Skip to comments.John Fahey - Another American Treasure
Posted on 07/01/2008 3:21:58 AM PDT by Apollo 13
Hi you music buffs out there - this time I want your views on one of the very greatest and most singular American guitarists. John Fahey. A self-made man if there ever was one, and superbly intelligent and poetic to boot. In the 1960s he started out with a self-financed private pressing LP about a fictitious blues legend, Blind Joe Death. There were 50 or 100 copies extant, depending on whom you consult. Needless to say it's the proverbial collector's item nowadays. Then a stream of great, contemplative, adventurous albums followed, many of them accompanied by fantastic, albeit spurious personal essays, of high literary merits (no wonder: he graduated on a thesis about blues musician Charley Patton). None of these instrumental albums featured standard blues fare, with clichés flying around. They are all about the wonders of the world around us, if you are prepared to see them. Titles go like: 'The Dance Of The Invisible Inhabitants Of Bladensburg', 'Orinda-Moraga', or 'The Singing Bridge Of Memphis, Tennessee' (forgive me the occasional slip, I do this off of the top of my head). All of his work has been beautifully remastered and repackaged on his Takoma label, with lots of bonus tracks where appropriate. And he released no less than four wonderful Christmas albums, all as soothing as they come, with eclectic adaptations of standards and even J.S. Bach. I'd recommend as an introduction: 'The Return Of The Repressed', a 2CD retrospective on Rhino Records, and 'Of Rivers And Religion/After The Ball', on Warners/Reprise. Proceed from there on. And do visit: http/::www.johnfahey.com for more info and piccies of all those artful sleeves. What are your thoughts?
I’d never heard of him, but now I have and I’m listening to him play “Red Pony” from 1969 on You Tube.
One of Leo Kottke’s important influences (artistically, and I IMHO personally).
James Blackshaw is considered to be the modern day John Fahey:
Note: the background makes this look like it was filmed in the same place as the Larry Sinclair parody.
We were milling around waiting for him to appear on the stage, which was merely a four-foot high platform at arm's length from our table. I ducked downstairs to the ladies' room, and when I came out, I told the disheveled, alcoholic-looking janitor that there was no more toilet paper, and returned upstairs. Soon, Fahey shambled onstage, a quart of beer in one hand and the guitar in the other. It was the man whom I had thought was the janitor. No lie, he looked like a homeless person, with that blotchy red-and-white complexion of the Irishman in his cups, and reddish blond hair flying every which way. He sat and played his astounding passages of music all evening long, stopping between every piece to swig the quart and ramble incoherently. I was just astonished at how he could appear so inebriated and also play the way he did.
He was an educated man with a master's in folklore and a deeply original style. I understand that he finally did hit bottom some years later, after three failed marriages due in no small part to heavy drinking, but he did pull himself together for awhile towards the end, and tragically died at 62 after a sextuple bypass.
Nice of you to also highlight his mental problems. I always had the feeling that those were inseperable from his often meditative, tranquil way of making music.
Already at a young age he drank heavily and was addicted to French cigarettes (’the heaviest he could find’, booklet liner notes comment). And near the end of his career, he literally lived out of the back of a van, selling his then very experimental (and often electric) albums himself. Somehow I can’t imagine him having improved in any way if having been admitted to a mental institution, or having been given all kinds of psychotropic medications.
He just was that way.
In stark contrast to all of this stands the transcendental, ephemeral sheer beauty of his Christmas albums (four in all). The first two are by far the best (from the ‘60s) - an absolute joy to play in a cosy family setting, after Mass for instance. The latter two sound a bit more clinical, they appeared in the early ‘80s. But still, these are more than worthwhile too.
As I said, he’s an American institution, much like Moondog Jr., Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Harry Partch, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson, and many, many more.
(That said: I always had my problems with Frank Sinatra. I found him to be a narcissist, with extremely violent character traits, not to mention his alleged connections to the mob, that saved him from incarceration after a particularly nasty incident in which he and the other Rat Pack members beat a dentist to a pulp in a restaurant. Why? Because that dentist had politely asked if Sinatra’s troupe could speak a little bit more silently, so that he himself could understand what his wife was saying).
I don't know how nice it was; it was just part of the wonder of his abilities -- as you said, transcending everything. I agree, I did find many of his riffs more or less fugue-like (I'm also a great fan of Bach and baroque keyboards -- harpsichords and guitars are "family"). I think it was Thomas Cahill (How the Irish Saved Civilization) who said that the Irish are the only people on earth who are impervious to psychotherapy. Truly, his music soothed my soul; let's hope it was his balm as well. It's tragic how he ended up.
Many thanks to you for this reminder of a stunning and unique artist who meant a great deal to me in my 20s. I am lately revisiting some of the pieces of music and films that have really stood out during my lifetime (such as Black Orpheus), and it will certainly be worthwhile to invest in DVD versions of his work, as well as discovering the Christmas music.
Cheers for the Thomas Cahill reference - I love this so: knowledgeable people giving each other good hints how to proceed further on the path of knowledge. Will surely seek that book out.
Yep. I “discovered” Kottke after going to a concert at UCLA not knowing who he was, and that led to Fahey. Their playing has alway blown me away.
I have a number of Fahey albums that I haven’t played for a while. This article makes me want to get them out and play them again. Fahey pioneered what is called the American Primitive Guitar or making the guitar sound like what a guitar should sound like. That sounds like it should be obvious, but he was rebelling against the slew of musicians who bragged about making their guitars sound like other instruments. And Fahey was a finger-picker. Only finger-style guitarists can pull off the syncopation and innovations necessary for complex non-accompanied guitar music.
Great post - you touched the very heart of Fahey’s art!
(hey, doesn’t that rhyme beautifully?)
I never liked Jimi Hendrix, or heavy metal, or all those others who went to excess to produce bombast and pathos. Hendrix’ version of the ‘Battle Hymn’ makes me cringe and want to vomit, for instance. So does the guitar work of Queen’s Brian May. Distortion and flageolettes serve to hide the fact that there’s not much of a melody going on.
Fahey, on the other hand, is the very definition of how pure an open-tuned acoustic can sound.
Again: cheers for a very uplifting post!
That's pretty much my feeling about Hendrix too. A lot of special effects and noise to cover the lack of a coherent chord structure and melody. There are a few electric plectrum guitarists I like, but their skill in my humble estimation pales in comparison to what acoustic, finger-style guitarists can do. It's a shame that all the rock worshippers on this forum limit themselves with their adoration of narrow-visioned rock and rollers. There's a universe of great guitar out there, and rock and roll takes up only a minuscule proportion of it.
Nice call, my feelings too. What am I to do with a guitarist that feigns playing with his teeth? (He did not, he simply hammered the strings with such force that it sounded more or less like teeth being involved.
A few of my personal faves: Ry Cooder (saw him thrice live, each time a feast for the ear - and the battery of acoustic guitars that was placed behind him in a show with David Lindley made me green with envy....). Electric guitarists who are really good are Robert Quine (perhaps a bit too atonal for some ears, though), and the guys from Television: Tom Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, and Billy Ficca. Marc Ribot is also great (he is Tom Waits’ partner in crime).
Yup, America is second to none when it comes to ace guitarists. If you avoid Motley Crüe and their ilk, that is...
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