28 February 1939
Washington, D.C., United States
22 February 2001 (aged 61)
John Aloysius Fahey (February 28, 1939 – February 22, 2001) was an American fingerstyle guitarist and composer who played the steel-string acoustic guitar as a solo instrument. 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 œuvre. 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.
Fahey was born in Washington, D.C., into a musical household. 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.
As his guitar playing and composing progressed, Fahey developed a style that blended the picking patterns he discovered on old blues 78s with the dissonance of contemporary classical composers he loved, such as Charles Ives and Béla Bartók. In 1958, Fahey made his first recordings. These were for his friend Joe Bussard's amateur Fonotone label. He recorded under the pseudonym Blind Thomas as well as under his own name. These Fonotone recordings, individually pressed in very small runs, would be reissued as a box set in 2011.
In 1959, Fahey recorded at St. Michaels and All Angels Church in Adelphi, Maryland, and that material would become the very first Takoma record. Having no idea how to approach professional record companies and being convinced they would be uninterested, Fahey decided to issue his first album himself, using some cash saved from his gas station attendant job at Martin's Esso and some borrowed from an Episcopal priest. So Takoma Records was born, named in honor of his hometown. One hundred copies of this first album were pressed. On one side of the album sleeve was the name "John Fahey" and on the other, "Blind Joe Death"—this 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.
While Fahey lived in Berkeley, Takoma Records was reborn. Fahey decided to track down Blues legend Bukka White by sending a postcard to Aberdeen, Mississippi (White had sung that Aberdeen was his hometown, and Mississippi John Hurt had been rediscovered using a similar method). When White responded, Fahey and ED Denson, a Washington, DC, area friend who had also moved west, decided to travel to Memphis and record White. The recordings by White became the first non-Fahey Takoma release. Fahey also, finally, released a second album in late 1963, called Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes. To their surprise the Fahey release sold better than White's and Fahey had a career going. His releases during the mid-1960s employed odd guitar tunings and sudden style shifts rooted firmly in the old time and blues stylings of the 1920s. But he was not simply a copyist, as compositions such as "When the Catfish is in Bloom" or "Stomping Tonight on the Pennsylvania/Alabama Border" demonstrate. Fahey described the latter piece as follows: "The opening chords are from the last movement of Vaughan Williams' Sixth Symphony. It goes from there to a Skip James motif. Following that it moves to a Gregorian chant, Dies Irae. It's the most scary one in the Episcopal hymn books, it's all about the day of judgment. Then it returns to the Vaughan Williams chords, followed by a blues run of undetermined origin, then back to Skip James and so forth." A hallmark of his classic releases was the inclusion of lengthy liner notes, parodying those found on blues releases.
In the later half of the sixties, Fahey continued to issue material through Takoma as well as Vanguard Records, who had signed him along with similar instrumental folk guitarists Sandy Bull and Peter Walker. Albums from this period, such as Days Have Gone By, The Voice of the Turtle, Requia, and The Yellow Princess, found Fahey making sound collages from such elements as Gamelan music, Tibetan chanting, animal and bird cries and singing bridges. In 1967, Fahey recorded with Texas psych-rock trio The Red Crayola at the 1967 Berkeley Folk Festival, music that resurfaced on the 1998 Drag City release The Red Krayola: Live 1967. The Red Crayola subsequently recorded an entire studio album with Fahey, but the Red Crayola's label demanded possession of the tapes and recorded documentation of those sessions has been missing ever since.
In addition to his own creative output, Fahey expanded the Takoma label, discovering fellow guitarists Leo Kottke, Robbie Basho, Bola Sete and Peter Lang, as well as emerging pianist George Winston. Kottke's debut release on the label, 6- and 12-String Guitar, ultimately proved to be the most successful of the crop, selling more than 500,000 copies. Other artists with albums on the label included Mike Bloomfield, Rick Ruskin, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Maria Muldaur, Michael Gulezian, and Canned Heat. In 1979, Fahey sold Takoma to Chrysalis Records. Jon Monday, who had been the General Manager of the label since 1970, was the only employee to go with the new company. Chrysalis eventually sold the rights to the albums, and Takoma was in limbo until bought by Fantasy Records in 1995.
By the mid-1970s, Fahey's output abated and he began to suffer from a drinking problem. He lost his home in the dissolution of his first marriage, remarried, divorced again, and moved to Salem, Oregon in 1981 to live with his third wife, Melody. In 1986, Fahey contracted Epstein-Barr syndrome, a long-lasting viral infection, which exacerbated his diabetes and other health issues. He continued to perform in and around the Salem area, as he was managed by friends David Finke and his wife Pam. The trio attempted to keep Fahey's career afloat by radio appearances and small venue performances. He broke up with his third wife and his life began to spiral downward. He made what appeared to be his last album in 1990. Although he won his five-year battle with Epstein-Barr, he spent much of the early 1990s living in poverty, mostly in cheap motels. Gigs had dried up, because of his health problems. He paid his rent by pawning his guitars and reselling rare records he found in thrift stores.
Following a 1994 entry on Fahey in Spin magazine's spin-off Alternative Record Guide publication, Fahey learned that he now had a whole new audience, which included alternative U.S. bands Sonic Youth and Cul de Sac, and the avant-garde musician Jim O'Rourke. Byron Coley published a lengthy article called "The Persecutions and Resurrections of Blind Joe Death" (also in Spin magazine) and at the same time a two-CD retrospective called The Return of the Repressed all combined to kick-start Fahey's career. Suddenly new releases started to appear in rapid succession, in parallel to the reissue of all the early Takoma releases by Fantasy Records.
O'Rourke went on to produce a Fahey album, 1997's Womblife, the same year Fahey recorded an album with Cul de Sac, The Epiphany of Glenn Jones, named for the band's lead guitarist. Gone were the melodic dreaminess and folk-based meditations of the 1960s/70s, which Fahey had later described as "cosmic sentimentalism". In characteristically witty fashion, he once said of his style: "How can I be a folk? I'm from the suburbs you know."
Fahey's passion for traditional folklore did not subside. After coming into some money upon the death of his father in 1995, Fahey used the inheritance to form another label, Revenant Records, to focus on reissuing obscure recordings of early blues, old-time music, and anything else Fahey took a fancy to. In 1997, the label issued its first crop of releases, including albums by artists such as British guitarist Derek Bailey, American pianist Cecil Taylor, guitarist Jim O'Rourke, bluegrass pioneers the Stanley Brothers, old-time banjo legend Dock Boggs, Rick Bishop of Sun City Girls, and slide guitarist Jenks "Tex" Carman. Revenant's most famous release would become Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton, a seven-disc retrospective of Charley Patton and his contemporaries, which won three Grammy awards in 2003. Fahey himself won only one Grammy in 1997 for his contributions to the liner notes for Revenant's Anthology of American Folk Music, Vol. 4
In February 2001, six days before what would have been his 62nd birthday, Fahey died at Salem Hospital after undergoing a sextuple coronary bypass operation.
In 2006, no fewer than four Fahey tribute albums were released .
During the later years of his life, Fahey painted a series of abstract paintings. Many of these were exhibited from July 10 – September 12, 2010, at The East Village, New York, presented by John Andrew and Audio Visual Arts (AVA). The exhibit featured 55 paintings, ranging in size from 6.75" by 9" to 22" by 29". The "sale sheet" for the exhibit listed prices from $750 for smaller works to $3,000 for the large paintings. The paintings were either framed or unframed.
Audio Visual Arts describes Fahey's paintings as follows: "Pulling inspiration from the ‘French Primitive’, untutored painters, Fahey often referred to his music as ‘American Primitive’. The same alluring, raw, roots, mysterious, power, grit, obscure, industrial, ambient, epic, and tranquilizing aesthetics that one finds in Fahey’s music and his writings are equally present in his paintings. The 90’s proved to be a decade of regeneration for Fahey. Though he struggled with certain health problems, he was brimming with experimentation. Collaborating with noise artists and improvisational performers of the alternative movement, Fahey began to channel a new outlet for experimentation which included his return to painting; a bent he abandoned when he took up the guitar. Fahey’s works are evocative of action painters and abstract expressionists. He painted on found poster board and discarded spiral notebook paper. His painting studio floated from motel bed to motel bed and eventually ended up on the bed of his rental home in Salem, OR; occasionally painting with anti-freeze in the garage. He worked with tempera, acrylic, spray paint, and magic marker."
Several of Fahey's paintings were sold on eBay by Michael R. Karn (Balcony Books and Music, Eugene, Oregon) in July 2001. Kern attested "John brought into the used book store I owned and operated, Balcony Books, located at 108 SW Third Street in Corvallis, Oregon, in December of 1998. John had been shopping and trading with me for several years. I originally became acquainted with him several years earlier when I operated a similar store in Salem, Oregon, where John lived at the time. John often brought in books or records he had scouted, and exchanged them for books and records from our stock. He also generously signed several records and posters from my personal collection for me, and even performed a couple of in-store concerts." Karn claimed he received several paintings "directly from John in exchange for a large collection of Duke Ellington records which I had recently obtained. He had recently taken up painting as a creating outlet. He was aware the paintings could be sold some day, even though he himself would not sell his paintings, but he understood the nature of the used book and record business, and gave his blessing to me to sell them in the store if I wished. I never did sell a painting in store, but recently through auction at ebay."
Starting work in 2007, filmmaker Marc Minsker produced a 30-minute documentary on Fahey's life, entitled John Fahey: The Legacy of Blind Joe Death. It chronicles his early life in Takoma Park, Maryland, through his success as a guitarist and record producer in California. It also follows Fahey through his dark days in Salem, Oregon, and ends with commentary on his contributions to American music. The film was accepted into the Takoma Park Film Festival and on Friday, May 7, 2010, premiered at the Takoma Park, Maryland Community Center, accompanied by a live performance and discussion with Fahey's friend, guitarist Peter Lang.
A full length, feature documentary, entitled In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey directed by James Cullingham was released in 2013.
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