If any musician epitomises a modern version of America’s pioneer spirit, it is John Fahey. Since his death at the age of 62 his reputation has continued to grow and his back catalogue of recordings dating from 1958 still baffles, intrigues and delights audiences.
In a tribute in The Wire (June 2006), David Keenan wrote :
“Right until death in 2001, Fahey continued to move forward, to follow the dictates of the spirit and the demands of his own voice – at times in open contempt of the bulk of his audience – and the result is a body of work that remains inviolable to passing contemporary modes and styles”.
Fahey was born on 28th February, 1939 and taught himself to play acoustic guitar and to develop a style which he himself defined as ‘American primitive’ The word ‘primitive’ was also chosen deliberately to link him with self taught French ‘naive’ painters like Henri Rousseau.
Rousseau disregarded the European orientated art school tradition in favour of works which had an affinity with the art of children. His paintings were not technically perfect and relied heavily on an instinctive or imaginary representation of the world. Roger Cardinal, writing in a book on Naive Art, said “the logic of the primitive lies in his adoption of his own code, his own frame of reference” . This is a statement that also applies well to Fahey.
For Fahey, a significant advantage in applying this label was that it dissociated him from the folk revivalists, musicians whom he dismissed as being over sentimental and phoney . He preferred his playing to be seen not as ‘folk music’ but as classically influenced suites and symphonies.
Both Fahey’s parents were amateur musicians so he was exposed to classical music such as Rachmaninov from an early age. This influence merges with that of the old-time and blues recordings he sought out as an avid collector, particularly those of Charley Patton. Through the steel string acoustic guitar, Fahey copied the styles he heard with the aim of making the instrumental passages central rather than for them to be simply backing music. The result is highly individualistic style which is both distinctive and innovative.
The awareness that his sound was at odds with popular taste of the time doubtless prompted the creation of a fictitious mentor, an alter ego who took the form of an old Negro street blues guitarist by the name of Blind Joe Death. On ‘The Legend of Blind Joe Death, 1958’ – for which 100 copies were printed when Fahey was just 19 years old , one side is attributed to Fahey and the other to Death. He continued the hoax for his second album (‘Death Chants, Breakdowns & Military Waltzes’) where part of the liner notes state that “Fahey made his first guitar from a baby’s coffin and led the old blind Negro through the back alley and whorehouses of Takoma Park in return for lessons“.
It is likely that part of his thinking was that listeners might be able to relate to the ‘discovery’ of an obscure bluesman more than to such a young man playing in an old unfamiliar style. Fahey also took perverse pleasure in duping the folk-blues music establishment.
The need to dream up and maintain a prank like this gives a window into the character of Fahey, by all accounts a stubborn and , at times, cantankerous man driven by, but also tormented by his demons. The restlessness of spirit is always a double-edged sword in terms of creativity, leading to a debilitating struggle with alcoholism but at the same time firing the questing nature that ensured he never felt satisfied with his achievements.
It is this which gives his recordings a dynamic sense of crispness and stimulated a constant willingness to experiment with sound and texture. These qualities have ensured the longevity of his music and gained a new generation of admirers such as Cul-de-Sac’s Glenn Jones , Jim O’Rourke, Sonic Youth and The No-Neck Blues Band.
A largely lacklustre tribute album curated by M.Ward in 2006 (‘I Am The Resurrection’) confirms his influence on New Weird artists with contributions from Devendra Banhart, Sufjan Stevens among others.
This video of Fahey as a young man is pretty cool: