John Fahey

He died six days short of his 62nd birthday from complications after  an operation involving six coronary bypasses, the details of his life almost as complicated as the lengthy discography built up over five decades. Keeping track of the permutations, combinations and reissues means I’ve had to go to the unusual extreme of keeping the label details in the material I’ve borrowed from Wikipedia and other sources, and if that seems like unnecessary detail I’d point out there are at least ten versions of Blind Joe Death and nine of the Christmas album.

Fahey (28 February 1939 – 22 February 2001) mightn’t have been over enamoured of the tag describing him as the founder of American Primitivism, but there were a lot of things he didn’t like including his early recordings under the pseudonym Blind Thomas, the philosophy curriculum at the University of California, Berkeley, the music scene he found when he arrived there, 

What can’t be disputed, however, is his status as a leading fingerstyle guitarist and composer whose work on the steel-string acoustic guitar began with the folk and blues traditions and incorporated elements of classical, Portuguese, Brazilian, and Indian music with liberal helpings of Episcopalian hymns into a unique and largely unclassifiable œuvre. 

Born in Washington, D.C. into a musical household where both parents played the piano Fahey grew up in the suburb of (Takoma) Park, Maryland and bought his first guitar from the Sears-Roebuck catalogue in 1952. He’d also started collecting records, starting with  bluegrass and country titles, and developing an interest in the blues after hearing Blind Willie Johnson's Praise God I'm Satisfied

Working in a style that blended elements appropriated from listening to old blues 78s and contemporary classical works by the likes of Bartók, Fahey’s first recordings were on his friend and fellow collector Joe Bussard's amateur Fonotone label, subsequently reissued as Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You.

Cash saved while working as a gas station attendant and a loan from an Episcopalian priest funded his first album, recorded in 1959 at St. Michaels and All Angels Church in Adelphi, MD and released on his own (Takoma) label in a limited run of a hundred copies. It took three years to sell and otherwise dispose of them.

Armed with a with a degree in philosophy and religion rom American University, Fahey arrived in California in 1963 to study philosophy, didn’t like it and ended up in the folklore master's program at UCLA, completing a master's thesis on the music of Charley Patton with the musicological assistance from Al “Blind Owl” Wilson, later of Canned Heat. Wilson was also involved in the revival of legendary blues man Son House’s career after Dick Waterman found him in the early sixties.

While in California Fahey tracked down Bukka White by sending a postcard to his home town. Mississippi John Hurt had been rediscovered the same way. White responded, Fahey and ED Denson travelled to Memphis to record him,  and the result was the first non-Fahey Takoma release. Fahey released Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes in late 1963, and, surprisingly, it out sold the Bukka White.

Through the sixties, Fahey continued to issue material through Takoma as well as Vanguard Records who signed him along with guitarists Sandy Bull and Peter Walker. 


© Ian Hughes 2012