John Fahey was an acoustic music pioneer who called his highly influential style “American Primitive Guitar,” as he melded blues and folk song sources with the sometimes dissonant harmonies of modern classical music, usually in an unaccompanied setting. As a producer and record company co-owner, he nurtured such artists as Leo Kottke, Robbie Basho, and George Winston. A blues devotee and dedicated record collector, he satirized the obsessive and overly reverential world of blues scholarship by manifesting the alter-ego Blind Joe Death. Through it all, despite health and substance abuse issues, he pursued ever-evolving creative directions.
Fahey’s first recordings came as 78 RPM discs in 1958 on his friend Joe Bussard’s Fonotone label. Released either under his own name or as “Blind Thomas,” these early songs were emblematic of his mischievous streak. In 1959, he made his first full album, Blind Joe Death, for his own Takoma label (named for his hometown of Takoma Park, Maryland). One side of the album is credited to Fahey, and the other to his mythical mentor, Blind Joe Death.
With no marketing experience or plan, he pressed 100 copies and sold them at the gas station where he worked, mailed copies to folklorists, and even seeded a few copies at local thrift stores.
In 1963, Fahey and fellow roots music enthusiast ED Denson partnered with record distributor Richard Pierce and began running Takoma as an aspiring indie label. After their initial release by bluesman Bukka White, whom Fahey and Denson had “rediscovered,” Fahey recorded a second album of steel-string guitar solos titled Death Chants, Breakdowns & Military Waltzes. It sold much better than expected, prompting them to reissue Blind Joe Death. However, Fahey reckoned that his guitar chops had improved enough in the intervening time that he would re-record about half the songs on the album. Then, in 1967, he re-recorded a complete third version of Blind Joe Death, this time in stereo. In all three iterations, the music was strikingly dark, emotional, and imbued with ineffable weirdness.
John Fahey’s records on Takoma, with their psychedelic artwork and lettering, were part of the acoustic soundtrack of the late-1960s counterculture movement. His deftly-played 1968 Christmas album, The New Possibility, became a perennial bestseller, eclipsed only on Takoma by Leo Kottke’s 6 and 12 String Guitar. He went on to record for other labels, and founded Revenant Records with Dean Blackwood in 1996, where he helped release the work of many of his fellow outlier heroes.
Yet, it is perhaps Blind Joe Death that remains Fahey’s signature statement. The complete music from the second two versions was collected in 1997 on The Legend of Blind Joe Death, with one unreleased song added. Fahey died in 2001 after undergoing heart surgery.
The surrealistic and often hilarious liner notes to the 1964 edition of Blind Joe Death also offer genuine insight into Fahey’s music and influences.
Sean O’Hagan’s career retrospective, John Fahey: The Guitarist Who Was Too Mysterious for the World, offers a concise biography.
John Fahey’s semi-autobiographical book, How Bluegrass Destroyed My Life, is a sometimes disorienting encapsulation of the guitarist’s worldview. Reviewer Bill Meyer writes, “The writing flickers with the same black humor and ambivalent mysticism that imbues his music.”
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE...
“Sligo River Blues”
In both versions (1964 and the slower 1967 take), this gently thumb-picked song rolls along with an easy gait that suggests Mississippi John Hurt, but with an intriguing chord progression that never quite resolves until the end.
“The Transcendental Waterfall”
This ten-minute piece moves from one impressionistic movement to another, often using dissonance and dark harmonies. If not for the oddness of many of the bent notes, sections of the composition suggest the blues. It could be argued that pieces such as “The Transcendental Waterfall” anticipate the guitarists who recorded for the New Age label Windham Hill in the 1980s and 1990s (albeit with far less oddness!).
“Poor Boy Long Ways From Home”
Fahey’s interpretation of the now well-known Reverend Robert Wilkins composition displays his most traditional side, especially in the exquisite balance between his thumb-picked bass and top-string improvisations. He was a guitarist of the first order.
DID YOU KNOW?
- During the final years of his life, John Fahey made a number of abstract paintings, 92 of which were posthumously collected in the book John Fahey Paintings. According to Inventory Press’s blurb, “Painting on found poster board and discarded spiral notebook paper, working with tempera, acrylic, spray paint, and magic marker, Fahey’s intuitive approach echoes the action painters and abstract expressionists.”
- John Fahey was able to locate the legendary blues guitarist Bukka White “in collaboration with the Postal Authorities of the U.S. Government” by mailing a postcard to the musician in care of General Delivery in Aberdeen, Mississippi, a town mentioned in the title of one of White’s songs.
- Fahey and Takoma Records encouraged the perception of Blind Joe Death as a real musician, whom Fahey claimed played a guitar fashioned from a child’s coffin. Fahey himself would sometimes wear dark glasses and be led onto the stage as if he were the embodiment of his avatar/mentor.
Words by Scott Billington