John Fahey, 1939–2001
“I remember Bob Brozman sayin’ that any modern guitar player, contemporary guitar player, that plays finger-style country blues-influenced guitar who says he’s not influenced by John Fahey is a bullshit artist,” was bluesman Steve James’ response to the query whether he had listened to the work of John Fahey.
I was turned on to John Fahey in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1965 by a guitar-playing folk singer whose apartment, in a two-story frame house on Mellen Street a block from the Harvard University campus, was next to my first floor flat. This was Bill “Millhouse” Nixon, who died in the mid-1980s in Los Angeles. Bill liked to sit on the front steps of the house, drink wine, and play and sing as passersby paused and listened. Bill told me that he had composed a song about a blind man and dropped by Club 47 in Harvard Square during a gig of Doc Watson and played it for him backstage. Doc, who was blind, asked him, “Now why would you write a song like that?”
Anyway, before the initial track of the first of Millhouse’s John Fahey Takoma label LPs had ended I was a stone fan of this extraordinary guitarist. I beat feet, as we use to say, down to the Harvard Coop that afternoon and bought the several Fahey albums they had in stock. Over the decades I acquired most of his recordings.
In 1973 my brother Bill, who had become a Fahey fan via my LPs, took my wife Erika, his son William, and me to a John Fahey concert in George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. John sat onstage in a straight-back chair and blew the audience away with the virtuosity, originality, and sheer beauty of his playing. Departing the hall, we encountered a friend of mine in the lobby who invited us to the ashram he was a resident of, explaining that Fahey, who he said was into yoga and meditation, would be there. “He might play,” my friend added. We followed his car to a substantial dwelling on Military Road in North West Washington, D.C.
Ushered into the living room of the house, we joined the circle seated on the floor, held hands, and chanted with the others. Conversation soon ensued and my friend called across the circle, “Royal here has a radio show on which he plays jazz records, John.” This sparked Fahey’s interest and he asked, “What jazz do you play?” I told him that I had a Saturday morning radio show called “I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say . . . .” and played, for example, early jazz like King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and bands and combos of the Swing Era. “Oh, you play the good jazz!” Fahey responded. My brother Bill had long puzzled over what could be the significance of a dog barking during one tune on a Fahey LP and so he asked John about that. “Well, I recorded that album at a friend’s house and his dog barked,” John replied. “So I stopped playing until he had finished and then started again.” He did not play his guitars at the ashram and my opportunity to again see him perform did not come for another five years.
I was fortunate to not only again see John Fahey in performance but to interview him for an hour or so in the upstairs band room of the long defunct Cellar Door, Washington, D.C., late in the afternoon of June 11, 1978. He was doing a one-night stand at the club and his father, Al Fahey, who lived in Rockville, Maryland, a D.C. suburb, was present and occasionally contributed to the discussion. John was beginning to string and tune his guitars as the conversation commenced. I recall providing him my nail clipper to cut the surplus string and when I said he could keep the tool he thanked me profusely. John and I sat on the floor and his father in a chair. I turned my tape recorder on and opened the interview with the question, “How do you feel about being referred to as a blues player?”
“I play some blues here and there, blues-like music,” he answered, “but I really don’t know how to categorize my music as a whole, because I play so many different kinds of pieces and I even mix up within one piece two or three or four or five different traditions. It’s very eclectic. About the only thing I can say is I write almost all of it myself.”
I asked John to speak of his beginnings and, in particular, to recount how he, while working on a Master Degree in folklore at UCLA in the early 1960s, had rediscovered Bukka White.
“I was looking for a lot of these old musicians,” he explained, “and I figured some of them, some of them were still alive. Booker White had made a record in the thirties called ‘Aberdeen Mississippi Blues,’ so I wrote a postcard to ‘Booker T. Washington White, Jr., Old Blues Singer,’ care of General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi, just a postcard saying, ‘Dear Mr. White, If we can locate you and you can still perform as you did on such-and-such recording sessions, in the 1930s, we will pay you one hundred dollars merely to get in touch with us.’ Well, two or three months later I got a reply from Memphis. What turned out was one of Booker’s cousins worked in the Aberdeen post office and forwarded it to Booker. And then we went down and recorded him.”
“John comes by music naturally,” Al Fahey observed. “We always had a musical house. John at one time started to learn the clarinet and he also started to learn the piano.”
“Well, you and Mom both played the piano pretty well,” John interrupted.
“Yes, and I played the trumpet and we always had good classical music around the house.”
“No-o-o, you didn’t! You had schmaltz! You liked schmaltz and Mom liked swing band, Tommy Dorsey and stuff.”
“I used to ask his mother to play ‘Prelude in C-sharp Minor.’ She would do that and then she would play ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King.’ She was really an accomplished pianist. I don’t say that people are born with the ability, but environmentally John certainly was acclimated to it.”
“Now, my mother liked blues. Every afternoon, there was this show she listened to over a Washington, D.C., radio station and the theme song was ‘Nightmare’ by Woody Herman, and you want to hear a blues –. I liked swing band music very much. Actually what happened, toward the end of the ’40s, especially in the ’50s, white mainstream pop music got pret-t-ty schmaltzy, pretty bad, and I saw this movie The Thief of Bagdad in 1948, and it had full orchestra in the background and it was imitation Debussy, Bartok, and so forth, and I flipped out over this music.”
“He certainly flipped, he made me take him at least five times to see it!”
“Then I started listening to the NBC Symphony on Saturday and the New York Phil on Sunday. See, I thought if I listened long enough I would hear the music they played in this movie Thief of Baghdad. When it came back in ’52 I could read well enough to see that it’s an original musical score by Miklós Rózsa, who’s a Hungarian-born Hollywood composer. I continued to listen to classical music and then about ’55, ’56 I got interested, briefly, in country/western, and one day over WRAL, Don Owens, the disc jockey, said, ‘I’m going to play a very old record for you folks, ‘Blue Yodel Number 7’ by Bill Monroe. I mean, all the blues I’d ever heard was in Woody Herman, all the syncopation I’d ever heard was in Count Basie. I just flipped out. So I went to the record store, said, ‘Do you have this record?’ and they said, ‘No, it’s out of print, you have to find a record collector.’ Shortly thereafter I found Dick Spottswood and he had it and we became friends. And, really, Dick Spottswood, from then on, was my musical guru.
“We got these old Blind Blake records,” John says of his earliest attempts to teach himself to play the guitar,” and it was easy enough to figure out what these guys were doing. I wasn’t coming up with great approximations of what they were doing, any more than anybody else was, but I was learning the chord progressions and some of the licks and stuff like that. And due to the fact that I had so much listening between ’48 and ’52 of this classical music, I also started to write these extended pieces with folk tunes and occasional folk progressions and syncopation. They were really like little tone poems, and that’s what I’ve really never stopped doing.
“Later on I started collecting old 78s in the South, going door to door. After going all he way to Tennessee and Mississippi, one Sunday I thought, I think I’ll try canvassing around here in my own neighborhood. I did the whole town of Takoma Park in one day. I found Blind Willie Johnson records, Stump Johnson, Charlie Patton, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver. Then I discovered that we had several — white and black — old folk musicians, who played this three-finger guitar style, and also banjo, fiddle, right there in Takoma Park. See, where we lived then, it was a southern culture. Maryland was not a Confederate state in the war but the culture was southern, and the music was, too.
“I discovered that some of these guys could not be playing in what you call standard tuning, and so I tried to find out why in the hell are they doing that! I mean, I had seen people using steel bars on Grand Ole Opry, but I didn’t know the tunings, and also the old Negro recordings where they did that sounded quite different. I had figured out some of the tunings, like Spanish tuning, but I couldn’t really do it, and then I became friends with Elizabeth Cotten. By the time I met Elizabeth I could already play really about anything she knew. She was this old black lady, and she’s still alive. She played guitar and sang and she was very good, wrote ‘Freight Train.’ I used to take her to parties, because I was so unpopular, you know, no white girls would go with me, or anybody my age, so I would take Elizabeth Cotten to parties. She liked it, she liked to trade songs. We’d all sit around and trade songs. So one night I showed her this open tuning and I said, ‘Elizabeth, I know this is the tuning, but how do you know where to put the steel bar?’ And she said, ‘Well, I can’t play it any more, I used to, but I can show you where to put it.’ And I caught the trick right away. It was just a simple trick, but it’d taken me three years workin’ on it myself and I had never gotten it. She showed me in a minute and then I had it.”
At this point John, who had during the interview quaffed a couple of cognacs provided him by the club management, announced that he was going to dinner. I removed to my car around the corner and ate the sandwich and piece of cake I had brought along for my meal, drank my thermos of coffee, and returned to the Cellar Door in time for the first of John Fahey’s two sets. He played brilliantly to the packed club, remarking on what had inspired some of the tunes, switching to a lap-top dobro for several numbers, took a brief break after an hour, and returned for a second set, adding an encore at its conclusion. When he finished this a waiter brought him a cognac a patron had sprung for. So John did another number. Again, the waiter supplied him with a cognac. Memory fades all these years later but I think he continued playing, with stunning control and creativity, downing successive cognacs, for about a half hour after the end of that second set.
John Fahey died on February 22, 2001. John Pareles, summarizing Fahey’s early style in his New York Times obituary of him, said that his performed compositions embraced “the modalities of raga along with dissonances not found in country or blues” and that he used “unconventional tunings and turned some traditional picking patterns backward. He also experimented with tape collages, often to the annoyance of folk fans. Though hippie listeners may have heard his music as psychedelic, he was a bourbon drinker.”
That 1972 Lisner concert and our meeting John at the ashram marked a sober period for Fahey, who had long suffered from alcoholism. He spent some time at a Hindu monastery in India at this time and his 1973 album Fare Forward Voyager was dedicated to a guru.
John’s life fell apart in the late 1980s. He divorced his third wife, Melody, his drinking increased, he lost his house, and he suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome and diabetes. He lived at the Union Charity Mission in Salem, Oregon, for a while and sometimes camped out in his car. He supported himself by selling used classical records to collectors and even pawned his guitars.
In the 1990s alternative rock musicians sought out Fahey and he gave up drinking and released five albums, continuing to experiment with electric and lap steel guitars and using electronic effects.
In a January 19, 1997 New York Times review and interview, “A 60’s Original With a New Life on the Fringe, Ben Ratliff reported: “His old fans barely recognized the odd creature on stage one recent evening at the Empty Bottle, a rock club near downtown. At 57, Mr. Fahey is puffy, and his white beard and sunglasses hide his face. He finished a blues dirge by simply coming to a stop and shrugging. His new fans are used to being puzzled; this was a young, intellectual audience who knew that Soundgarden was playing in an arena across town but were too hip for that. It is Mr. Fahey’s moment as he rides back into view as an avant-garde father figure.”
Ratliff added, “Of his old fans . . . request[ing] his old music, [Fahey said], ‘I don’t talk to them. . . . If they keep it up, I tell them: ‘Look, if you want to live in the past, go live in the past. But don’t try and take us with you.’ These days he listens to clattering industrial-rock bands like Einsturzende Neubauten and uses some of their sounds — along with train and factory noises — in his own recorded collages.”
In an undated interview with guitarist, producer, educator, and long-time friend Stefan Grossman a few years before he died, John explains where he came from as he got serious about playing the guitar: “The more I played the guitar the more I began to really love the guitar and to love virtually any kind of music that anybody played well on guitar. In the music I was composing I was trying to express my emotions, my so called negative emotions, which were depression, anger and so forth.” John goes on to talk of his early history, his influences, his “finger picking pattern,” that he was “getting more and more into jazz and alternative stuff,” and “doing Tuvan singing,” and other stages of his artistic development.
When Grossman asks how he feels about his old fans asking him to play as he did decades ago, John says, “Well I do feel a little dragged by that because I’d prefer to do what I’m doing at the time but I also realize that you have to keep a lot of those songs in your repertoire and up to practice. Any professional musician realizes that keeps them around. And keeps trying to get the audience to go forward with them, but they don’t always want to go, but that’s OK.”
It is a very interesting interview, well worth checking out.
John Jeremiah Sullivan, in “Unknown Bards: The blues becomes transparent about itself” (Harper’s Magazine, November 2008), reviews two books on the blues and a release of Revenant Records, which Fahey co-founded a few years before he died. The article contains an account of an interview Sullivan did with Fahey a year or so before he died and many acute observations on the guitarist’s art and life.
John Fahey’s recordings continue to give me much listening pleasure.