John Fahey: 1939 to 2001
John Fahey first died in 1964 shortly after going insane. Thus wrote one Chester Petranick (John Fahey) in the notes to the 1967 version of the eponymous LP of the Fahey-discovered aging bluesman “Blind Joe Death” (John Fahey). Blind Joe was the cat who made his first guitar from an infant’s coffin, and whose only previous recording before his resurrection and transfiguration by Fahey on his Takoma Records label was a 1934 duet in Raleigh’s State Pen with one Lemuel Forkworth, “When I Lie Down Last Night”. Do we smell what Greil Marcus called “that old, weird America” yet?
Fahey’s life was filled with artistic and business disappointments, failed marriages, generous alcohol and not-always-prescribed prescription drug intakes, the broken-down spookhouse ride from popularity and influence to extreme poverty and obscurity, and a Jobian slew of illnesses that would have killed a pro athlete outright. You know, all the earmarks of a hard-living and hard-assed artist.
He still managed to found and artistically manage two highly regarded independent labels. The first, the aforementioned Takoma, was also one of the very first such enterprises; its humble beginnings in 1959 were financed by earnings from a night shift pumping gas at his local Maryland Esso station. The label is best-known for its releases by a real-life Fahey discovery, Leo Kottke, but it provided equal outlet for most of Fahey’s pioneering and vital recordings throughout the ’60s.
His second label, established during a period of career resuscitation in the ’90s, is Revenant. A revenant, by Webster’s, is “one who returns after death or a long absence.” The label became the modus for primarily reissues of obscure and/or ignored raw musics, from extreme avant garde jazz to hillbilly pig squealings. This includes last year’s excavation of the otherwise mythological Volume Four of Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music.
Either one of these accomplishments would be enough to warrant any number of hailing obituaries, but it is that terrible, gorgeous, luscious grotesquery of his playing, that completely unique sound, that was his most haunting legacy.
Prior to the configuration of the visionary mindset in his teens that gave us Fahey Music (his preferred term), the solo guitar had been the province of the classical world. Today it is impossible to mention the idiom without considering Fahey and his approach to the steel string right away. Whilst forging countless weird tunings and a few weirder picking techniques, he mind-melded the Delta blues, bluegrass, North Indian raga, Javanese gamelan and Tibetan Buddhist Tantric mantra (and a good generation before “world music” hit the American Cheeseville vernacular) into a form of perverse meditation. He called it American Primitive Guitar.
The modern composer Gunther Schuller considered this sort of amalgam of forms the Third Stream in Music, but with Fahey it is more like the Weird River. The steamboat gwine round its bend has H.P. Lovecraft for a captain, its resident gamblers and hookers drawn by Joe Coleman, and its stoker a short, snarly, hunchbacked wizard named Harry Smith.
Like Smith, Fahey was aristocracy in the old, weird America that so many people of late have discovered hiding under Plymouth Rock. Court composer with a knighthood. In classical circles, he is catalogued among other defiantly American twentieth-century composers such as Charles Ives and Harry Partch. Alt-country pickers are trying to figure out those techniques, and blues purists still scratch their heads how a white guy contributed so much to the literature.
John Fahey died, for real, in Salem, Oregon, on February 28, 2001, after enduring a sextuple bypass complicated by kidney failure. No one present at his passing has hinted whether his fabled chthonic grin was present on his visage as he merged with his creation Blind Joe Death.