John Fahey, American primitive?

December 10, 2013 0 Comments

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Like many teenagers of the late 1960s I was first awakened to what would become my most treasured music by the late John Peel.  His weekly programme Top Gear on Radio One was unmissable.  It was almost the only place you could come across American musicians ignored by the mainstream (Peel had worked on a US radio station in his pre-pirate days).  Perhaps the best-known object of his advocacy was Captain Beefheart, who always seemed to be better appreciated here than in the US.  Someone else he played consistently – and who also developed a small but devoted following here – was the acoustic guitarist John Fahey (1939-2001).

As soon as I heard Fahey’s work on the radio I was caught: I couldn’t get it out of my mind.  I just wanted to get to hear more of it.  At that time I used to visit a record shop near Westgate Station in Wakefield that sold out-of-the-way music. I was already addicted to early blues, having devoured everything I could get my hands on, including Paul Oliver‘s books and compilations, so I was always on the lookout for blues records. Miraculously I found there in 1968 a copy of The transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, Fahey’s fourth album (1965).  I bought it.  It was the beginning of a love affair that has never ended.  I played that record constantly.  Every track I found mesmerising.  Some were arrangements of traditional tunes, others were Fahey’s own compositions.  All, it was clear to me, were the work of a genius.

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These memories came back to me the other day when BBC4 broadcast an hour-long documentary by a Canadian director, James Cullingham, entitled In search of Blind Joe Death: the saga of John Fahey (2012).  The film traces the story of Fahey, from his suburban childhood in Takoma Park, Maryland, to a lonely and untidy death in Salem, Oregon, aged 61, and tries to explain, with the help of family, friends and admirers like Pete Townsend, why he was one of the most individual and remarkable guitarists America has ever produced.

The only thing Fahey did, at least on those early records, was play his guitar, almost invariably alone.  Many of the pieces were versions of historic tunes from American folk traditions, black and white.  Others were his own compositions, often with outlandish titles, like ‘Stomping tonight on the Pennsylvania-Alabama border’, ‘The downfall of the Adelphi rolling grist mill’ and ‘Death of the Clayton peacock’.  All of them, though, shared a common aural feel, a complete musical world unique to Fahey.  It helped that he was a self-mythologiser: the Transfiguration album came with an elaborate booklet that told the gothic story of the fictional blues singer Blind Joe Death and his acolytes.

Two quite different streams came together to form the Fahey style: an interest – though really it was an obsession – with the people’s music of America as preserved on pre-war 78 records, and a restless desire to do things new, drawing on all kinds of music from around the world, including both western and eastern classical traditions, and on his own fertile and eccentric imagination.  The first lent consistency to his long recording career, the second meant that that his music was constantly on the move.

In the film friends attempt to identify what was unique about Fahey’s finger-picking, slide guitar style.  Was it the unconventional tunings? The repetitive, cycling rhythms?  The faithfulness of his recreations of the pre-war guitar masters?  The way he calls up the imagined Eden of his Takoma childhood, the woods and streams, the turtles that were his school hobby and adult mascot?  The half-hidden emotional undertow (‘Guitar is a calling.  It brings forth emotions you didn’t know you had’)?  None of them quite succeeds on pinning him down, though they can agree with the early television interviewer who says, ‘You don’t sound like anybody else’, and they all recognise the large and restless mind behind the rapid fingers.  As his ex-wife Melody says, he was a ‘spiritual detective’.

As a child Fahey was taken to a bluegrass concert – in 2000 he published a book of stories with the title How bluegrass music destroyed my life – and immediately dedicated himself to unearthing the hidden history of American music.  He began to seek out the work of those in the American vernacular tradition.  In 1956 he experienced what seems to have been an epiphany on being introduced to a 78 recording of Blind Willie Johnson‘s ‘Praise God I’m satisfied’. From that moment black music, and especially the blues, never left him.  Cullingham’s film tells the story of him walking from house to house in a black neighbourhood in the South – not always a safe pastime in the viciously segregated South of the early 1960s – asking for old phonograph records in exchange for cash (‘a quarter if they were good ones’)  Blues musicians were special targets.  Fahey followed in the footsteps of Sam Charters and others trying to locate blues singers who had recorded in the 1920s and early 1930s and since disappeared from view.  The film reconstructs the famous postcard Fahey sent in 1963 in an attempt to locate and rerecord ‘Bukka’ White, one of the most remarkable of the ‘missing’ blues singers, recorded originally in 1930.  On the basis of a single song indicating that Aberdeen, Mississippi was White’s hometown Fahey addressed his message to:

Booker T. Washington White
Negro blues recording artist
c/o General delivery
Aberdeen, Miss.

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Astonishingly the postcard reached White, then living in Memphis.  He replied to Fahey and went on to enjoy a second, much more successful, recording and performing career until his death in 1977.  He and Fahey remained firm friends, sharing an enthusiasm for trains: Fahey claimed White taught him how to ‘ride the blinds’ on freight trains in the South and South West.  Fahey was also in part responsible for finding another early blues guitarist, Skip James, in a hospital in Tunica, Miss.  James’s ‘aggressive melancholy’ in his songs was evidence, Fahey concluded, of an unbearable life.  He could have been speaking about himself; perhaps for that reason he and James signally failed to become friends.  A long-dead early bluesman who held special meaning for him was Charley Patton, so-called ‘father of the Delta blues’: a version of his MA thesis, a musicological study of Patton’s recordings, was published in London in 1970.

Not only early blues, but the parallel ‘songster’ tradition, and all kinds of other folk music captivated Fahey.  Their tunes, techniques and cadences found their way into his own guitar music throughout his career, and give it part of its special character, especially in the four early albums, Blind Joe Death (1959/1967), Death chants, breakdowns and military waltzes (1963), The dance of death and other plantation favourites (1964), and Transfiguration.

Fahey bought his first guitar for $17 in 1952.  His earliest tentative recording experiments were aided by a friend and record collector, Joe Bussard, who owned his own label, Fonotone.  Blind Joe Death, the first album, was issued on a label Fahey set up himself, Takoma Records – one of the earliest examples of an independent artist-owned record company.  The record cover suggested that the tracks on one side were by Fahey, those on the other by ‘Blind Joe Death’, a grim joke that owed its origins to Fahey’s obsessional study of early country blues singers, many of them blind.  He also thought using the word ‘death’ would boost sales – though only 100 copies were pressed – a conviction that persisted, judging by the titles of many future LPs.  Some of these were accompanied by his own lengthy liner notes, parodies of learned essays by folklore scholars.   (In his later years Fahey founded another label, Revenant Records, to reissue prewar American folk rarities.)

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Later albums include extended guitar meditations.  The beautiful title track of The Yellow Princess (1968) follows in its deep rolling rhythms the voyage of an old sailing ship Fahey alleges he saw in Orkney Springs, Virginia in 1953.  This was short, but later meditations could occupy whole sides of an LP.  The Yellow Princess has an eerie track called ‘The singing bridge of Memphis, Tennessee’, ‘or concerto for guitar, singing bridge, electric bassoon and old phonograph record’.  Influenced by musique concrète from the classical tradition, Fahey often ‘mixed’ sounds with his own guitar, as in the long ‘Requiem for Mollie’ on the album Requia, and sampled snatches of the old blues he’d unearthed, like Big Boy Cleveland’s ‘Quill blues’ (1926) – decades before Moby had the same idea.  Later still, whole jazz bands make their way into Fahey’s recordings: the music on the albums Of rivers and religion (1972) and After the ball (1973) is a reconstruction of and a tribute to the lost world of New Orleans dance bands.

Later still Fahey renounced his earlier work as over-pretty.  His compositions grew less virtuosic and more abstracted.  He began to work with younger bands like Sonic Youth, contributing pure (or impure) sound rather than melodic invention.  Musical grace turned to ugly grunge: ‘gothic industrial ambient’ is how he refers to his new style.  He even forsook music for painting, equally abstract.  Yet on his final album, Red cross, released after his death, he makes a partial return to his earlier finger-picking style.

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By his fifties Fahey was in poor shape.  The life he lived had been as hard as those of the old bluesmen.  His father, he says on film, was a paedophile; his confrontational character lost him friends (and wives); he contracted Epstein-Barr syndrome; drink and prescription drugs wore him out; he was careless with jobs and money.  He was usually a lonely and rarely a happy man.  He managed to sublimate his aggression in his playing (‘My guitar kept me from going nuts’), but it flared publicly at times.  His last years were spent in poverty.  And yet, as the film makes clear, he never entirely gave up on his lonely creative quest.

Fahey sits in a long American tradition of transcendentalism, going back to Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau and Emily Dickinson.  As Pete Townsend says in the film, he had ‘edge’, a heterodox way of seeing the world, a restless need to be different, an urge to use his guitar to pass from the mundane world to a happier place of his own (whether other people shared it he didn’t care).  His roots lay in the rich and old traditions of the music of poor, often anonymous people.  His branches spread in many directions, always seeking new places to grow.

In an early television encounter, in which his obliquity and evasiveness match those of Bob Dylan in his interviews, Fahey was asked about the tag he’d already attracted, ‘American primitive’.  The most he would say was that he was untaught. In reality he was no more primitive than Charley Patton and the other blues masters he studied so closely.

The film’s final credits roll behind one of Fahey’s finest and simplest recordings, ‘Poor boy long ways from home’ from his first album, Blind Joe Death.  It’s a traditional blues, played amongst others by Booker White.  Shortly after the beginning a dog’s bark interrupts the guitar’s gentle, melancholy ripple.  The flow pauses.  ‘Shhh!’  The dog is silent and the tune resumes.  It’s the only time, apart from the very earliest experiments, when John Fahey’s voice is heard on record.  His guitar does all the vocals, always.  Listen to it sing!

Note: for a perceptive introduction to John Fahey and his music read Sean O’Hagan’s recent article.

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