John Fahey


John Fahey (February 28, 1939 – February 22, 2001) was an American fingerstyle guitarist and composer who pioneered the steel-string guitar as a solo instrument. His style has been greatly influential and has been described as American Primitivism, a term borrowed from painting and referring mainly to the self-taught nature of his art. Fahey himself borrowed from the folk and blues traditions in American music but also incorporated classical, Brazilian, Indian and abstract music into his eclectic œuvre. In characteristically witty fashion, he once said of his style: "How can I be a folk? I'm from the suburbs you know." In 2003, he was ranked 35th in Rolling Stone's "The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time".

John Aloysius Fahey was born in Washington, DC into a musical household - both his parents played the piano. In 1945, the family moved to the Washington suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland to a house on New York Avenue that Fahey's father Al lived in until his death in 1994. On weekends, the family often attended performances of top country and bluegrass groups of the day, but it was hearing Bill Monroe's version of Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel No. 7" on the radio that ignited the young Fahey's passion for music.

In 1952, after being impressed by guitarist Frank Hovington, whom he met while on a fishing trip, he purchased his first guitar for $17 from the Sears-Roebuck catalogue. Along with his budding interest in guitar, Fahey was attracted to record collecting. While his tastes ran mainly in the bluegrass and country vein, Fahey discovered his love of early blues upon hearing Blind Willie Johnson's "Praise God I'm Satisfied" on a record-collecting trip to Baltimore with his friend and mentor, the musicologist Richard K. Spottswood. Much later, Fahey compared the experience to a religious conversion and remained a devout blues disciple until his death.

As his guitar playing and composing progressed, Fahey developed a style that blended the picking patterns he discovered on old blues 78s with the dissonance of contemporary classical composers he loved, such as Charles Ives and Béla Bartók. In 1958, Fahey made his first recordings. These were for his friend Joe Bussard's amateur Fonotone label. He recorded under the pseudonym Blind Thomas.

The following year, having no idea how to approach professional record companies and being convinced they would be uninterested, Fahey decided to issue his first album himself, using some cash saved from his gas station attendant job and some borrowed from an Episcopal priest. So Takoma Records was born, named in honor of his hometown. One hundred copies of this first album were pressed. On one side of the album sleeve was the name "John Fahey" and on the other, "Blind Joe Death" - this latter was a humorous nickname given to him by his fellow blues fans. He attempted to sell these albums himself. Some he gave away, some he sneaked into thrift stores and blues sections of local record shops, and some he sent to folk music scholars, a few of whom were fooled into thinking that there really was a living old blues singer called Blind Joe Death. It took three years for Fahey to sell the remainder.

After graduating from American University with a degree in philosophy and religion, Fahey moved to California in 1963 to study philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. Arriving on campus, Fahey - ever the outsider - began to feel dissatisfied with the program's curriculum (he later suggested that studying philosophy had been a mistake and that what he had wanted to understand was really psychology) and was equally unimpressed with Berkeley's (hippie) music scene. Fahey loathed the polite Pete Seeger-inspired revivalists he found himself classed with. The following year, Fahey moved south to Los Angeles to join the folklore master's program at UCLA at the invitation of department head D.K. Wilgus. Fahey's UCLA master's thesis on the music of Charley Patton, later published, is considered among the very best of folklore academia. He completed it with the musicological assistance of his friend Alan Wilson, who shortly after became a member of Canned Heat.

During this period, Takoma Records was reborn. Fahey decided to track down Blues legend Bukka White by sending a postcard to Aberdeen, Mississippi (White had sung that Aberdeen was his hometown, and Mississippi John Hurt had been rediscovered using a similar method). When White responded, Fahey and ED Denson, a Washington, DC area friend who had also moved west, decided to travel to Memphis and record White. The recordings by White became the first non-Fahey Takoma release. Fahey also, finally, released a second album in late 1963, called Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes. To their surprise the Fahey release sold better than White's and Fahey had a career going. But still Fahey did not begin playing in public for another year.

His releases during the mid-1960s employed odd guitar tunings and sudden style shifts rooted firmly in the old time and blues stylings of the 1920s. But he was not simply a copyist, as compositions such as "When the Catfish is in Bloom" or "Stomping Tonight on the Pennsylvania/Alabama Border" demonstrate. Fahey described the latter piece as follows: "The opening chords are from the last movement of Vaughan Williams' Sixth Symphony. It goes from there to a Skip James motif. Following that it moves to a Gregorian chant, Dies Irae. It's the most scary one in the Episcopal hymn books, it's all about the day of judgment. Then it returns to the Vaughan Williams chords, followed by a blues run of undetermined origin, then back to Skip James and so forth." A hallmark of his classic releases was the inclusion of lengthy liner notes, parodying those found on blues releases. Typically, these were epic acts of self-mythologization, mixing personal biography, reverie, folklore, and myriad obscure blues and bluegrass references.

Later albums from the sixties, such as Requia and The Yellow Princess found Fahey making sound collages from such elements as Gamelan music, Tibetan chanting, animal and bird cries and singing bridges. In 1967, Fahey recorded with Red Crayola at the 1967 Berkeley Folk Festival, music that resurfaced on the 1998 Drag City reissue, The Red Krayola: Live 1967.

In addition to his own creative output, Fahey expanded the Takoma label, discovering fellow guitarists Leo Kottke, Robbie Basho and Peter Lang, as well as emerging pianist George Winston. Kottke's debut release on the label, 6- and 12-String Guitar, ultimately proved to be the most successful of the crop, selling more than 500,000 copies. Other artists with albums on the label included Mike Bloomfield, Rick Ruskin, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Maria Muldaur, Michael Gulezian and Canned Heat. In 1979, Fahey sold Takoma to Chrysalis Records. Jon Monday, who had been the General Manager of the label since 1970 was the only employee to go with the new company. Chrysalis eventually sold the rights to the albums, and Takoma was in limbo until bought by Fantasy Records in 1995.

By the mid-1970s, Fahey's output abated and he began to suffer from a drinking problem. He lost his home in the dissolution of his first marriage, remarried, divorced again, and moved to Salem, Oregon in 1981 to live with his third wife. In 1986, Fahey contracted Epstein-Barr syndrome, a long-lasting viral infection similar to chronic fatigue syndrome, which exacerbated his diabetes and other health issues. He continued to perform in and around the Salem area, as he was managed by friends David Finke and his wife Pam. The trio attempted to keep Fahey's career afloat by radio appearances and small venue performances. He broke up with his third wife and his life began to spiral downward. He made what appeared to be his last album in 1990.

Although he won his five-year battle with Epstein-Barr, Fahey spent much of the early 1990s living in poverty, mostly in cheap motels. Gigs had dried up, due to his health problems. He paid his rent by pawning his guitars and reselling rare records he found in thrift stores.

Following a 1994 entry on Fahey in Spin magazine's spin-off Alternative Record Guide publication, Fahey learned that he now had a whole new audience, which included alternative US bands Sonic Youth and Cul de Sac, British comedian and writer Stewart Lee and the avant-garde musician Jim O'Rourke. Byron Coley published a large article called "The Persecutions and Resurrections of Blind Joe Death" (also in Spin magazine) and at the same time a two-cd retrospective called The Return of the Repressed all combined to kick-start Fahey's career. Suddenly new releases started to appear in rapid succession, in parallel to the reissue of all the early Takoma releases by Fantasy Records.

Jim O'Rourke went on to produce a Fahey album, 1997's Womblife, while in the same year Fahey recorded an album with Cul de Sac, The Epiphany of Glenn Jones (Glenn Jones is the lead guitarist of Cul de Sac). This late flowering showed Fahey had changed. Gone were the melodic dreaminess and folk-based meditations of the 60s and 70s, which Fahey himself characteristically denounced as "cosmic sentimentalism". Now his music was harsh, grating, and confrontational.

At the same time as he was delving into more experimental electric music, Fahey's passion for traditional roots music did not subside. After coming into some money upon the death of his father in 1995, Fahey used the inheritance to form another label, Revenant Records, to focus on reissuing obscure recordings of early blues, old-time music, and anything else Fahey took a fancy to. In 1997, the label issued its first crop of releases, including albums by artists such as British guitarist Derek Bailey, American pianist Cecil Taylor, guitarist Jim O'Rourke, bluegrass pioneers the Stanley Brothers, old-time banjo legend Dock Boggs, Rick Bishop of Sun City Girls, and slide guitarist Jenks "Tex" Carman. Revenant's most famous release would become Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton, a seven-disc retrospective of Charley Patton and his contemporaries, which won three Grammy awards in 2003.

In 2000, the American record label Drag City published a volume of Fahey's esoteric autobiogaphical short stories, How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, edited by Damian Rogers with an introduction by O'Rourke.

In February 2001, just a few days before what would have been his 62nd birthday, John Fahey died at Salem Hospital after undergoing a sextuple bypass operation.

In 2006, five years after his death, no fewer than four John Fahey tribute albums were released as a testament to his reputation as a "giant of 20th century American music" (Byron Coley). Currently, six tribute albums have been recorded.

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John Fahey links


Buy John Fahey CDs at Amazon.com
John Fahey - American Primitive Guitar
Whatever happened to John Fahey?
JohnFahey.org
John Fahey Interview

Bookmark

John Fahey - Requia

John Fahey - America

John Fahey - Days have gone by volume 6

John Fahey - The dance of the turtle

John Fahey - The yellow princess

John Fahey - The best of 1959-1977

John Fahey - The dance of death and other plantation favorites

John Fahey - The John Fahey Christmas Album

John Fahey - The transfiguration of Blind John Death