John Fahey reinvents his own creation

by Matt Hanks

Reprinted with permission from No Depression magazine

I had heard such sounds before, heard them as a little boy lying in bed in the wiregrass country of south Georgia, heard the sounds of animals crying far off in the woods, inheard the sounds the black woods hands made having what they called church … and heard the sounds I could not identify — the really frightening ones. I had not been so frightened since I was a boy lying slender and white and frail in the dark bed, finding a sound in the night, losing it, waiting for it again, a soft sighing sound that might have been the wind easing through the tops of the long-needle pines, or might have been cattle lowing a long way off, but always came back to sounding most like a simple human exhalation right outside the rusty screen of my bedroom window, the quietly released breath of a man standing quietly, just watching, waiting. I loved the woods, but for years I lay awake at night fearing that sound.

                - Stanley Booth
                         The True Adventures of
                         the Rolling Stones

If a tree falls in the woods but no one hears it, does it really fall? Who cares, trees come a dime a dozen in the woods. But if that tree is stripped, chopped, processed, fashioned into a guitar and placed into John Fahey’s plump and knobby fingers, will anyone hear the sounds he conjures from it? Does it even exist? Yes and no, in no particular order.

For the better part of four decades, John Fahey has existed in a vacuum, cultivating contradiction, spinning innovation. His contributions to American music are no less singular than those of some of the century’s true giants — Bill Monroe and Louis Armstrong come to mind — and his influence is only slightly less pervasive. Monroe and Armstrong are dead, and Fahey has had a right mind (and body) to join them on a few occasions, but he lives, modestly, in a motel room in Salem, Oregon, has for 15-odd years. John Fahey knows his place is in this world, because there’s no suffering in heaven. And without suffering, where would that leave him?


To borrow again from Stanley Booth (maybe he should be writing this piece), like every true original, John Fahey has a strong sense of tradition. The components of his muse — his steel string guitar, his country blues, his love of classical melodicism and dissonance, his fascination with railroads and other manifestations of the industrial age — all have their origins in the early 20th century.

Fahey is a formidable expert on the age. Growing up in Takoma Park, Maryland, he fell in with some of the most rabid record collectors in the region. Compelled by a love of early country and blues 78s, this charter group of vinyl junkies embarked on frequent trips to the South, canvassing black neighborhoods in search of records and the artists who recorded them. Though cryptically recorded and packaged, Fahey’s own first album, Blind Joe Death (ca. 1959, pressed in a quantity of 100 and sold, primarily, out of the gas station where he worked at the time), reveals his love of these musics and demonstrates his already keen grasp of their lexicon. Not bad for a man barely 20.

By the early ’60s, Fahey had switched coasts and was enrolled in a newly inaugurated graduate program in folklore studies at UCLA. The program led to him visiting the South again with some frequency. On two such expeditions, Fahey “rediscovered” blues greats Bukka White and Skip James, both of whom would enjoy fruitful second careers (and in the case of James, an arguable artistic peak; reference Skip James Today ca. 1966 and Devil Got My Woman ca. 1968) during the blues revival of the day.


Back in Los Angeles, Fahey continued to cultivate his own playing. With the help of ED Denson, another transplanted beltway native who oversaw the business end of Fahey’s Takoma record label, he issued a series of recordings that defined his art and earned his audience. Exhaustively titled albums such as Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes, Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites, and The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party and Other Excursions bore the heavy yoke of history, the isolation of timelessness, the exquisite pain of a simple human exhalation. For some reason, the hippies loved it.

Still, Fahey emerged from these lonely spiritual excursions with his humanity and good humor intact. Like, say the Let it Bleed-era Rolling Stones (a comparison he would probably loathe), Fahey suffused tradition with his own talents so seamlessly that his innovations were often indistinguishable from homage, or even hoax.

Reference Fahey’s 1968 album, The Voice of the Turtle, an album of ragas, “field recordings” and sundry guitar wizardry all bound by some impossibly dense and completely fabricated liner notes (the first sentence alone is 561 words long), penned by Fahey. Aping the academic, Folkways-style liner notes of the day, Fahey purports that sections of Turtle date back as far as the ’20s. And if you weren’t aware of his gift for gag, you probably would have believed him.


By the ’70s, Fahey’s work and interests began to splinter. Takoma recruited a many-striped stable of Fahey protégés, from strict disciples like Robbie Basho and Peter Lang, to new acoustic/age-stars-in-waiting Leo Kottke and George Winston, to authentic weirdo Joe Byrd. Byrd’s psychedelic masterpiece with his band the United States of America prepared no one for his subsequent Takoma release A Christmas Yet to Come, an album of traditional holiday carols as rendered by primitive synthesizers. The Takoma roster of the ’70s reflected Fahey’s belief that popular music reached its eclectic peak, “its zeitgeist,” during that decade. Fahey himself supplemented his Takoma output with inspired, if not definitive, recordings on the larger Vanguard and Reprise labels.

As the ’70s stretched into the ’80s, the story became cloudier. Fahey generated less music, likely because of a succession of personal and health problems. A couple soured marriages, alcoholism, and bouts with Epstein-Barr syndrome all sapped Fahey of some of his creative impulses. By the late ’80s, he had vanished from the musical vanguard as quietly as he had entered it 30 years prior.

Hindsight reveals that Fahey spent his lost weekend in and out of charity missions and dive motels, earning a piecemeal income as a different kind of picker, finding collectible records in thrift stores and reselling them for meager profits. In some ways, his life had come to resemble those of his blues heroes he happened upon back in his UCLA days. It’s only fitting, then, that he too would be rediscovered — by noted critic, collector and Fahey fanatic Byron Coley — and with no small amount of encouragement, would embark on the most prodigious phase of his career. With legend intact, Blind Joe Death lived again!


1997. John Fahey, the notorious cynic, the hardened bastard, talks with the wide-eyed mettle of a man recently emerged from an extended tenure in a musical deprivation tank. “I think this is a really exciting time for music,” he insists, “experimental music particularly. People are a lot more open and curious than they ever have been before.” And the new-fangled John Fahey is here to give the people what they want. By the end of this year, Fahey will have added five more albums to his already sizable canon, as well as a loosely autobiographical book to be published by Drag City Press. He’s also re-entered the biz by way of Revenant, his new record label, aimed at releasing “raw music” from the likes of Cecil Taylor, Derek Bailey, Jim O’Rourke, Hasil Adkins and the Stanley Brothers, to name just this year’s crop. The onslaught begins with City of Refuge on Tim/Kerr Records, Fahey’s first release in over five years, an album so good that in one fell swoop it erases many of the transgressions of former colleague Winston and the host of other players who claim Fahey as a formative influence. “I don’t understand that connection [between my music and new age music] when people make it, and I claim no responsibility for it.” Fahey says flatly, impatiently.

Sure enough, Refuge carries none of the traces of lobotomized minimalism inherent to new age music. It’s Fahey’s most challenging — and, by his own claim, his best — work to date. The album is more akin to the works of a newer crop of Fahey descendants, groups like Gastr Del Sol and Cul De Sac (both of whom Fahey has collaborated with in recent months).

Refuge opens with “Fanfare”, a nihilistic sound collage drawing on a series of disparate sources from a train to a Stereolab song (the track “Pause”, from Stereolab’s 1993 album Transient Random Noise Bursts with Announcements, is “the only one of their songs I like,” Fahey says). On the album’s subsequent five tracks, Fahey blends primitive acoustics with the occasional found sound in thoroughly updated fashion. It’s as though he never left.

He saves his starkest work for the final track, “On the Death and Disembowelment of the New Age”. Asked whether the song addresses the new age musical genre or the new age of cyber culture, Fahey replies, “Both.” Of course. Either way, I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of the song’s dark manifesto, its unidentifiable, frightening sounds.


In his book of the same name, James Rooney explains the concept of Bossmen:
“Every field has its ’bossman’ — the one who sets the style, makes the rules, and defines the field in his own terms. Each man is aware of who he is and exactly what he has done. Each man has thought deeply about music and respects his music. Music has been for each a way of getting at what is true and real in life.”

Fahey is a bossman unto himself. He invented a genre that only he seems to understand, but he’s eager to share his talents nonetheless. His first-generation students proved to be a mutinous bunch of turncoats, perpetrating lies atop the truths and realities he showed them. But maybe Fahey is right. Maybe now is the time when he will finally be understood, even cherished. God knows it’s been a long haul to get here.

Matt Hanks writes and talks about music in
Memphis, TN, where his employer swears he is
the very best babysitter.

Copyright 1997 by No Depression/Matt Hanks. Reprinted here with permission. This article first appeared in the May-June 1997 issue of No Depression magazine. We thank them for allowing us to use the photo kindly provided by the art staff at Fantasy Records in Berkeley, CA.

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