John Fahey 1939-2001

Forty-two years ago John Fahey released an album of solo acoustic guitar based upon classical structures – Bartok played by Mississippi John Hurt being the simple concept – in an edition of 100 with money made as a gas station attendant, and invented a genre in the process. Since then he’s been discovered, forgotten, and rediscovered by more communities than I can name, as seemingly contradictory as Windham Hill and the avant-garde, Christians and acid casualties. His passing, 22 Feb 2001, affected me in a way I had frankly thought not possible in days like these where death exists a remote control click away at all times, and often closer.

He was just a musician, just a freakin’ acoustic guitarist at that. If this can bring me to tears, I thought, how frighteningly close must I be to stopping for blowing leaves, or slitting my wrist over accidental pepperoni consumption. But how few the numbers of distinctly American musical pioneers seem without him. His life and work existed out of time, marrying innovation to an old-time American sensibility with a singular sense of humor like precious few.

For all his direct followers, the Kottkes, Grossmans, and Bashos, the only people I can think of who truly picked up his torch are Ethan and Joel Coen, whose recent O Brother Where Art Thou came as close to capturing on film a Faheyian perspective as I did to busting my spleen laughing at it. What stories I heard second-, third-, or fourth-hand of Fahey’s life often struck me as being straight out of one of their pictures. A man obsessed with the sounds of the railroad, never without a guitar but always pawning one off to buy old records, surrounded even in an office in LA by turtles, creating turtle sanctuaries wherever he went, his record company’s rerelease of a song he didn’t like from his first LP made impossible because he claimed there was a bullet hole through the only surviving copy. The Coen Brothers’ entire oeuvre has an undercurrent similar to Fahey’s, of finding joy in the expression of sadness, a disposition traceable back to bluesmen like Blind Willie Johnson but rare in a world intent on amplifying, glorifying, and eventually stultifying its every extravagant frown and moan.

I spent the hours after hearing of Fahey’s death with his many records. “Sun Gonna Shine In My Backdoor Someday Blues,” from his first LP, jumps out of the shrubbery at you as a real toe-stomper of a heel-kickin’ ditty which runs down his many charms like a pancake/pickle/sugar-on-snow breakfast does maple syrup. Few have ever sounded so otherworldly in their down-home grit, so ecstatic in their darkness or foreboding in their sublimity, so emotionally ambiguous. Fahey’s music was as unsentimental as the folk and blues forms got, but no less affecting for it.

As much as his later recordings featured improved fidelity and technique, the earlier takes have an aura all their own which should make you treasure them like, if not your own son, at least a valued kitchen cabinet. His 1967 recording of “Some Summer Day”, crystalline and opaque like nothing in the genres Fahey miscegenated, may be my favorite piece in the catalogue of a man whose works defy favoritism like a man’s own children.

Only in a time when the most revolutionary music is miniscule, the sine-wave experimentation of musicians like Sachiko M and Ryoji Ikeda and electroacoustic improv such as that documented on the Erstwhile label causing yet another reevaluation of what constitutes music, when even geezers like Forced Exposure vet, avant-flotsam aficionado, and Fahey nut, Byron Coley, become exponents of players like Sean Meehan, a percussionist who recently played an at-times barely audible solo set at Coley’s loft with nothing but a solitary snare drum, thin dowel-like sticks which he used to rub rather than hit, and forks – only now does it become apparent how uncommercial, unmarketable, indeed, unlistenable, John Fahey must have been in 1959. To take such a tool of the background as the acoustic guitar and foreground it, indeed, isolate it, and in so doing rethink the instrument’s entire raison d’etre, seems impossibly forward-thinking.

But when contrasted with contemporaneous experimentation, the serialism and musique concrete of academia, Fahey seems eminently listenable. Though of different worlds at the time, his music finds a closer brethren in the drone-total of the Theatre of Eternal Music and the Dream Syndicate. Indeed, the connection between the two would creep up repeatedly in the work of post-rock icon/museum curator Jim O’Rourke. There’s clearly a common ground to be found between Fahey and, for example, Tony Conrad or Henry Flynt, in their experimentation with open/alternate tunings, in their high-brow approach to unassuming musics, in their refusal to completely ignore the roots of their chosen instrument. Even Conrad, a proponent of academia if ever there was one, always possessed a tone closer to fiddle than classical violin. While there’s something to be said for the hardheaded singlemindedness of a Derek Bailey, there’s just as much to be said for someone like Fahey, who, despite employing Bailey-isms in his music as early as 1962 (before there was such a thing), was able to singlehandedly create a market for what he did. A record like 1968’s The Voice of the Turtle, his most traditional, causes me to leave tears in my oatmeal whenever I think that thirty years later it still sounds more effortlessly modern than any of the contempo-bluegrass and roots music that followed it, while at the same time reeking of cotton fields, overalls, and branch apple-whips. Genres may not be sustainable, much of America’s musical past having become clearly just that, a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean they’re resistant to anomalous, vital, freak resuscitation.

A tree has many branches, and even the fallen have uses. As young whipper-snappers, my cousins and I flung apples at cows, crows, and each other. They hurt like hell. Only the green branches gave you a good fling, but I tell you what, the fallen gave a more effective thwack in those moments of close proximity to the enemy.

Obviously I’m a nostalgic twat, as every Fahey record in one way or another puts me in mind of the America I miss, an America I was born too late to really see, instead given only glimpses from the fender of a John Deere 4030, the hitch of a Massey-Ferguson, or the top of a silage pile. I take it Fahey was born too late also, but still he captured the essence, in his guitar primitive, in his take on “Amazing Grace,” which is, as anyone with ears above their feet shouldn’t have trouble guessing, a keeper.

Whether experimenting with dissonance on 1966’s The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party or musique concrete on 1967’s Requia, whether backed by a band (!), and a major label (!!), playing New Orleans-style boogie (!!!), strung out on drugs and swinging like a pack-mule and then some in the early-to-mid 1970’s, or returning to the crystalline beauty of his early records on the recent electric outing, Georgia Stomps, Atlanta Struts, and Other Contemporary Dance Favorites, he always cut to the core, right down to the kernel, of what it means to me to be American. In that spirit, I can think of nothing better to say about John Fahey than that he liked trains and he liked to drink. Two better preoccupations I couldn’t name. And he had the blues with a smile.

In the closing of the liner notes to the 1967 stereo pressing of the Blind Joe Death LP, Fahey wrote (under the pseudonym of Cester Petranick, the name of his high school guidance counselor), in his typically self-mythologizing, self-deprecating, and cryptically deceptive style, the following:

“John Fahey went insane in 1964 and died shortly thereafter. He spoke to me in his last minutes on his dying bed and said: “Take down my old guitar and smash it against the wall so I can die easily.” I did so and he passed away with a chthonic smile on his face.”


written by Otis Wheeler, February 2001