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John Fahey 2/2001

John FaheyFebruary 22, 2001 – John Aloysius Fahey was born on February 28, 1939 in Washington DC. Both his father, Aloysius John Fahey, and his mother, Jane (née Cooper), played the piano. In 1945, the family moved to the Washington suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland, where his father lived until his death in 1994. On weekends, the family attended performances of top country and bluegrass groups of the day, but it was hearing Bill Monroe’s version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 7” on the radio that ignited the young Fahey’s passion for music.

In 1952, after being impressed by guitarist Frank Hovington, whom he met while on a fishing trip, he purchased his first guitar for $17 from the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. Along with his budding interest in guitar, Fahey was attracted to record collecting. While his tastes ran mainly in the bluegrass and country vein, Fahey discovered his love of early blues upon hearing Blind Willie Johnson‘s “Praise God I’m Satisfied” on a record-collecting trip to Baltimore with his friend and mentor, the musicologist Richard K. Spottswood. Much later, Fahey compared the experience to a religious conversion and remained a devout blues disciple until his death.

Fahey was a musical prodigy, mastering piano and Irish harp at an early age. But it wasn’t until he was introduced to the “hillbilly” music of Bill Monroe in his early teens that music became his passion — a passion he’d pursue with vigor, finger-picking the nights away on a $17 Sears guitar.

An iconoclast from the start, Fahey began his recording career in disguise, donning the mufti of an “authentic Negro folk” musician named Blind Thomas to issue a passel of eerie sides in 1958. Soon after, he presaged a D.I.Y movement that wouldn’t flower for decades by putting $300 worth of his minimum-wage earnings saved from his gas station attendant job at Martin’s Esso and borrowed some from an Episcopal priest to start his own label, Takoma Records, and issue his “official” debut, Blind Joe Death. Fahey would re-record that album twice, and would reprise the character on 1965’s The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, a gripping suite widely considered his masterpiece. Along the way, he’d also turn Takoma into a veritable clearinghouse of “uncommercial” guitar talent, releasing albums by Leo Kottke and Peter Lang and helping nurture the talent of the young George Winston.

On one side of the album sleeve was the name “John Fahey” and on the other, “Blind Joe Death”—the latter was a humorous nickname given to him by his fellow blues fans. He attempted to sell these albums himself. Some he gave away, some he sneaked into thrift stores and blues sections of local record shops, and some he sent to folk music scholars, a few of whom were fooled into thinking that there really was a living old blues singer called Blind Joe Death. It took three years for Fahey to sell the remainder.

After graduating from American University with a degree in philosophy and religion, Fahey moved to California in 1963 to study philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Arriving on campus, Fahey—ever the outsider—began to feel dissatisfied with the program’s curriculum (he later suggested that studying philosophy had been a mistake and that what he had wanted to understand was really psychology) and was equally unimpressed with Berkeley’s (hippie) music scene. Fahey loathed the polite Pete Seeger–inspired revivalists he found himself classed with. Eventually, Fahey moved south to Los Angeles to join the folklore master’s program at UCLA at the invitation of department head D. K. Wilgus. Fahey’s UCLA master’s thesis on the music of Charley Patton was later published. He completed it with the musicological assistance of his friend Alan Wilson, who shortly after became a member of Canned Heat.

Fahey earned an M.A. in folklore and mythology from American University, and was always as interested in the genesis — both spiritual and literal — of the music that fascinated him as he was in its form. Still, he disdained attempts to intellectualize his work, insisting that he was merely “an American primitivist.”

After eschewing the rustic trappings of his earliest music for a series of highly experimental recordings — including the musique concrete eye-opener Requia and Other Compositions for Guitar Solo — Fahey began trying on and discarding various musical garments. He honed his steel-string playing, working with Dixieland musicians and venturing deeper into minimalism, the latter of which showed up in the music he recorded for the art-house staple Zabriskie Point.

None of this, suffice to say, made John Fahey a household name. Forced to sell Takoma’s assets to Chrysalis Records in the mid-Seventies, he retreated from the music business and fell into deep emotional and financial distress. Subsisting on sales of musical rarities — including his own — he was missing in action for more than a decade until an early-Nineties boom of interest from fans such as Glenn Jones of the Boston band Cul de Sac, who toured and recorded with Fahey in recent years.

“His music was and is as important to me as any I’ve ever heard,” says Jones, who admits that recording The Epiphany of Glenn Jones with Fahey was not the simplest task. “Like a lot of people, I made the mistake of heroicizing John, confusing the man with the music. But, thanks to John, I got past that, and I came to love the man too.”

Whether it was the influence of these new collaborators, or simply an internal rejuvenation, Fahey roared through the late Nineties, undeterred by his battles with diabetes and Epstein-Barre Disease he had contracted in the eighties. He began alternating his steel-string acoustic with electric guitar, which he played fiercely, conjuring up machine-shop visions every bit as vivid as the pastoral pictures he painted on his lovely acoustic releases.

In recent years, Fahey also returned to his role as chronicler of great sounds past, using his Revenant label as a launching point for several volumes of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (for which he shared a Grammy for his liner notes), as well as his own new recordings – one of which was finished shortly before his death. His style has been greatly influential and has been described as the foundation of American Primitive Guitar, a term borrowed from painting and referring mainly to the self-taught nature of the music and its minimalist style. Fahey borrowed from the folk and blues traditions in American roots music, having compiled many forgotten early recordings in these genres. He would later incorporate classical, Portuguese, Brazilian, and Indian music into his catalog. He spent many of his later years in poverty and poor health, but enjoyed a minor career resurgence with a turn towards the more explicitly avant-garde, and created a series of abstract paintings during the last years of his life. He died in 2001 from complications from heart surgery. In 2003, he was ranked 35th in the Rolling Stone “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list.

John Fahey was 6 days away from his 62nd birthday when he died on 22 February 2001 from a sextuple coronary bypass gone wrong. Fahey, who had been in ill health for several years, underwent two open-heart surgeries in the previous week, and was placed on kidney dialysis.

John Fahey was American folk guitar’s master eccentric, a dazzling fingerpicker who transformed traditional blues forms with the advanced harmonies of modern classical music, then mined that beauty with a prankster’s wit. “His music speaks of a boundless freedom,” says ex-Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas. In the Nineties, Fahey switched to a spiky minimalism on electric guitar that made him a post-punk icon. “To be validated by John Fahey,” says Thurston Moore, “was really special for our scene.”

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