Fahey's art than Fahey himself, who not only delighted in these elaborately jokey titles but also wrote liner notes to his albums that confounded nearly everyone who managed to plow through them. Here were bizarre mythological tales of his own misadventures, full of inside jokes, classical and low-brow folk music allusions and fake philosophy attributed by footnote to nonexistent sources. The notes were stuffed inside record albums that he produced and issued on his own label. Invariably they turned out to be shaggy-dog stories of the most self-indulgent sort, whose effect was often to convince the listener that Fahey was a prankster, a hopeless eccentric, an oddball footnote to the folk music boom of the 60's, and not a real artist at all.

The truth was more complex. All the hokum was Fahey's most faithful weapon in his lifelong war against self-knowledge. Fully exposed, his vision would have been, and turned out to be, too hard to live with.

Yet it was unmistakable to anyone who ever saw him perform well (though he often performed less than well, especially after consuming quantities of alcohol and Darvon). Fahey in the thrall of his own compositions was both hypnotized and hypnotizing, a man whose longing and loneliness escaped directly through his fingers into the guitar strings that he always changed between sets.

He couldn't outpick Leo Kottke or Doc Watson, but his guitar rang with an authority that was as unequivocal as it was clear in its intention. He played like, and was, a man possessed, insisting that the essential spirit of this boundless, spectacular and unforgiving land could be communicated through six strings if only he could muster and sustain the strength and the clarity of purpose while keeping the lines of his unconscious mind open.

In the late 1960's, as a college junior, I drove Fahey through Massachusetts for a week. He was playing a series of gigs from Williamstown to Wellesley. Well after midnight, somewhere on the Mass Pike, he began to ramble on about his music and the odd and often inappropriate places it had found a home. He told me that there were mental hospitals in Massachusetts where his music was played over loudspeakers as part of the therapeutic regime; psychiatrists had decided it had the power to soothe the more agitated patients.

''I'm always amazed it doesn't drive them to immediate suicide,'' he said, cackling.

I'm convinced now that he knew more than he was saying. Dead at 61, after three marriages, years of battling alcohol, a pitiful career and even a stretch of life in a homeless shelter, he succumbed to sextuple bypass surgery; every conceivable path to his heart had finally shut down. John Fahey joins that elite group of Americans who wouldn't, or couldn't, hoe corn. Like Harry Partch and Charles Ives, he heard an America singing that the rest of us couldn't hear. We can be thankful he left behind a tremendous recorded legacy that gives us a second chance.

Followed by these letters to the editor.
JOHN FAHEY; A Profound Artist

Published: March 18, 2001

To the Editor:

Thanks to Jack Viertel for his moving tribute to the great John Fahey [''The Spirit of America in His Guitar,'' March 4], a needed corrective to the uncomprehending remarks that often dogged this poorly understood figure. In particular, readers should know that Fahey can in no way be blamed for the scourge of New Age music -- bland, escapist stuff and the absolute antithesis of everything he embodied. His simple harmonic language paid homage to the blues and hymns that he drew on so powerfully, and we can hardly blame him for the lazy noodling that arrived in his wake.

Fahey had the uncanny ability to channel the spirit of blues styles past, particularly the Delta blues of the 20's, and Mr. Viertel is precisely right in attributing this to his overheated imagination as much as to his guitar technique.



JOHN FAHEY; A Guitar Player

Published: March 18, 2001

To the Editor:

Jack Viertel mentions John Fahey's ''pitiful career.'' In the last 10 years, Fahey came to my place of business every few weeks selling vinyl LP's. My husband and I became friends with him. More times than I can count, he said: ''People are always talking about my career. I don't have a career. Sometimes I play the guitar for money.''

He's dead, and people are still talking about that ''career.''


Portland, Ore.

All I can say is, when the US is talking about your demise, from coast to coast, in the NYT no less, you were an influential person.  But, I doubt you needed me to tell you that about John Fahey.
Ok, that wraps it for today.  I'll be posting stuff all week and I hope you'll come back to see what's up next.  I'll have some live shows to d/l and what I think will be a few surprises.


  1. Thanks for these...
    Looking forward to tomorrow...

  2. thanks immensely for providing a quote that tips a personal hypothesis over into strange Theory. For many years now it's seemed to me that John Fahey did not play the guitar. The guitar played John Fahey.

    "I never considered for a minute that I had talent,'' he wrote in 1994. ''What I did have was divine inspiration and an open subconscious.''

    Fahey - the American Treasure (that was lost on the trail), the Transcendental Waterfall (that was submerged under a reservoir), the Bard of the Ineffable (who was at loggerheads with himself) - will not be replaced and can't be imitated. But he can be remembered. As we remember Bach, Stravinsky, James, Ellington, Johnson, Prokofiev, et al. - with scholarship & practice, keeping their Art alive for a future where they may be sorely needed..