Half in Love with Blind Joe Death
Guitar virtuoso John Fahey’s American odyssey
The acoustic guitarist John Fahey was one of those musicians who exist below the hosanna of popular acclaim: awkward savants who may not shift a colossal number of “units” but have a profound effect on those who fall under their spell. Fahey first came to public attention in the mid-1960s, when he put out records on his own Takoma label. (The independent musician-trader is no recent invention.) He was then rediscovered in the 1970s by people like me, searching for nuggets of useful treasure in the pre-punk margins; then found again in the 1990s, by assorted post-Nirvana refugees in need of restorative light after the death-howl of grunge. Within certain musical scenes, Fahey’s influence is provably indispensable.
When I was a callow young learner-strummer, I couldn’t for the life of me work out how down-home pickers like Fahey did what they did: it sounded at once so elegantly simple and yet musicologically baffling and opaque. (Before computer downloads and the easy-to-parse “tablature” method of musical transcription, the only way to figure out this stuff was some unlikely meeting with a clued-in elder, who might pass on the secrets of the six-string sodality.) So much early rock guitar focused on the flashy runs made by a player’s pyro-athletic left hand: how fast and grandiloquently fussy (as well as shatteringly loud) things could be made to sound. Fahey emerged from—and merged with—a wholly different tradition. In the technique termed “fingerpicking,” perfected by the Delta blues guitarists of the 1920s and 1930s, emphasis switches to the right hand: your thumb hammers out a beat on the three strings lowest in tone (nearest your chin: E-A-D) while the other four fingers pick out melodic runs on the three strings highest in tone (nearest your knee: G-B-E). The unwearying thumb does the work of an entire rhythm section, while the other fingers pick out more unpredictable slides and sorties. Every string has a potential tale: jagged or leafy, rueful or resilient. For first-time listeners, it may sound like two guitarists playing at once in judicious harmony, a modest instrument made glancingly symphonic.
For me, this particular door creaked open via a helpfully cheap 1970s compilation—The Contemporary Guitar Sampler, Volume 1—which I recently relocated in a seedy charity-shop pile. Most of the featured players (Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, among others) were plucked from a still-healthy British folk scene. Fahey sounded different: his near-parched mood music felt less fussy, more straightforward, yet also somehow eerie and hard to place.
Fahey was one of those young white American kids who discovered folk and blues music in the early 1960s and took their epiphany off in two markedly different directions. One, the slightly larger group, became the rather po-faced purists of the hugely popular folk revival (Fahey had big problems with both the music and politics of this group). The other, blown away by the songs assembled on the likes of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, tried to fashion appropriately idiomatic forms of their own in which to recast the old, uncanny spell. Groups like the Grateful Dead, which ended up broadcasting psychedelic apocalypse through huge speaker cabinets, had their roots in a world of beardy bluegrass obsessives and coffeehouse picking circles.
When Fahey started collecting old 78 RPM records, his primary musical fetish was bluegrass, too—a music that could come across as both bruisingly up-tempo and hauntingly tender. The music of Bill Monroe, Roscoe Holcomb, and the Carter Family would rattle along like an out-of-control freight train; in more reflective moments, it let loose what folklorist John Cohen called its distinctive “high lonesome sound.” Run on an odd, loping shuffle, bluegrass can ambush unwary listeners with its askew and spacious harmonies. The impression it leaves can be unsettling: an apparently humble music of homestead and family that also feels like it’s trying to pick up enough steam to outrun its own shadow. As a committed bluegrass fan, Fahey was initially quite sniffy, even condescending, about blues music: getting inside the stop-go technique of bluegrass was one thing, but the anguished intensity of the blues was something else again, a Faustian zone that the young Fahey wasn’t ready to access. But this teenage churchgoer and future philosophy student had a few shadows in his own basement. Hidden at the heart of the blues—and Fahey’s own small-town worldview—was a good deal of white-hot anger.
One day, a fellow music obsessive put on “Praise God I’m Satisfied,” a scratchy old 78 by Blind Willie Johnson, and Fahey’s world shifted on its axis. He felt (in his own words) “nauseated,” and then burst into floods of tears. In the morning, he was one person; by the end of the day, “it was the start of the rest of my life.” He later called it a “hysterical conversion experience,” and it determined both his subsequent musical career and dependably contrarian worldview. He became consumed by blues guitar and began tracking down some of its forgotten early innovators. He wrote a scholarly book on the backwoods ecstatic Charley Patton. Fahey’s empathy for the raw emotional potency of such musicians also fed his distaste for the folk revivalism then current; he really despised these prim, better-world folkies, though he may have seen something in their smugly elitist attitude that he recognized from his own pre-conversion outlook.
Fahey merged the dark voodoo of the Delta blues with his own off-kilter sense of American self, nature, and space. His earliest home recordings show a young musician dedicated, occasionally nimble, but still very much a fond copyist. But by 1965 and his watershed LP, The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, we hear a different proposition altogether. His confidence on the guitar is now sharp and beguiling: he transforms even the hokey standard “A Bicycle Built for Two” into a small jewel of measured compression. Alongside this musical progress, Fahey was piecing together a kind of patchwork personal mythology, composed of a range of personal totems: nature lore (with an abiding fondness for turtles); plantation antiquarianism; and names of ex-girlfriends and apocryphal old bluesmen. This half-jokey imitation of mythic gravitas proved timely and attractive for a young audience beginning to lace flowers in its hair and trade in the conventional suburban pieties for “Underground Comix” and Carlos Castaneda. A slightly queasy state of affairs obtained, where Fahey’s collections of sober and unvarnished folk music came complete with mind-boggling psychedelic sleeve notes, including the flowery text on the back of a 1969 British reissue that signs off with, “Love and Pies, SUPERSCRIBE.”
Born in 1939, Fahey had, by most accounts (except, much later, a questionably revisionist one of his own), a fairly regular upbringing. His childhood, spent in the leafy Washington, D.C., suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland, was neither wildly happy nor soul-crushingly awful. In a 2014 biography, Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist, writer Steve Lowenthal describes postwar Takoma Park as a place that “straddled both sides of the racial and cultural divide, with some areas increasingly liberal and others that hung close to old Southern ideologies.” (Fahey would later record an oddly dignified and affecting “Old Southern Medley.”) Contemporaries may have found the teenage Fahey too intense, but he remained an enthusiastic participant in a number of more or less “square” social scenes. Fahey wasn’t some wild and gnarly beatnik, damning bourgeois “Amerikkka,” but neither was he playing things entirely straight; if he had no intention of settling down into the quiescent Cheeverville of his parents’ generation, neither did he trust the daffy new truisms of an emergent counterculture.
Fahey didn’t make many new friends with his scything dismissal of the folk revival. He distrusted the way that folkies regarded music as a carrier for the correct political messages of the moment. As Lowenthal puts it: “To him, the student idealists had naïve worldviews and dreamed of unrealistic political utopias,” whereas Fahey “attempted to channel darkness and dread through his music.” For Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger devotees, the ideological message came first, with musical tone or trickery a distant second. As Fahey saw it, the dizzyingly strange source music they borrowed from and then built their careers on emerged as little more than a scrubbed-up ventriloquist’s doll, all the coarse grain and troubling metaphysic of its original voices jettisoned. He also detected high condescension and low reverse racism in how the folk-revival people preferred their old blues guys barefoot and wearing dungarees—even if they now usually dressed in sharp suits and often preferred to play amplified, electric urban blues.
Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno, who some might expect to hold the contrary position, thought that “politically sound” pop music may have been the worst pop music of all: “I believe, in fact, that attempts to bring political protest together with Ωpopular music≈—that is, with entertainment music—are doomed from the start.” In the strummy protest music of the early 1960s, the stripping away of all sonic fripperies left a meager aesthetic: just the brave truth teller and his rough, purposeful guitar in the good, honest, bracing open air. Fahey’s music, by comparison, looked back to older examples of the pastoral uncanny in American culture, as hinted at in the titles of some of his singular new compositions: “The Downfall of the Adelphi Rolling Grist Mill”; “View (East from the Top of the Riggs Road / B&O Trestle)”; “The Singing Bridge of Memphis, Tennessee.”
Fahey set about mixing up an inimitable sonic gumbo of the various musics he personally loved: Charles Ives and Edgard Varèse, blues anguish and Indian raga, Appalachian picking. He went from playing a spirited but limited facsimile of American blues to ever stranger forms of musical synthesis. He aspired to a kind of semi-acoustic musique concrète, which blossomed on albums like The Yellow Princess (1968) and Fare Forward Voyagers (1973). This stylistic turn proved a perfect soundtrack for the moment—plainly and broodingly American but also quite trippy at the edges—and soon Fahey could barely keep up with public demand. Between 1967 and 1969, he released five full-length albums, as well as reissuing all his earlier LPs in spiffy new packaging. A 1968 Christmas album even crossed over into the burgeoning Christian market; and, by the early 1970s, Fahey was fielding the seductive propositions of numerous big labels. In 1973, he signed with the Warner Brothers subsidiary Reprise.
Fahey’s experimental turn attracted the uncritical attention of an acid-rock audience he felt distinctly uncomfortable with, especially considering his distaste for middle-class “phonies.” Lowenthal offers his own account of an infamous meeting between Fahey and the trendy filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, who wanted some appropriately “happening” music for his awful (but absolutely on trend, as we now say) 1970 film Zabriskie Point. That there are at least three versions of what really transpired between the flinty American guitarist and the brooding Italian director—one account has them coming to blows—doesn’t lessen the episode’s tragicomic charge.
Fahey was no one’s idea of a great businessman, but he was canny enough, at least initially, to engage the right kind of people to work behind the scenes for his small Takoma label, which he started in the late 1950s: people who might take care of all the more practical business he himself disdained. Fahey had a tendency to present himself as far less worldly and pragmatic than he was. He had a keen eye for new talent, and Takoma had a huge success with the brilliant young guitarist Leo Kottke. Fahey’s instincts were consistently ahead of the times: in the 1990s, he formed his second label, Revenant Records, which went on to clock up four Grammy awards for its faultlessly researched archive collections.
Before then, however, things had taken a darker turn. Fahey’s sale of Takoma in 1981 marked the beginning of a personal and professional decline. At some point in the 1980s, he contracted Epstein-Barr virus (or chronic fatigue syndrome), exacerbated by an almost willfully bad diet and excessive drinking. By the early 1990s, he was all but destitute, living in cheap motels or charity hostels, apparently through with making music, and subsisting on the meager proceeds of the classical music LPs that he scavenged from Salem, Oregon, thrift stores and sold to collectors. (As a dedicated thrift-store scavenger myself, I always found this now-accepted stitch in the Fahey mythos a bit suspect. Even if the economics made sense—which they don’t—classical music collectors in the 1990s were getting rid of their old vinyl and converting en masse to digital technology. If precedent is anything to go by, it’s more likely that Fahey was sponging off some girlfriend or ex-wife.)
A celebratory 1994 profile in Spin magazine brought Fahey back to public attention; before long, one of rock music’s unlikelier comebacks was under way. Fresh new fans flocked to him, duplicating, in a slightly spooky way, Fahey’s own fraught 1960s experiences with Skip James and other sacred old monsters of the blues. Young enthusiasts turned up at Fahey gigs expecting some approximation of the sublime sound worlds of his late-1960s work; what they found, more often than not, was a grumpy, ungainly, and frequently inebriated middle-aged guy in poor health, terrible clothes, and high umbrage. Fahey could be surly and petulant; the neat, stork-like figure from old photos was now an elective slob decked out in stained T-shirts, roomy shorts, and cheap, audience-blocking sunglasses. Requests for old favorites were met with howls of migrainous feedback and long passages of monochromatic drone music.
For Fahey, this switch in musical styles seemed to constitute a grand heroic gesture. He claimed to be bored with his classics, insisting that they were a gigantic act of bad faith (“cosmic sentimentalism”) to begin with. Art should be a scream from the gut, not a pretty but devious sublimation: this was his new psycho-aesthetic line. Did he really believe this, or was it merely a face-saving rationalization for the uncomfortable truth that he could no longer perform his chimingly complex 1960s material? Some who were close to Fahey in his final years felt that he was avoiding the fact that he could no longer navigate those long-gone ragas and suites; others believe that Fahey felt he had to give a spiky young audience something appropriately “radical.” Paradoxically, the spiky young audience found his aping of en vogue drone music a bit secondhand and would have vastly preferred the redemptive beauty of his older music. Also, some of us were kinder than we might have been when reviewing the new CDs that Fahey released during this time; the truth is, the music they contain is not a patch on his best work.
To complicate an already ambiguous situation, Fahey published a quasi-memoir in 2000, in which he accused his father of concerted and vicious child abuse. He had ignored the pain of this memory for far too long, he said; it was also why he considered his gorgeous sixties and seventies music a cop-out, made in psychological bad faith. (Oddly enough, or maybe not, a Fahey compilation from 1994 bore the title Return of the Repressed.) Muddying things even further, the book was a foggy mix of half-veiled memory, recalled fantasy, and actual fiction. (It should be noted that in the 1980s and 1990s, so-called satanic-abuse scandals and the controversial area of “recovered memories” were both hot topics.) The truth behind Fahey’s suddenly sprung abuse narrative remains opaque—and, finally, depressing, either way. Before assembling his score-settling memoir, he doesn’t seem to have hinted at the existence of such problems to anyone—friend, partner, or family member. As with Fahey’s maybe-daring, maybe-lazy turn toward drone music, old fans remain split on the subject; some feel that the horrific revelations seemed suspiciously well-timed to excuse his own bad behavior.
Indeed, Fahey appears to have been a fairly unbearable character in his last years. (He died aged 61, in 2001, from complications while undergoing heart surgery.) Here we find a type familiar from numerous rock biographies: the lazy-but-controlling middle-aged child who expects everything to be done for him as his seignorial due, helpless when faced with necessary change but mule-like in clinging to entrenched habit—and cloaked in recherché sexual politics. Toward the close of the Lowenthal biography (the only one so far), we find an unsettling example of Fahey bestowing attentions on a young female fan that feels just short of stalking. Late Fahey is one of those divisive figures whose personal behavior can seem as petty and self-serving as his best music is otherworldly and sublime. It may be difficult to enjoy the work of old heroes once we learn about the recurrence of some worse-than-usual moral laxity. (Allegations that the late electro-folkie John Martyn may have been a periodic wife-beater have ruined his impossibly gentle music for many ex-fans.) But we can also find that an artist’s perplexingly messy life only increases our awe before the rough beauty of his music. Music, we may suppose, is the one place where these grossly imperfect souls glimpse or brush against the hopeful lineaments of a better life.
Adult temper tantrums and disabling drug habits are depressingly familiar stuff in musicians’ biographies; in Fahey’s case, aspects of his bad behavior might betray a deeper resonance. Fahey’s contemporaries in the folk revival were ethically unimpeachable, but their music was the proverbial last straw that sent you to watch paint dry instead. Is it better to endure bad art for the spotless ideology it promotes, or to continue to swoon before sublime art made by awful people?
As for Fahey’s own sublime art, much of his back catalog is being reissued on vinyl again. It continues to ensnare astonished new listeners—some not even born when Fahey died—hungry for a folk music that is convincingly delicate and diabolic both, never winsome or pompous or plain. Many of these new fans are the age I was in 1979, when Fahey was one of the first music people I interviewed professionally. Back then, I couldn’t quite believe that we were even in the same room. If I had known how the word was used, I would probably have called him “maestro.” He was polite, garrulous, and arrestingly articulate on a wide range of musical and extramusical topics.
From small cottage-industry beginnings to a punk-era fade and then post-grunge rediscovery and his egregious child-abuse controversy, Fahey’s career took an oddly emblematic trajectory for such a superficially modest life. The Fahey I met in London in 1979 was tweedy and professorial, calm and sanguine, and helpful almost to a fault. In his twilight years, he was more like some dodgy backstreet character you might see in a dull episode of Cops. Latter-day Fahey could seem both a wan and forbidding figure: lost inside his gray rainbow haze of prescription meds and phantom ailments, fast food and concerted drift, claiming psychological dysfunction almost as a badge of honor. He seemed to fritter away what little energy he had left in various forms of bad-tempered self-sabotage. Something had happened in Fahey’s world, and it felt more elemental than just a bad case of chronic fatigue. The coexistence of the abuse narrative with his increasing borderline abuse of the women in his life may hold a key. Other problems may have begun as early as the late 1960s: his surprising Easy Rider–style commercial success drew in its train agents, ideologues, and “underground” sibyls seeking a supplementary message or profit from a music never built to withstand such subtle but muddling imprecations. He had set out to do something winningly simple, and it had gotten very complicated indeed.
It’s sad, hearing all these murky refrains from a life that went intermittently wrong toward its premature end; but I can’t say that, after such knowledge, my favorite Fahey albums sound any less magical now. His best work has a beguiling melancholy but is never depressing, wistful but never facile. Fahey is just one man surveying the tradition and leaving his thumbprint on its originary manuscripts, an impression so rapt and easy and unassuming that it might be a breath or breeze. Newcomers consulting the Lowenthal biography may wonder why the author chose Dance of Death as a title rather than American Guitarist: the author perhaps overemphasizes the morbid side of Fahey, when a large part of his catalog is quite rousing and cheerful. (A good percentage of blues music did, after all, start life as a wholly intemperate, Saturday-night git-down beat.) In the end, “American” is surely the most telling and accurate label for a music that seems to speak, inimitably, of both glorious possibilities and misplaced Edens. John Fahey may have ended his life a spoiled and irascible baby-man, but his greatest work continues to resonate for many of us like the ultimate lost chord, deep inside.
Photo: Fahey performing at the Roundhouse in London in 1969, at the peak of his popularity (RAY STEVENSON/REX SHUTTERSTOCK)
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