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John Fahey

Abandoning what could’ve been a lucrative career choice in country music (after studying the styles of HANK WILLIAMS and Eddie Arnold), innovative acoustic guitarist JOHN FAHEY chose the folk-blues through listening to BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON. Whether one can say that’s FAHEY’s experimental, finger-picking noodling of instrumental ragas lie in folk-music (more like a hybrid of blues, jazz, country, gospel and classical), well that’s one for you the listener. Certainly, his inspiration to other folkies such as SANDY BULL, ROBBIE BASHO, LEO KOTTKE, DAVEY GRAHAM and BERT JANSCH, demands respect from all quarters, while one can’t help thinking JIMMY PAGE was listening too.
Born February 28, 1939, Takoma Park, Maryland, and having once performed alongside Henry Vestine (soon-to-be of CANNED HEAT), FAHEY was only just nineteen when his first 78 recordings surfaced. With less than a hundred copies pressed up, his partly-pseudonymous BLIND JOE DEATH (1959) {*7}, has become a rare artefact, although it has been re-issued (and recorded) in many forms since; he self-financed and re-issued the LP in ’64 for his own small-budget imprint, Takoma, which he set up with a $300 loan.
During a frenetic studio time in the mid-60s, John delivered a handful of seminal, thematic LPs, namely DEATH CHANTS, BREAKDOWNS & MILITARY WALTZES (1964) {*7} – featuring the fidelity-busting `Dance Of The Inhabitants Of The Palace Of King Philip XIV’ – THE DANCE OF DEATH AND OTHER PLANTATION FAVORITES (1965) {*7} highlighting hillbilly/Appalachian/Delta dirges including `On The Banks Of The Owchita’ & `Revelations On The Banks Of The Pawtuxent’, THE TRANSFIGURATION OF BLIND JOE DEATH (1965) {*8}, THE GREAT SAN BERNARDINO BIRTHDAY PARTY AND OTHER EXCURSIONS (1966) {*7} and DAYS HAVE GONE BY (1967) {*7}. Of the above sets, every track has merit, too numerous to mention; one could do no wrong by testing the waters with a recommended compilation.
When Vanguard Records came a-calling, the explorative FAHEY found new directions to muse himself (and a newbie fanbase) on a couple of sets, REQUIA (1967) {*5} and THE YELLOW PRINCESS (1968) {*8}, the latter breaking away from its predecessor’s heavy-handed tape-loop antics (at least on side two), allowing more of a brave attempt to release his inner rock self (he collaborated here with the band SPIRIT).
Back on his own Takoma label (for whom he’d signed LEO KOTTKE and others), FAHEY issued three further LPs, the psych-blues of THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE (1968) {*7}, the self-explanatory festive THE NEW POSSIBILITY: JOHN FAHEY’S GUITAR SOLI CHRISTMAS ALBUM (1968) {*4} and the overly-ambitious AMERICA (1971) {*5}; intended to be released as a double, the latter saw classical renditions and covers of Sam McGee’s `Knoxville Blues’, SKIP JAMES’ `Special Rider Blues’, plus `Amazing Grace’ and `Dvorak’ (all featured on the CD version).
Signed to Reprise records and credited to John Fahey and his Orchestra (i.e. Chris Darrow of KALEIDOSCOPE, et al), OF RIVERS AND RELIGION (1972) {*8} proved to many critics John was the real “slow-hand”, adept at switching from acoustic (Deep South roots) to slide (Delta blues) at the drop of a Stetson. Haunting and hypnotic, choice cuts came by way of opener `Steamboat Gwine ‘Round De Bend’, `Funeral Song For Mississippi John Hurt’, and even the presence of two trad-core old-timey medleys (including `Deep River’ and `Ol’ Man River’) couldn’t dampen FAHEY’s swamp-like forays.
A second “orchestra” helping, AFTER THE BALL (1973) {*4}, was a rather damp squib and a foray into jazzy Dixieland territory rather than a musical development for the future; titles such as Bill Whitmore’s `New Orleans Shuffle’, the REVEREND GARY DAVIS’ short ’n’ sweet `Candy Man’, and another Hammerstein-Kern ditty through the title track, were complete turn-offs.
Only having a brief flirtation with the majors (and back on Takoma), this ten-man ensemble/”orchestra” would deliver one final stab at the ragtime/blues-cum-classical/Middle-Eastern genre, OLD FASHIONED LOVE (1975) {*6}. Somewhere one’d heard it all before (`In A Persian Market’ sounded like an Egyptian take of `Yellow River’), even the FAHEY riffs in `Marilyn’ recalled ‘Zeppelin or LENNON; the old-timey/blues dirges such as MISSISSIPPI FRED McDOWELL’s `Keep Your Lamps Trimmed And Burning’ spoke for themselves.
Actually preceding this effort would come one of FAHEY’s most ambitious and experimental works, the raga-symphonic homage to the Swami Satchidananda, FARE FORWARD VOYAGERS (SOLDIER’S CHOICE) (1974) {*7}, a record highly inspired by Indian classical music (possibly Ravi Shankar) featuring only three lengthy pieces including the 23-minute title track.
Aside from the odd previous/subsequent festive LP (and a LIVE IN TASMANIA (1981) {*7}), FAHEY’s fresh studio output was rare indeed, a comeback of-sorts, VISITS WASHINGTON, D.C. (1979) {*6}, was again as inventive as it was eclectic, interpolating LEO KOTTKE’s `Death By Reputation’ with his own `Ann Arbor’, garnering Bola Sete’s `Guitar Lamento’ alongside a respective medley of DOC WATSON’s `Silver Bell’ and BILL MONROE’s `Cheyenne’; John’s own Deep South-meets-Appalachian-styled composition `The Discovery Of Sylvia Scott’ was reminiscent of “Swanee River”.
FAHEY’s Takoma swansong came via RAILROAD (1984) {*5}, while Varrick Records delivered two from the maestro, LET GO (1984) {*5} and RAIN FORESTS, OCEANS, AND OTHER THEMES (1985) {*4}, both containing CLAPTON’s `Layla’(!), the latter also procuring the works of Stravinsky, HENDRIX and FURRY LEWIS; I REMEMBER BLIND JOE DEATH (1987) {*5}, initially released on Rounder but licensed to Varrick, harked back to his previous 60s sets, tinged with his neo-classical-meets-nostalgia approach.
GOD, TIME and CAUSALITY (1990) {*7} – not “casualty” as many journals have mistakenly interpreted (with the third part meaning the relationship between cause and effect), was one for finger-picking FAHEY aficionados everywhere, a record seeing three exhausting medleys including combinations of `The Portland Cement Factory’ and `Requiem For Mississippi John Hurt’ plus `Snowflakes’ , `Steamboat Gwine ‘Round The Bend’ and `The Death Of The Clayton Peacock’.
1992’s OLD GIRLFRIENDS & OTHER HORRIBLE MEMORIES {*6}, wasn’t short of a good title (`Fear & Loathing At 4th & Butternut’ was one that didn’t betray the ear too much), while side one saw the usual array of staple cover versions (`Twilight Zone’, `The Sea Of Love’, `Blueberry Hill’ and John D. Loudermilk’s `A Rose And A Baby Ruth’).
A time of reflection ensued, and when John returned with 1997’s CITY OF REFUGE {*5}, a record that was subversive in the sense that it tore apart all misconceptions and golden rules of conventional and instructional guitar-playing and found venom in his style of acoustic blues (example the 19-minute, `On The Death And Disembowelment Of The New Age’ and the even lengthier `City Of Refuge I’ opus).
And there was more of the same to come in the shape of the JIM O’ROURKE-produced WOMBLIFE (1997) {*7}, the equally-electro-fried THE EPIPHANY OF GLENN JONES (1997) {*6} with math-rockers CUL DE SAC (Jones was the leader) and the live-in-Chicago folk-friendly work-out, GEORGIA STOMPS, ATLANTA STRUTS, AND OTHER CONTEMPORARY DANCE FAVORITES (1998) {*7} – albums to shock your pappy (or grand-pappy), who’d never think this was the same JOHN FAHEY; HITOMI (2000) {*5}, would be his last work before he died on February 22, 2001 after a sextuple-bypass operation. Interestingly enough, there were lots of recorded works in the pipeline, including a CHARLEY PATTON definitive package and the posthumous Revenant release, RED CROSS (2003) {*6}, a mixture of revamped golden-era takes of Irving Berlin’s `I Remember’ and `Gershwin’s `Summertime’, side by side with the avant-garde pieces such as `Untitled With Rain’ (all 24 minutes of it!). FAHEY was a law unto himself, never frightened to challenge even his own ideals and re-inventing himself many times over in the process – a true genius.
© MC Strong 2010-GFD // rev-up MCS May2013

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