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John Fahey: 1939-2001
John Fahey
Guitarist, composer, writer, record label owner

Born: February 28, 1939 in Takoma Park, Maryland
Died: February 22, 2001 in Salem, Oregon

A Great Iconoclast in American Music

Copyright © 2001 

The Scotsman, 2001


Guitarist John Fahey was one of the most iconoclastic figures to emerge on the American music scene in the post-1960 period. Although deeply rooted in folk and blues, his music ultimately eluded categorisation. He himself invented the label “American primitive guitar” for it, but that description disguised his considerable virtuosity on the instrument.

He was born John Aloysius Fahey, and grew up in the country. His parents were both musical, and took him to many concerts, where he acquired an early liking for country and bluegrass music, citing Bill Monroe and blues singer Blind Willie Johnson as particularly significant formative influences. Meeting a black blues guitarist named Frank Hovington in 1952 launched his fascination with the fingerpicking guitar style, and he bought his first instrument shortly afterward.

He taught himself to play as a teenager, and also began collecting and trading old 78-r.p.m. recordings of hillbilly songs, blues, gospel and jazz. Another collector, Joe Bussard Jr., made 78rpm recordings of Fahey, playing under the name Blind Thomas, and in 1959 Fahey launched his own record label, Takoma Records, to issue his first LP, Blind Joe Death. One side was credited to John Fahey, the other to Blind Joe Death, a fictitious invented bluesman who would reappear in Fahey’s later work.

Only 100 copies were pressed, and the album later became a real collectors item, although Fahey reissued it in 1964, with three tracks rerecorded. His subsequent classic development of the theme, Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death (1965), became his best known record. His collection of Christmas tunes, The New Possibility (1968), was Takoma’s best-selling album, and he returned to that concept in several more recordings over the years.

He studied philosophy and religion at the American University in Washington and then at the University of California in Berkeley, where he began playing local folk clubs. He recorded his second album, Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes, in 1963, and also recorded the almost forgotten blues greats Bukka White and Skip James, relaunching their careers on the folk-revival circuit.

He completed a Masters Degree at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1964, with a thesis on the Delta bluesman, Charley Patton (later published, but currently out of print), then turned full time to music. In addition to his own records, Takoma also issued albums by guitarists Leo Kottke, Peter Lang and Robbie Basho, and pianist and guitarist George Winston. As his reputation grew, Fahey himself recorded further albums for Vanguard and Reprise.

His music grew increasingly unconventional, moving outward from its blues and folk roots to embrace unusual, highly individual tunings and picking patterns, and long, spacey, jazz-like improvisations. He spent some time at a monastery in India in the early 1970s, and used Indian ragas in his music, as well as the music of Native Americans.

Just as he had been taken up by the psychedelic movement in the late 1960s, Fahey was adopted as an even more unlikely progenitor of New Age music, inspired by his use of folk and hymn-like melodies within elegant, reflective, almost classically-structured compositions. He declared himself incapable of playing in a New Age style, despite the financial inducements to do so, and entitled a lengthy piece on one of his albums “On the Death and Disembowelment of the New Age”.

The serene surface of much of his music which encouraged that identification also disguised a more troubled psyche. In an interview in The Wire magazine in 1998, Fahey said that “I was creating for myself an imaginary, beautiful world and pretending that I lived there, but I didn’t feel beautiful. I was mad but I wasn’t aware of it. I was also very sad, afraid and lonely”.

Fahey sold Takoma Records in the 1970s, and recorded further albums for the Shanachie and Varrick labels, but his personal life was in increasing disarray, as was his health. His drinking problem worsened, and for a time he lived in a charity mission in Salem, and supported himself by combing flea markets for secondhand classical records to sell to collectors.

In a remarkable turn of events, Fahey was rediscovered in the 1990s by an entirely new audience. The process began in earnest when the specialist reissue label Rhino Records complied a retrospective CD of his work, Return of the Repressed, in 1994. The music struck a chord with the emerging alternative rock scene of the day, and Fahey suddenly found himself in demand.

He professed himself slightly bemused by the unanticipated resurgence of interest, but sobered up and restarted his career. He launched a second record label with his manager, Revenant Records, dedicated to reissuing neglected blues and folk music.

He recorded a new album, City of Refuge, in 1996, the first of several discs released in the past six years, including The Mill Pond (1997), Georgia Stomps, Atlanta Struts and Other Contemporary Dance Favorites (1998), and Hitomi (2000). His experimental directions grew even more diverse, including adding electric guitar and lap steel guitar to his armoury, and making considerable use of electronic effects.

His music was always instrumental, but he wrote copious sleeve notes for his many LPs, incorporating mythic tales of Blind Joe Death and mock-academic analyses of the music. He shared a Grammy Award for the sleeve notes for the Anthology of American Folk Music box set issued by Smithsonian Folkways in 1997. Last year, he published an anecdotal memoir, How Bluegrass Destroyed My Life.

Fahey’s style and legacy is a genuinely unique one. In paying tribute to his friend and one-time mentor, guitarist Leo Kottke said that Fahey “created living, generative culture. With his guitar and his spellbound witness, he synthesised all the strains in American music and found a new happiness for all of us. With John, we have a voice only he could have given us.”

John Fahey died in hospital in Salem from kidney failure after after heart bypass surgery, six days short of his 62nd birthday.

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With 4 reader comments, latest March 16, 2001