By Dale Miller
Article by permission from Acoustic Guitar

The continuing saga of Blind Joe Death,
a. k. a. John Fahey, founding father of the solo steel-string guitar.

Most of us who play guitar follow a pretty similar path. We beg, borrow, or steal an instrument, find a few hereos, take some lessons, woodshed for hours a day (instead of playing baseball or doing our homework or whatever), and eventually either forge an identity within some given style or work to master more than one style. A few of us make it a profession, and some of the best of us become innovators within one style or develop true proficiency in various styles.

But there are a few pickers who come along who just can't or won't fit any of the existing molds and have to construct new ones. These are the visionaries, the men and women who change not only the way guitar is played but how it is percieved. They are the founders of styles and schools, the Christopher Columbi of the guitar world. They're usually a little weird, often tragic, most likely self-centered, and always brilliant. They're larger-than-life characters who leave strong impressions on everyone they meet and live lives stranger than any movie. They're people with the brains, strength, vision, drive, and sense of self to travel new roads and discover new places.
Such a person is John Fahey, the father of American solo steel-guitar playing. The well-known guitarist Leo Kottke, who was discovered and recorded by Fahey, told me, "John is one of the hereos of whatever this country has for a culture—including his attitude, that persona he created....What John made available to everybody was a point of view that really didn't exist before he came along. Point of view is the whole thing in a nutshell, no matter whether it's music or prose or whatever you're talking about. Technical innovation is something a computer can do, but point of view comes from people like John." Fahey's point of view on the guitar led him to take fingerpicking away from the folk world and gave it the panache and ambiance of classical music, inventing the modern concept of the guitarist-composer along the way.
Fahey came of age as the folk boom hit in the late 1950s, when mainstream folk musicians were forming Kingston Trio clone groups, members of the more avant-garde folk element were writing political material in the Woody Guthrie tradition, and the folkie guitar specialists were learning to play from old 78s recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s by rural southern blacks. He came out of this closed environment, a big,awkward, shy young man playing original solo guitar pieces that combined Béla Bartók, Charley Patton, Anglican mysticism, existentialist angst, and cornball pop melodies in a totally unique and original serio-comic manner that caught the ear of the emerging hippie generation.
Technically there were various innovative aspects to the music that Fahey has always called American primitive. The first thing I noticed when I heard him in 1965 was how huge the guitar sounded. Fahey liked big-body, rosewood, dreadnought guitars; large, lively rooms; and close miking. Instead of recreating a traditional concert experience Fahey made the guitar sound bigger than life. Listeners felt as if they were sitting inside the instrument.
He also tuned his guitar to strange alternate tunings. Even standard open tunings such as open G (D G D G B D) and open D (D A D# F A D) were off-beat then, but Fahey added open C (C G C G C E), open D minor (D A D F A D), open G minor (D G D G Bb D), C drone (C C C G C E), and others.
Though most of his technique and many of his licks were firmly rooted in country blues, Fahey put them through the filter of his experience and made them something new. He would take Mississippi John Hurt licks, for example, and present them in a theme and variations format. Or he would play more "white"-sounding phrases in a 12-bar format. He'd often introduce secondary, counter melodies and add codas to simulate sonata form. His compositions were hung on classical-style frameworks built from blues raw materials.
Peter Lang, another guitarist who recorded for Fahey, was most impressed by how "Fahey treated dissonance as most people treated melody." Guitarist Janet SMith, who has transcribed many of Fahey's pieces, agreed and added, "John's use of dissonance may be the plain result of the ponderousness of his style. Nothing in his playing sounds parenthetical or like mere passing entire three-note chord played on the treble strings might be moved in half steps up and down the neck of the guitar while the thumb keeps alternating on open strings. Such chromatic moves are used a lot in jazz, but in a quick, passing-tone context. In John's playing each half step might be dwelt on for a measure or two before moving on."
Fahey combined this Bartók-like dissonance with the ragtime-style syncopation common to traditional American fingerpicking. This mind-boggling juxtaposition, enhanced by the fact that Fahey wes never in a hurry, created, to use a phrase of the time, a "far-out" feel. Even his lighter weight, syncopated melodies had a profound quality to them. "Yeah," Fahey told me when I asked him about this, "I can make syncopation sound like death. I can't explain it. It seems like once I learned to play in syncopation I put any song I was playing kind of through a filter, and if it worked with syncopation, I'd use it that way."
Pianist George Winston, who first recorded for Fahey before his great success in the 1980s, adds that Fahey "had two styles, like I do. He had the im-
"John kind of
invented the
audience for solo
steel-string guitar
and the industry
behind it,"
says Leo Kottke.
pressionistic style and then he had the faster style. And then he would combine them. I never play the hot stuff and put impressionism in it."
A couple of nonmusicians I interviewed had interesting, less technical observations on Fahey's music. His business partner in the formation of Takoma Records, Eugene "ED" Denson told me that although Fahey's sound is rooted in the early country blues, "He has always had a different sensitivity or sensibility about it. He's always been a little bit sarcastic about it, not pretentious, and he's always been a little more into the myth of it....Most of the rest of us were very serious. We were trying to find the reality of the blues, and Fahey knew in some sense that it was really all show biz. As Ram Dass says, "You're just going to get into these layers of bullshit." Fahey just went to the bullshit and didn't go through the layers."

Record collector Dick Spottswood, one of Fahey's most important influences, analyzed it this way: "John came up with a sound that evoked the earlier thumb and finger styles of people like Blind Blake and Merle Travis, yet at the same time made it something exclusively his own. There was the strong religious component to his playing and the very sort of screwy—I put this in quotes—'existentialist angst attitude' that was in vogue because people were reading the French and German philosophers the same time as he was. That was a part of his music, so he put his own very individual stamp on what he did."
Fahey also packaged his music in a unique manner. He and Denson started their own record company at a time when that idea was, as Denson remembered, "like making your own car." As Kottke said, "John kind of invented the audience for solo steel-string guitar and the industry behind it. Without John it wouldn't have happened."
The album covers looked extremely hip—plain white with black, block lettering. The reason for this was, as Fahey said, "We didn't know any artists." But at least to me it was the height of avant garde. The albums included booklets with hilarious yet profound and somewhat disturbing phony folklorical ramblings that spoofed the pedantic notes on many folk releases of the day. "Fahey mythologized his life in the liner notes," Denson noted.
The liner notes and music together created, as Kottke said, "a whole world that he sort of chips little pieces off of. It's intact, and you get glimpses of it through him." The notes spoke of Fahey, his early mentor Blind Joe Death, the downtrodden Takoma Park people (whom he refers to as volk), the Evil Densons of the Underworld, Evil Devil Woman, and the beautiful Linda Getchell. They were signed by phony folkloists like Chester C. Petranick, but you just knew Fahey had written them. The titles of the tunes were strange as well—"The Downfall of the Adelphi Rolling Gristmill," "The Dance of Death," "The Revolt of the Dyke Brigade."
It seems obvious now that the folk movement would grow in the direction of performing original compositions on a steel-string guitar. But at the time only Fahey and a very few others—such as the late Robbie Basho—had this vision, and only Fahey was able to find an audience.
Fahey was born on February 28, 1939, in the middle-class Washington, D.C., suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland. His parents were both federal bureaucrats who loved music and played piano—his mother, classical and his father, popular. Fahey said, "Somebody was always playing the piano, and we sang a lot. Friends came over. You know, a lot of people had these upright pianos back then." He developed a love for modern classical composers such as Bartók and Stravinsky, popular hits, and Episcopal hymns after his parents "decided I should be an Episcopalian because money would rub off on me," Fahey recalled with a laugh.
When he was about 12 or 13, Fahey saved up and bought his first guitar, a Silvertone, for $17. He immediately began to try to play all the music he had heard in church, on the radio, or in his parents' living room. He bought a chord book. "I had these friends who hung out in the park," he said, "and we'd take our guitars and teach each other, try to pick up girls, and sing country and western music."
Then one day when he was about 15, Fahey said, "I was listening to the country and western show, and the mad disc jockey Don Owens put on a real scrathcy copy of 'Blue Yodel #7' by Bill Monroe. I still think it's one of the bluesy-est records I've ever heard. I just love it. I really fell out of the chair when it came on. It ruined my life, but I still love that song, that particular version of it." Fahey went to a record store to buy the record and found out it was out of print. His search for a used copy led him to Spottswood. Fahey was not only able to tape the Bill Monroe tune, but he developed a long-term musical relationship with Spottswood, a young man only a couple of years older than Fahey who was already one of the most respected experts on country and blues 78s in the world.
As Spottswood remembers, "We'd drive around to Salvation Army junk stores and knock on people's doors, trying to get records that way." Unlike Spottswood, Fahey was learning to play the tunes. At first he only liked white country music and, he said, "wouldn't listen to anything by any 'Negro' because of the way I'd been brought up." But when he was about 16 years old, Fahey and Spottswood found a copy of "Praise God I'm Satisfied" by Blind Willie Johnson. "We played it and I had this visceral reaction," Fahey recalls. "I almost threw up. I said, 'Please put on some Bill Monroe records so I can get back to normal.' But here's the trick: by the end of the Bill Monroe record the Blind Willie Johnson thing was still going through my head, and I had to hear it again. This time when I heard it I started crying. I couldn't stop it. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard. (Long pause.) That's really strange, isn't it?"
Fahey immersed himself in a whole new realm of music. Blues consumed him. With Spottswood's guidance he explored the playing styles of Johnson, Charlie Patton, Skip James, Son House, Sam McGhee, and most of the other greats from the '20s and '30s. Denson remembers the recording of North Carolina guitarist Mrs. Etta Baker as a major influence. Fahey said he also learned a great deal from Spottswood. "He didn't play guitar but somehow he knew there were different tunings, and he even knew the names of them and how you tuned them....He taught me more than anyone else did."
Fahey began to master fingerpicking. "I learned to play off of Pete Seeger instruction records, 'Railroad Bill.' I watched the other people around, but I really was very independent. It took me about a year and a half to learn to pick with the thumb and one finger, and then another half a year or so to pick with the middle finger."
Fahey began to meet the other people involved with the rich Washington, D.C., folk music scene at that time. Mike Seeger, Tom Paley, John Cohen, Elizabeth Cotten, and others were hanging out at parties and organizing and performing in hootenannies at places like the Cabin John Recreation Area. Fahey was also making music with flautist Nancy MacLean and other members of his Episcopal youth group.
During this period he graduated from high school and began studying philosophy, first at the University of Maryland and then at the American University in Washington. At Maryland University he met Pat Sullivan, a young woman his age who was also enamored with early blues and was learning to play guitar.
"I was a very slow learner and frequently became despondent," Fahey said. "Pat was always a little behind me but not very far, and once in awhile she'd get ahead of me. She was the only person who understood what I was doing, which was putting together, you know, something like Bartók, some songs with discordant [elements] with syncopation. Even Mike Seeger thought it was stupid. I would never have become a good guitarist or anything in particular if it hadn't been for her."
In 1958 Fahey wanted to record. But, as Spottswood related, "He was not someone who was going with what we perceived as the mainstream at that time. Don't forget those were the days when rhythm and blues were all of a sudden being marketed to the white audiences called by a new name, rock 'n' roll, and John certainly wasn't interested in doing any of that. He wasn't interested in following classical guitar playing of the Andres Segovia persuasion. He wasn't learning guitar with the purpose of playing in any of the folk revival groups that weren't all that numerous in those days anyway. He wasn't learning how to play hot country electric takeoff guitar. So he wasn't doing any of those things that people made a living at on that instrument in those days."
Fahey said he felt that "it would be completely senseless to go to New York or L.A. or wherever....I just knew nobody would be interested, so I borrowed $300 from the Episcopal minister." Faheydecided to label one side of his record as by John Fahey and the other as by his mythical mentor, an old black guitar player who lived in Takoma Park. "I had several friends helping me," he said. "I couldn't find the right name. So one night Greg Elbers and I were sitting in the pool hall, drinking beer and throwing names at each other, and suddenly he said, 'Blind Joe Death.'" Fahey thought the name was perfect, and his alter ego/teacher was born.
With Sullivan engineering, Fahey recorded a tape and made a deal with RCA to produce 100 records for him. Blind Joe Death, a collection of idiosyncratic guitar solos, was incredibly avant-garde for 1958. The Death side and much of the Fahey side contained fairly straight renditions of traditional-sounding material, though presented without any singing and featuring Fahey's signature deliberate attack. One gem was his beautiful, syncopated rendition of the Episcopal hymn "In Christ There Is No East or West." "Transcendental Waterfall," though, was an extended work presenting traditional licks in a classical manner. The record was definitely weird for 1958, and Fahey had no desire to learn how to market it. It's not surprising it made no impression on the American buying public.
During the next few years Fahey recorded a number of tunes for record collector Joe Bussard, Jr., which were released as 78s on Bussard's Fontana Records. "He recorded as Blind Thomas," Bussard said. "It was done kind of as a joke. John sang in this terrible harsh voice. It wasn't bad....the damn things sold." (Tapes of these records are available from Joe Bussard, Jr., 6610 Cherry Hill Drive, Frederick, MD 21701.)
In the meantime Pat Sullivan had married ED Denson, who was an early blues fan, close friend of Spottswood's, and casual acquaintance of Fahey's. The Densons had moved to Berkeley, California, to study. They invited Fahey out and he joined them in late 1962.
The move to California was important for Fahey. The folk community there was just getting started and was more open-minded and ready to accept off-beat approaches. Folk was beginning to mean singer-songwriters instead of three guys in matching sport shirts singing "Greenback Dollar." A few young white guys like Dave Van Ronk were appearing doing old blues material. Some of the old blues masters were being rediscovered. Berkeley's Chris Strachwitz, who knew Fahey and the Densons well, had begun Arhoolie Records in 1960 and had released records by bluesmen Mance Lipscomb and Lightin' Hopkins. The original guitar solo style was still an unknown, but the listeners were open enough to give it a try.
Fahey began to jam with Pat Denson. "I had all these pieces in my head, you know, and she seemed to be able to hear them, I swear," he said. "She was more certain of me and my talent than I was. We had two guitars and were doing these incredible things and learning new stuff every day just by listening to each other. I mean we'd play for eight hours and think nothing of it, day after day after day."
Together they were composing and growing and Fahey had the urge to record again, so he rented a tape recorder and recorded Death Chants, Breakdowns, and Military Waltzes. Fahey would engineer his own sessions, flipping on the machine and then settling in behind the microphones and playing. The compositions he was laying down—including "Dance of the Inhabitants of the Palace of King Philip XIV of Spain," "Some Summer Day," and "On the Beach at Waikiki"—were those of an artist whose style and vision had fully matured."I can make
syncopation sound
like death,"
says Fahey.

He was writing the great booklet to include with the record. He expanded the myth of Blind Joe Death by giving him "a part-time job embalming the downtrodden people of Takoma Park who had gone before" and a history of playing the "surrogate kithera." The notes related how "Fahey had made his first guitar from a baby's coffin and led the old blind Negro through the back alleys and whorehouses of Takoma Park in return for lessons."
During this period Fahey discovered blues legend Booker "Bukka" White living in Mississippi. Denson, remembering Strachwitz' success with Lipscomb and Hopkins, put up $100 and drove to Memphis with Fahey and recorded White. With two records in the can and studio bills due on the White session, Fahey and Denson started Takoma Records. Denson took over the business and promotional end of things. From his point of view their plan was "not that we were going to make John famous," Denson said. "We were going to make Booker famous." But he was in for a surprise when Fahey's record did better. They picked up a few distributors, got a couple of reviews, and suddenly they had a viable record company. Soon Fahey was actually touring and making a living as a professional musician.
In the following year Fahey rerecorded his first record and his third, the classic Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites. Denson released a sampler of "everyone we knew who was doing anything on guitar," as well as a solo record by Robbie Basho.
Takoma Records' influence on budding young American guitarists was immense. At the end of the decade Kottke sent an audition tape to Fahey, who had moved to Los Angeles, bought out Denson's half of the record company, and married Jan Lebow, who took over the business end of the company while Fahey handled the A&R. Recalling that tape, Fahey said, "I played it and everybody else in the room said, 'He just plays like you.' And I said, 'No, he doesn't.' It was quite different, more muscular...maybe a little less sensitive. I don't know. I saw dollar signs all over the place and good music. I didn't let him sing. We put out the Armadillo record and made a fortune."
Fahey continued to release Basho records and discovered and recorded other guitarists, including Peter Lang and Rick Ruskin. He even released an album of piano solos by George Winston, who searched Fahey out for an audition a few years after being introduced to his music by guitarist John Creger. Fahey continued to release his own albums as well, including his best-seller The New Possibility, a record of Christmas carols released in 1967.
Denson, by the way, teamed with guitarist and educator Stefan Grossman in 1973 to establish another steel-string guitar label, Kicking Mule Records, that specialized in pretzel-fingered transcriptions of piano rags for guitar. Among their many releases was a tribute album of Kicking Mule artists interpreting Fahey material.
Other guitarists were inspired to start their own labels on the Takoma model. Though many of these records were quite good, most had very limited distribution, being sold mainly at concerts by the artists themselves. But one guitarist struck gold. Will Ackerman heard his first Fahey record in the late 1960s in a "typically misty, redwood-covered hippie dwelling" at Big Sur on the California coast. Ackerman had been playing for quite a few years but had no strong focus. Hearing Fahey changed that.
"Here was this guy who was doing strickly his own music, and even the label was his," Ackerman said. "You know, to me that was revelatory. I mean, the effect of that never left me. Through the years where I would be noodling around on guitar I would always refer back in my thinking to the fact that it was possible for an individual not only to write but to manifest all the technical and marketing elements of
"Fahey treated
dissonance as most
people treat melody,"
says Peter Lang.
something and create a record. Without the example of John Fahey I could never have gotten to Turtle's Navel [his first album] or the concept of Windham Hill." Ackerman, of course, founded Windham Hill Records ten years later, introducing himself, Alex de Grassi, Michael Hedges, and other top guitar soloists.
So by the early 1970s Fahey was well established, and he and Takoma had created an audience for this new genre. When Warner Brothers Records recorded him at this time he was poised for greater stardom, but a sLang said, "Success and John did not agree. The opportunities were presented, but I don't think he really seized them." "The difficulty," Denson said, "was that he was making what you have to call 'serious' music and presenting it. well, almost as a punk rocker. He would be on stage drinking these large bottles of Coca Cola and stopping in the middle of the piece to smoke a cigarette." On a certain level Fahey probably didn't want to grab a bigger audience. As Kottke told me, "John was into and is into this sort of pugnacious approach to anything that includes careerism. It's not something that he was ever interested in."

Fahey revealed to me that from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s he suffered from Epstein-Barr or chronic fatigue syndrome.
"I'd drink beer for the energy, and then the amount of beer I needed kept escalating," he said. "Then the virus went away, but I had become addicted to alcohol." The disease also caused him to play even more slowly and deliberately than normal, making his music less accessible.
For whatever reasons, as the 1980s began other guitarists had taken over as leaders of the movement Fahey had begun. Teenaged guitarists were woodshedding to Kottke, de Grassi, and Hedges records, seldom realizing where it all started.
But Fahey is a survivor. He ahs stopped drinking alcohol. He has survived the loss of Takoma Records in a power play in the late 1970s by not paying close enough attention to how things were being run. He lives in Oregon now, and he continues to compose, play, and tour regularly, filling medium-sized halls with his loyal followers. And meanwhile he has finished the first volume of an autobiography that is even stranger than his album notes and includes suggestions for what to listen to while you're reading.
I asked Fahey what kind of life he felt he has had so far. He responded, "Life's really pretty sad no matter what. The happiest people are probably underneath it pretty sad. Universally in Asia, where they believe in reincarnation, life is considered a curse. They hate it. They don't want to come back. This world is considered a hell."
And how does he feel about some of the guitar music he helped pave the way for, including what has come to be known as new age? Fahey bristles at the term.
"I'm a person who sort of sits around watching the decline of western civilization," he said, "and I consider all that kind of music central to the decline of western civilization....It's dinner music marketed as concert music, and people no longer can tell. It's a tragedy."
Still, the music keeps coming from that remote corner of western civilization known as the American primitive. On page 44, Fahey introduces "Dorothy," his brand new, idiosyncratic take on the bossa nova, complete with lyrics written over the long-distance phone line with Janet Smith. As he releases new recordings and his early albums become available again on CD, Fahey is in a strong position for his music to be discovered by a whole new generation and to be rediscovered by those of us who may have forgotten. He's a true American original.

January/February 1992 Acoustic Guitar