I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Transubstantiation of John Fahey

by Anthony Galli
Sept. 12, 2014

John Fahey was an anomaly. It would probably be easy for some to call him an enigma, but calling him an enigma would suggest that there was some mystery involved with what he did. One look at Fahey and you can see there is no mystery. What he presents is what he is; a guy with a guitar. Watching him play, one can see that he is clearly imbued with remarkable talent, but he is also, clearly, not performing for audience approbation or popular acclaim. He doesn’t necessarily ignore his audience, but he doesn’t particularly work at endearing himself to them, either. He has often times told his audience to go to hell.

However, he never appears, whether onstage or being interviewed, as especially arrogant or aloof. In fact, he appears a little befuddled and bewildered, as if he were discovering something for the first time, and then realizing that he knew it all along, maybe from some other incarnation. Fahey, who died February 22, 2001, just 6 days shy of his 62nd birthday, is often spoken of by former associates as unreliable and unpredictable, especially in his later years when he was suffering from a number of debilitating medical conditions, but anybody who has experienced his artistry recognizes that there is something singular about him that, simply put, cannot be explained in traditional terms.

Although there is much about John Fahey that is known, there is much, much more about his life and career that can only be speculated at. For example, why would such a nice young boy born into a respectable suburb of Washington, D.C. become so immersed in the rural blues and gospel spirituals of the American South? He grew up with a fascination for fingerpicked bluegrass and hillbilly music, but by the mid-1950’s he could be found in the American South going from house to house asking the inhabitants if they had any old 78 blues records he could buy.

Fahey’s forays into the South for records demonstrate a couple of things about the man. One, that he would stop at nothing to investigate and analyze his influences, no matter what they might be. For example, he received his Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy from American University, and later wrote his Master’s Thesis on bluesman Charley Patton while at UCLA. The Patton thesis would be reprinted as a book in 1970, but was also featured in the Grammy winning 2001 Patton retrospective Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues.

His obsessive record collecting also shows an archival, as well as an entrepreneurial, side to the guitarist. When possible, he would re-release obscure recordings by long forgotten bluesmen on his own Takoma, and later Revenant, record labels. He founded the Takoma label in 1959, ostensibly because he didn’t think that anyone else would be interested in releasing his music. Aside from Fahey’s own music, the label also released albums by Mississippi bluesman Bukka White, Leo Kottke, George Winston, who later became huge with the new age Windham Hill label, and Mike Bloomfield, among others.

However, Fahey was always more of a musician than a businessman, and, tired of everybody in his office using cocaine, opted to sell Takoma Records to Chrysalis Records, instead of firing his staff, in 1979. In 1996 he co-founded Revenant Records, which continues to operate, and has released deluxe box sets by such disparate outsider, or overlooked, artists as Dock Boggs, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, Albert Ayler, and The Stanley Brothers. Even toward the end of his life Fahey was seeking out the unnoticed and forgotten in order to turn the world on to music that, he felt, needed to be heard.

Pete Townshend regarded John Fahey as an iconoclast, which is interesting, because he didn’t so much destroy traditional musical forms, as much as integrating them into his own musical universe, which is probably why he got the attention of such guitar superheroes as Pete Townshend in the first place. Fahey developed his own improvisatory fingerpicking style, but is widely recognized as being one of the first American guitarists to introduce open tunings to Western audiences.

Similarly, after hearing Ravi Shankar’s score to Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali in the early 1960’s, Fahey had the same sort of epiphany he experienced after hearing Blind Willie Johnson singing “Praise God I'm Satisfied” as a teenager. Fahey began incorporating Indian raga motifs into his work, just as he would earlier combine classical, folk, and blues guitar in ways that nobody was doing at the time. He would later experiment with tape loops, found sounds, collage, and other studio wonderment on his records, to the shock and dismay of many in his audience.

His 1967 musique concrète “Requiem for Molly (1-4)” from Requia, released on Vanguard Records, is probably scarier than The Beatles’ White Album, which was released in 1968. There is something truly unsettling about Fahey’s downhome fingerpicking being interrupted by chanting crowds, sirens, and Hitler speeches, much as the White Album’s “Revolution #9” would frighten children the following year.

By the end of his career, Fahey was performing exclusively on electric guitar, mainly due to health issues, and opening for Sonic Youth with his own unique brand of avant-garde soundscapes, as well as showing and selling his abstract paintings in various international galleries. He won a Grammy award in 1997 for his liner notes to a Harry Smith anthology released on Revenant Records, and continued reinventing his sound up until his last album, Red Cross, released two years after his death.

John Fahey’s first album, of which only 100 copies were printed, was attributed to legendary, lost bluesman Blind Joe Death, and the liner notes paid respectful tribute to the obscure singer. Joe Death would continue to be a presence in John Fahey’s work, long after his fans discovered that Fahey himself was Blind Joe Death. Just one of the little pranks Fahey enjoyed playing from time to time. Fahey’s first releases, on the Fonotone label in 1958, were released under the pseudonym Blind Thomas. The liner notes to his earliest albums, which are hilariously diversionary affairs mocking the sanctimonious liner notes to folk recordings of the time (sample quote from 1964’s re-release of Blind Joe Death: “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 easy.’ I did so and he passed away with a chthonic smile on his face.”). The notes were attributed to Chester Petranick who, fans discovered later, was actually Blind Joe Death himself, John Fahey.

Fahey used to slip into thrift shops and hide his pseudonymous recordings within the stacks of discarded 78’s, just on the off chance that somebody might buy one of these unknown titles by an obscure musician and discover something that nobody had ever heard before. Perhaps they would tell their friends about it.

Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.