Death Chants, Breakdowns, and Military Waltzes
Volume II of John Fahey, guitar
with Nancy McLean, flute
In the hot summer months of July and August, dust rises in the quiet streets of Takoma Park. The Sligo River becomes a chain of narrow muddy ponds. The rural Maryland countryside becomes a veritable pot of steam as the temperature passes 110, and the humidity is not far behind. The old southern Negroes who work in the cottonfields there, have a volk saying which expresses all this quite well: "If the temperature passes 110, can the humidity be far behind?" I stopped in at Whelan's drugstore. "Has anyone seen John Fahey or Blind Joe Death, or maybe Gerhaupt Hauffman?" I asked dissolutely. "They were recording stars for Paramount thirty years ago, and I was told that somebody here might know where they are." "no," said the old man with the white beard behind the counter, resolutely, "they've done been here and gone. Maybe, if you go down to the first fork in the road and turn left and then when you see the big house painted all over green and turn right and left and go by the railroad tracks and stop at the ethnic-looking water tower where once many years ago Jimmy Rogers got stranded dissolutely - - maybe if you do that, you'll see Heh God, and maybe he can tell you where they are."
It was noontime, and no gentle breezes blew across the hot cottonfields, in the midst of time. There by the water tower, I found Heh God, and I opened my mouth and asked him the same question I'd been asking people for months: "Have you seen John Fahey or Blind Joe Death or Gerhaupt Hauffman?" There by the water tower I found Heh God, and he opened his mouth and said: "No, I haven't seen them lately, but probably if you go down to the next left red light and turn green and ride over the great B & O viaduct and ask at the pool hall, maybe," he said hodologically.
This sort of thing was not new to me. I remembered the months and months I had spent the previous winter, travelling across the continent and back again in search of the mysterious and elusive Firk Brothers - - the constant disappointments, and then finally finding them, only to discover that they still hadn't learned to play or sing very well. As I walked down Maple Avenue, the heat from the blacktop road began to get me. "Just keep going, " I said to myself, imperatively, there in the midst of time. Some day you'll find them. You owe it to all the people in the 13th century who started the whole business - to Jean-Jacques Rosseau and Jan Sibelius. You owe it to Heh God, and to the other down-trodden people of Takoma Park - - to locate them hodologically. You owe it to all the good volks on the West Coast." Not very soon after this, I found them. They were sitting out in back of the Takoma Funeral Home, where Blind Joe Death had a part-time job embalming the downtrodden people of Takoma Park who had gone on before.
As a little boy, John Fahey had sat at the feet of an old blind Negro known locally as "Nigger Joe," listening to the intensely personal blues and religious blues the old man played on his surrogate kithera. Blind Joe never sang. He had no voice. He had been struck blind and dumb at the age of three by a local member of the NAACP, for not complying with the organization's demand to learn bar chords and diminished augmented sevenths, so that he might disassociate himself from the myth of the Negro past. Here, thanks to the intensely personal stubborness of an old man who refused to bow to the dictates of crass commercialism and political interfuge, sat John Fahey at the feet of this old man, listening and waiting for his hands to big enough to play the surrogate kithera as did his mentor. For in Blind Joe's music, the young white boy could discern a way in which he could express the intensely personal, bitter-sweet, biting, soul-stirring volk poetry of the harsh, elemental, but above all human life of the downtrodden Takoma Park people (volk).
In time, Blind Joe' s kithera was washed away in the great 1927 flood of the Sligo River, which many of the local volk recall with fear and trembling. Blind Joe, having recently acquired great wealth as a Paramount recording star, bought himself a Martin guitar, and found to his surprise that he could even better express the intensely personal, bitter-sweet, biting, soul-stirring volk poetry of the harsh, elemental, but above all human life of the downtrodden Takoma Park Volk, because this instrument had six strings instead of one. When Blind Joe died in 1962, his guitar was passed on by his family to John Fahey, just as Jimmy Rodgers' guitar had been passed on to Ernest Tubb, and CharIie Patton's guitar had been passed on to Ely Green by Bertha Lee.
John Fahey had made his first guitar from a baby' s coffin, and led the old blind negro through the back alleys and whore-houses of Takoma Park in return for lessons. When the Second World War broke out, John was already a musician in his own right. His career as a volk entertainer was briefly interrupted when he was drafted and sent to New Zealand to fight with the allies against the Finno-Armenian invasion. After the war was over, John, a decorated war hero, returned to his home and re-established relations with Blind Joe. In 1952, only a few years before Blind Joe' s bodily ascension, Patricia Sullivan working in co-ordination with the Library of Congress (of Bessarabia), recorded the two of them and issued them on the now rare Takoma label (for which, unfortunately, neither was paid, in the tradition of many recorded volk entertainers, such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Leroy Garnett, Poor Boy Krenek, and Barbecue Cage). Now, thanks to those who remember, John Fahey has just finished a concert tour, and has won even more friends in his travels through this land, especially on the West Coast, singing and playing the intensely personal, urgently expressive music of the downtrodden people of Takoma Park. This record is for those who remember.
The Downfall of the Adelphi Rolling Gristmill. This song was originally composed by Blind Joe Death and Nancy McLean. Blind Joe, who was on the spot at the scene when the Adelphi Rolling Gristmill fell down, remembered it years later, and said of it: "Yes, yes, I remember, it was terrible and hodological millstones falling all around, ironbars and steel balls, cement mixers, clandestine Klapperkastenen and Klapperschlangenen, evil, evil all around, the dark night oppressing from without, no place to hide, there in the midst of time, fire burning at my beard, evil shadows projected on the walls, and then they came down too. It was an intensely personal experience which I well remember. Grist all over the place, couldn't get out of it, suffocating in grist, corn washing down cotton houses on Coon Creek. Yes, yes."
Some Summer Day. A song Blind Joe Death learned from Jim Lee, Bertha Lee' s brother, and sung frequently by Blind Joe's old friend and World War I buddy, Charlie Patton.
Take a Look at that Baby. This song, which is preserved in the archives of the Groat and Isaiah Nettles Volkmusik Library in Heliotrope, Maryland, has only one verse, which runs:
My Uncle Groat, he' s fat as a shoat,
It was recorded by the Two Poor Boys on the ARC label in the early 1930' s. Various authorities have suggested that this is a variant stanza of the now popular song "Good old mountain dew," which was originally sung to incite race riots by the early followers of Father Jahn in this country. In its use by Fahey and Blind Joe, the song carried no racist connotations. Fortunately, Father Jahn and his disciples all but disappeared from the world historical scene. This brief but unfortunate page in American history is long gone. Though we read of various racist organisations which are springing up, much to our amazement, such as the Black Muslims, the Ku Klux Klan, the Sons of Pericles, the B'nai B'rith, and the New Lost City Ramblers, it is the editorial policy of this company to oppose all such racist organizations, and merely to present the volk music of the American people in all its diversity and splendour. The two Poor Boys were assassinated by a fanatical variant stanza collector in 1929 on Capitol Hill.
America. This theme, played in 3/4 time, was sung by various Episcopal ministers in their heroic underground struggle against the political entrenchment of Captain Marvel and the Mole Men on Capitol Hill in the late 1920' s. We should remember, while listening to this work, its world historical aspect, and the many Episcopal ministers who sacrificed themselves as martyrs, that their country should not be subjected to the tyranny of the evil green hordes from the East.
At the name of Jesus is the first line of hymn #356 in the 1940 Episcopal hymnal. The tune is '"King's Weston," composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1925.
Sunflower River Blues. A tribute to Charlie Patton, composed by Fahey in Yahoo City, Mississippi, in 1963.
When the Springtime Comes Again. Co-authored by Pat Sullivan, of whom it has been said that she is "the coolest. blues chick on the East Coast." (R. Robinson). It is essentially a love song, and carries no political or ontological connotations.
Stomping Tonight on the Pennsylvania-Alabama Border. This song was originally discovered by Richard Sportshirt, who found an early recording of it in an old Edison Variant Stanza Player. It was recorded in 1756 on the Variant Stanza label #13098.
On the Beach at Waikiki was composed by Uncle Dave Hodology, the famous cloud chamber bowl player of the Nashville Grand Old Oprey fame.
Spanish Dance and Dance of the Inhabitants of the Palace of King Philip the Fourteenth of Spain. These were barred from public performance by various racist organizations and various left wing and right wing organizations, and by a decree of the Supreme Court (of Bessarabia), because of their avowedly nationalistic character and reference to a volk. John Fahey had to say after their public debarment, "Everybody' s against me."
Notes by Chester C. PetranickTakoma C-1002 Vol. 1 John Fahey / Blind Joe Death 2nd
edition now available