Archive for the ‘John Fahey’ Category

Dance of Death

November 17, 2014


Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist, by Steve Lowenthal (Chicago Review)

reviewed by Steve Danziger (

John Fahey was a composer, musician and absurdist bard of the American suburbs. An acoustic guitarist who combined traditional finger-style technique with an avant-garde sensibility, he called his style American Primitive. He drew from blues, Indian ragas, Gregorian chant, hymns, musique concrète and seemingly anything else he heard to make music of great delicacy and often harsh beauty, infused with yearning and anguish.

Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore called him a “secret influence,” a designation that could be made by admirers from Pete Townshend to Sufjan Stevens. He was also a notorious flake, difficult to fathom in the best circumstances. Steve Lowenthal’s patchy biography “Dance of Death” offers the outline of his life but little insight, leaving Fahey impenetrable as he was influential.
Dance of Death

Fahey (1939-2001), lonely and meek as a child in Takoma Park, Md., eased his alienation by allowing his imagination to go berserk. He and his friends invented “a secret race of cat people” and a “local demigod, whom they named ‘the Great Koonaklaster.’ ” By age 13, his whimsy had teetered into darkness, beginning a lifelong preoccupation with death.

Records saved Fahey. Hearing Blind Willie Johnson sparked a “hysterical conversion experience,” so he bought a $17 guitar and fed his obsession with records from the 1920s and 1930s that he found by trolling thrift stores and by going door to door in black neighborhoods. In 1959, he started his own label and pressed 100 copies of his first album, “Blind Joe Death.” The imaginary bluesman of the title became an alter ego and an outlet for Fahey’s bizarre sense of humor. Later liner notes would include faux-scholarly histories of both Fahey, who “made his first guitar from a baby’s coffin,” and Blind Joe Death, “the old blind negro [he led] through the back alleys and whore-houses of Takoma Park in return for lessons.” (more…)

“A Cloven Hoof Beating Time”

May 19, 2013


edited from liner notes to “American Primitive, Volume I” by John Fahey, August 1997

In our commentary to the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music (HFSM) collection we noted that in the history of American Folk scholarship, scholars and non-academic collectors as early as Cecil Sharp noted affinity, affection and syncretism between three ethnic groups: (1) people from the British Isles and Brittany, i.e. Celtic France, (2) Blacks, and (3) Acadian French descendents of the Huegnots—Protestants—who immigrated to Louisiana from Nova Scotia in the 18th century.

We should now like to note that the largest repository by far (99%) of recordings of American Folk Music (AFM)(1) has not been established by academic institutions or folk music associations, but by the combined efforts of the American commercial recording industry. This phenomenon is as evident today as it was in the past. What institutions have stuffed their vaults with bluegrass, rap and the other last gasps of the American volkselle? Commercial recording companies.

In the 1931 RCA-Victor numerical catalogue, recordings are listed for almost every single ethnic group resident in the USA. Recordings by Filipinos, Serbo-Croatians, Yiddish, Japanese, Swiss-German, Lithuanian and on and on. Having read the entire catalogue we find specifically religious “instructional” and/or preaching records only among these few groups: Jews, Negroes and American Whites of primarily British descent who speak English i.e., WASPS. There are no religious recordings of French or Acadian performers.

While I was a member of the UCLA Folklore and Mythology Dept. several of us participated in an exhaustive but abortive search for AFM recording artists who were Jewish. We only found two. One was Eck Robertson’s wife who played guitar in Eck’s band, along with Verd, his brother (banjo).

Jews, Orientals, Finno-Ugarics, the autochthonous of Easter Island, Italians etc., played no significant role in the development of AFM. They continued to play the same music which they played in “the old country.” Meanwhile, the members of the AFM Big Three—Cajuns, Negroes, and WASPs—looked for and found new concepts, new rhythms, new harmonies and new structures. Blacks learned 8-bar pentatonic reels of the people from the British Isles, and Whites learned the tripartite, call-and-response 12 bar blues from Blacks.

I submit that these recordings, along with others of Sanctified Singers, Sacred Harp, large Negro Churches with horns etc. demonstrate that we have here in the USA, both now and then, one very large side of a continuum of an ecstatic as opposed to contemplative religion, which calls itself “Christian.” There are other ecstatic religions in the world, or religions with the same continuum (Hinduism), but is Christianity really intrinsically ecstatic in this manner of hot enthusiasm? Are these tambourine players and guitar screamers inhabited by Christ? Do they know him?

I have to say that, Flannery O’Connor notwithstanding, underneath it all I hear pan pipes tooting and a cloven hoof beating time.

In Search of Blind Joe Death

March 11, 2013


edited from

“As a young man, he was in the Mississippi Delta looking for Skip James and Bukka White, and then, later, people went to Oregon looking for him. And there he was.”

Greil Marcus’s old, weird America had a second generation, one of its children being John Fahey, the “original American primitive,” and an untutored, finger-style adventurer on the steel-stringed acoustic guitar.

He is the subject of In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey, a new documentary by James Cullingham.

As a musicologist, Fahey tracked down folk-blues pioneers Bukka White and Skip James, and helped revive their careers during the great American folk-blues boom in the 1960s. His essays on those sojourns into the Mississippi Delta were thoroughly journalistic, if somewhat fanciful.

In 1964, as one of the inaugural graduates of the University of California’s folklore curriculum, Fahey‘s master’s thesis was on the great country-blues artist Charlie Patton. In his own (mostly instrumental) music, he took the forms of Patton and others and developed his own melodies while introducing resonant syncopation, Eastern meditativeness and, later, found sounds.

What’s fascinating about Fahey is that he himself became the same source of intrigue as his folk-blues heroes. After a successful career of recording and touring, he wound up homeless in the 1990s in the Pacific Northwest. “As a young man, he was in the Mississippi Delta looking for James and White,” says Cullingham. “And then, later, people went to Oregon looking for him. And there he was.”


John Fahey

February 25, 2013



John Fahey: When I made my first record I thought it would be a good joke to have me on one side, have the label say John Fahey on one side, and this guy Blind Joe Death on the other side. The reason it said “blind” is because a lot of the people I learned from were on old 78 RPM records and a lot of them were blind, and their names were Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Joe Taggart, on and on, a whole bunch of them were blind.

So me and a guy named Greg Eldridge we were sitting around drinking a beer one night and I was trying to find a catchy name for the other guy and he was helping me and he finally said “Blind Joe Death”, and I said “um, That’s it”. Also I was thinking, when ever you print the word “Death” people look at it and I was thinking of record sales already even though I was only going to have a hundred copies pressed.

I thought I’d be wasting my time to go to commercial record companies and make demos for them, because don’t forget, I was doing what I was doing and nobody understood what I was doing. Even Sam Charters, I still have a letter from 1959, where I sent Charters a copy of my first record and he wrote me back to tell me how terrible I was and how Jack Elliot and so on and so forth were much better than me. He completely misunderstood what I was trying to do. But that was OK. I understood what I was trying to do.