John Fahey - Biography

By Bob Fagan


             In his 40 year recording career, John Fahey composed and recorded a large, unique and vastly influential body of work. Before Fahey, there were no steel string guitar performances or recordings. The steel string guitar was heard in pop, folk, bluegrass and country music, but didn’t exist as a concert instrument in its own right. Early audiences were puzzled by the sight of a young man in a Brooks Brothers suit and tie, playing guitar but not singing. This puzzlement, however, soon gave way to rapt attention as Fahey spun out his classically-tinged compositions, taking the audience on a wordless and often dark emotional journey.


            While his guitar skills were certainly formidable, there is almost no flash in his work. What set Fahey apart was how he took the idioms and guitar stylings of blues and folk music, and combined them with his knowledge of modern classical music.  One hears string sections and piano solos in Fahey’s work. Through his complex and often dark compositions, he made his guitar sound like an orchestra.  And, although most fans tend to focus on this portion of his oeuvre, Fahey also recorded albums of Dixieland jazz, doo-wop and early rock 'n roll covers, Indian-influenced ragas and sound collages incorporating sound effects from other records, backwards guitar sections,  and musique concrete concepts gleaned from John Cage. Fahey pursued his unique vision largely uninfluenced by contemporary music; he claimed to be unaware of similar stylistic innovations taking place at the same time – the Beatle’s use of tape loops and backwards guitar, or Frank Zappa’s extrapolations from the work of Varese.


            John Fahey was born in February 28, 1939 in Takoma Park, Maryland. His father was a government health administrator; both parents played piano. In his posthumous book of stories and essays, Vampire Vultures, Fahey claims to have taken piano lessons from Duke Ellington’s mother as well as a few lessons from her famous son. Here he learned the music of Bartok, Czerny and Bach. His parents also took him to bluegrass and old-time music performances, where he saw the likes of the Stanley Brothers (whose earliest recordings, from about this time, would one day be released on CD on Fahey’s Revenant label) and the Stoneman Family. Putting aside the piano and the clarinet, he soon switched to guitar.


            While in his teens, Fahey grew to be a fanatic collector of early blues (termed “counrty blues”), which, broadly speaking, referred to acoustic blues performances on 78 rpm records by rural musicians of the 20s and 30s. Fahey and others of his ilk, made a practice of “canvassing” black neighborhoods for old unwanted blues records. Fahey first collected bluegrass and country and disliked blues, but following a “conversion” occasioned by hearing a Blind Willie Johnson 78, Fahey refocused his attention the blues. The influence of his earlier interest in bluegrass can perhaps be found in the harmonic richness and of his work, compared to the simpler harmonic structures of most blues artists and songs.


            Fahey’s recording career began largely as a prank. A fellow collector, Joe Bussard, ran out of his basement what was possibly the first “indie” label, Fonotone, which released modern versions of old-time and country blues songs on 78 rpm records. In 1958, Fonotone released several 78s by Fahey recorded under the pseudonym Blind Thomas, and offered them in his catalog as authentic, rediscovered blues performances. These recordings, featuring Fahey’s only known vocal performances, were issued in extremely limited editions, and not reissued in CD format until Dust-to-Digital released their 5 CD compilation of Fonotone recordings in 2005.


            Doubting that any major label would be interested in his music, Fahey released his first full length album in 1959, Blind Joe Death, on his own label, Takoma Records. With Fahey’s name on one side and “Blind Joe Death” on the other, 100 copies of the album were pressed and issued in a simple white album bearing only the album title. Fahey took delight in sneaking some of these copies into thrift stores and second hand record shop racks, enjoying the thought that some blues collector might seize upon the record as an undiscovered authentic blues artist from the past. His label also released the first recordings of such artists as Leo Kotke, Robbie Basho, and George Winston.


            After graduating from the University of Maryland in 1963, with a degree in philosophy, Fahey headed west to UC Berkeley to continue his studies. He soon abandoned Berkeley for Los Angeles, where he entered the UCLA folklore studies program and wrote his masters thesis on Charley Patton, a work he later expanded into a book, which was published a few years later. Fahey’s obsession with obscure blues musicians took a different turn as well around this time, as Fahey’s research led to his location and rediscovery of the “lost” blues artists Skip James and Bukka White, leading to new recordings and performances by both.


            It was at UCLA that Fahey encountered fellow old music enthusiast Barry Hansen, later known as novelty-music purveyor Dr. Demento, who had actually obtained a copy of Fahey’s first LP and encouraged Fahey’s career. Hansen remained a lifelong friend and inspiration. Fahey continued to release his own music, minus vocals from this point on, on the Takoma Label. Remarkably, he only began giving live performances after the release of his third LP, The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites. Eschewing the pseudo-working-class stage uniform of jeans, boots and work shirts favored by the folk performers of the day, Fahey appeared onstage and on album covers in suit and tie, which he felt more in keeping with his white middle-class suburban roots.


            By the time Fahey released The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death in 1965 (Takoma), his compositions had reached a rich stage of maturity. Themes and melodies from blues and folk songs would be combined with the sometimes dissonant qualities of his classical influences.  Releases also began featuring his odd whimsical titles, e.g.,”Dance of the Inhabitants of the Palace of King Phillip XIV” and “The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California.” The mid to late sixties were a richly prolific time for Fahey. He released three LPs in 1968 alone, as well as several complete re-recordings of some of his earliest Takoma LPs. His first sound collage recordings appeared on Requia (1968 Vanguard); the usual Fahey guitar excursions here were blended with sound effects, Hitler speeches, and other found sounds. Critical and popular reaction was generally hostile. Most of Fahey’s stylistic diversions, including two albums featuring Fahey playing undistinguished rhythm guitar in ensemble performances with Dixieland musicians, were similarly received. (It is worth noting, both for his instinctive contrariness as well as his devotion to this sort of musical exploration, that when Fahey himself was rediscovered after a fallow period of sickness and withdrawal from recording and live performance, he chose to largely ignore his old fan base and music. For the remainder of his life, he recorded almost exclusively on electric guitar and featured atonal, dissonant noise and sound collages extensively.)


            In a rare instance of acquiescence to the demands and rewards of the mainstream marketplace, Fahey also released the first of several collections of finger style Christmas songs, in 1968. This album, The New Possibility (Takoma), would be his best-selling album, moving over 100,000 copies. In non-commercial opposition to this release, 1968 also saw Fahey issue The Voice of The Turtle (Takoma), a collection of typically Fahey compositions and sound collages. The release was enlivened by a gatefold LP including a lavish, multi-page insert featuring Fahey’s dizzyingly involved and ironic album notes, parodying the often naively earnest efforts seen in many Folkways releases of the time. The production costs associated with the record assured that Takoma lost money on every copy sold.


            Fahey’s obsession with turtles surfaces regularly in his work. The cover of his epic double LP, America (Takoma) - released as an edited single album in 1971 and only released in full form in 1998 – features an illustration of a terrified Fahey fleeing a burning town with a sea turtle in his arms. A West Coast music promoter who booked Fahey in the 70s speaks of a rider in Fahey’s performance contract requiring the promoter to supply sufficient sea water, for a turtle that Fahey brought along on tour.


            The 80s found Fahey adrift personally and financially, and often musically as well. Divorced and broke, suffering from the combined effects of alcoholism and Epstein-Barr syndrome, Fahey’s recording career diminished to a trickle, and what was released was often uninspired compared to the work of the two previous decades. His Epstein-Barr disease sometimes dragged his already often slow tempos into the realm of underwater languor. Still, there were bursts of creativity, with Railroad (1981 Shanachie) featuring several intense performances, and 1985’s Rain Forests, Oceans and Other Themes (Varrick) saw Fahey joining forces with guitarist Terry Robb to tackle everything from Stravinsky (“Firebird”)  New York street composer Moondog’s “Theme and Variations,” Jimi Hendrix (“May This be Love,” which Fahey puckishly weaves into a medley with the traditional tune “Casey Jones”), and even a note-for-note and beautifully realized cover of Derek & the Dominos’ “Layla.”


            An article by Byron Coley published in Spin in 1992 found a nearly-forgotten Fahey sick and homeless, living and eating in men’s shelters and church missions. The article revived interest in Fahey and introduced a new generation to his work. Two years later, Rhino Records released the two CD compilation, Return of the Repressed (1994). The inclusion of some of his sound collage compositions struck a resonant chord with younger musicians and listeners, who had come of age during a time when musical collage had transmogrified into the samples and wholesale appropriations of hip-hop. Fahey’s odd and often invented tunings were claimed as a “secret influence” on the idiosyncratic guitar tunings of such bands as Sonic Youth. Suddenly, John Fahey was hip.


            In typical irascible Fahey form, Fahey chose to respond to all this new found attention with the Metal Machine Music of steel string guitar: City of Refuge (1997 Tim/Kerr). Given another opportunity to write and record, Fahey chose to avoid the nostalgia of performing or reinterpreting his earlier work, offering up instead this screeching, atonal manifesto of artistic intent. “Fanfare” finds Fahey jamming on electric slide and refrigerator motor, pounding out fuzz-toned power chords as the motor whines along.  “City of Refuge I” channels Derek Bailey, with it’s pinched notes and non-melodic explorations, while on the 20 minute “On the Death and Disembowelment of the New Age,” not a guitar note is to be heard amidst the hissing of steam pipes and blasts of industrial noise.


            Fahey began performing live again; shocking his old audiences by appearing onstage in black Ray-Bans, shorts, t-shirt and sneakers - and playing a heavily echoed, electric guitar. Almost completely abandoning the finger picking styles of his past, he poked and plucked slowly, savoring the echoes and moving on slowly to the next note.  Old time fans often walked out of these shows in anger and confusion, a reaction Fahey clearly savored.


            In this last phase of his musical career, Fahey often chose to collaborate on his recordings, making records with Boston experimental band Cul de Sac, the John Fahey trio (Fahey with Tim Knight and Rob Scrivener), and Jim O’Rouke.  With O’Rourke, Fahey recorded what was probably his last great work, Womblife (1997 Table of the  Elements); a heady, intoxicating blend of eclectic and acoustic guitar (often employing snippets of older songs and melodies) with sound effects, white noise and gamelan orchestra. The acoustic tracks affect a lean sound, stripped of all sentimentality as well as most of Fahey’s stylistic mannerisms. If Fahey’s experimentation in this last period resulted in music of widely varying quality, it is all testament to the enduring search for new modes of expression that was and is a hallmark of all his work. Fahey also published a collection of short stories entitled How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life (2000 Drag City), and penned liner notes for the re-issue of Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music,” for which, ironically enough, he received his only Grammy Award.


            In 1996, Fahey, in a move harkening back to his earliest recordings, Fahey released Double 78 (Perfect), a collection of four related pieces. Issued only in the 78 LP format, the release was testament to Fahey’s spirit. Determined to avoid the nostalgia trap of the time, in which artists from Brian Wilson to Sonic Youth have taken to performing note-for-note recreations of previous achievements, Fahey instead chose to make a statement about the difficulty of ever fully “understanding” his work - by releasing his music in a format that virtually guaranteed it would go unheard.


            Fahey’s revitalized career did little to affect his lifestyle, and he continued to live in cheap motel rooms to the end of his life, eating junk food and living in considerable squalor. Upon the inheritance of a substantial sum of money following the death of a family member, Fahey chose to use the money to start yet another independent record label, Revenant Records, which issued releases by artists as varied as the Stanley Brothers, Captain Beefheart, and the Sun City Girls.


            In February, 2001, in Salem, Oregon, Fahey died following sextuple bypass surgery, a few days shy of his 62nd birthday. He left behind a body of work comprising some 40-odd albums. Although the comparison likely would have appalled him, like his contemporary Bob Dylan, he used the music of the blues and folk artists he collected and loved to forge a new and highly personal style of music. Again, like Dylan, his music took listeners to places music had never been before. Whereas Dylan wrote in a mature and literary style of the world around him, Fahey’s music was interior in meaning, taking the listener on an emotional and mysterious ride along the path of Fahey’s mind and spirit.


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