Guitar Visionary: A New Documentary About John Fahey

In Search of Blind Joe Death: the Saga of John Fahey

The enigmatic guitarist John Fahey, the subject of a new one-hour documentary, was an early icon of idiosyncratic and independent music making, and he was a hero of fans of long-lost American roots music. The film, In Search of Blind Joe Death: the Saga of John Fahey, explores his life, career and legacy. Decades before numerous fringe characters started their own record labels in the ‘80s, Fahey had trod that ground, co-founding Takoma Records in 1959 to release his own recordings as well as albums by country blues artist Bukka White and others. Fahey, who died in 2001, helped re-discover White, who hadn’t recorded in over 20 years. Fahey also palled around with Joe Bussard, a legendary collector of old-time, country blues, and obscure-78 rpm records. The two made rowdy home recordings at Bussard’s Maryland home, and, like Bussard, Fahey also roamed the country looking for old 78s. Fahey was particularly infatuated with the music of Delta blues guitarist Charley Patton, whose raw style and wide-ranging repertoire was the subject of Fahey’s masters’ thesis at UCLA.

John Fahey.

John Fahey.

If the American folk music revival had its share of pious and studious practitioners — white city kids who approached the music of the rural South with a mixture of veneration and exotic fascination, Fahey brought a touch of irreverence to the scene, though he had an academic framework for his work. Harry Smith assembled 1952’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of old nearly forgotten 78 records from the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, deploying scholarly focus and research while stamping the project with his own peculiar sense of humor. Those records inspired countless young folkies. Like Smith, Fahey had a trickster side. In Fahey’s solo debut for Takoma he recorded one side of music under his own name and another under the name of Blind Joe Death, a winking homage to the numerous legendary blind blues guitarists he fashioned his playing after — like Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson and others. (“I thought it would be a good joke,” Fahey says in the film.) Later in his life Fahey helped form Revenant Record, which released deluxe sets of obscure gospel blues, Charley Patton in addition to completing some of Smith’s anthology projects..

But Fahey’s music wasn’t merely a studious replica of the giants of Piedmont, Texas country, and Delta blues, though he could admirably emulate those styles. Fahey used open tunings, drones, raspy slides, surprising dissonances, and intricate finger picking. His music sounds steeped in raga, country blues, and 20th century classical music, among many other things. There are hypnotic, cyclical repetitions, with slowly mutating patterns reminiscent of minimalist compositions played on a buzzy six-string. (Evidently he was later a big Rod Stewart fan! Though one might be hard pressed to hear the influence.)

“I think of myself as a classical guitar player, but I’m categorized as a folk musician,” Fahey told one interviewer.

As the documentary makes clear, just the idea that one guy could get up on stage with a single slide guitar on his lap to play a show — with no singing — was almost revolutionary.

Among Fahey’s admirers who appear in the film is the Who’s Pete Townsend. The two corresponded some in the ‘60s, and Fahey sent Townsend a note of mixed approval over some aspect of the Who’s Tommy, though Townsend deduced that Fahey didn’t much like the rock opera. Townsend points out that Fahey had the raw energy that many young British musicians looked to American music for. Like Townsend, Fahey’s relationship with music and creativity was bound up somewhat in the torments of his childhood.

Fahey’s father was a pedophile, and not much more on the subject, other than that fact, is discussed in the film, though Fahey refers to years of psychoanalysis and his understanding that being scared of his own family made him, by extension, scared of other people in general. He ties both his creative pursuits and his problems with substance abuse to this formative trauma.

“You compensate with drugs and booze, and then you got trouble, and that’s the way it goes,” says Fahey. “I think the guitar helped keep me from going nuts when I was 14, 16, 17, 18, 19 etc. You know, I could sit around and bang on the guitar instead of banging on someone else.”

Fahey was also something of a proto-punk in his seeming indifference to the quality of his instrument. (He’s shown ashing a cigarette into the sound hole of one guitar.)

Toward the end of his life Fahey ran into more health problems related to drinking and drug abuse. He retreated from recording and touring, viewing his career as occasional playing for a real niche audience, doing just enough to support himself. As a new generation of young musicians embraced him, Fahey turned more to noise and amplification. He also started painting, all of which were in keeping with his primitivist style.

Some of the most captivating footage in the film is from an early TV appearance, where Fahey seems stones or drunk, smoking a cigarette and playing an acoustic in his lap. As he plays, his poise and focus are intense and almost at odds with his flip proto-hipster demeanor. One wishes the film might have found more footage of Fahey playing and talking specifically about his approach, but one senses Fahey actively avoided such disclosures, preferring instead to retain the air mystery — and potential for joking absurdity — around his work.

The Fahey documentary is frequently shown with another one-hour film about a different guitar innovator, Nels Cline, most famous for his work with the band Wilco. Cline is a skilled and versatile sideman, able to play tasteful bluesy licks or to shred, but also an adept maker of frantic guitar noise, attacking the strings with fingers, arms, slides and sticks in seeming fits of electric energy. His arsenal of effects can smear or alter his sound, taking the tinny and making at boom, layering harmonizations, pitch bendings, fazer treatments and all kinds of other modifications. There’s a lot of footage of Cline and some of his collaborators in side projects making eclectic, hyper free improv-fueled music. A listener sometimes feels like one is being sonicly strafed, sprayed with electronic spit, or being made to watch some kind of convulsive fit as if it were a thing of beauty. This is a kind of playing that is a celebration of freedom more easily appreciated by those making it than by those on the listening end. It’s not for everyone.