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John Fahey, 1939-2001
The first time I talked to John Fahey, he was in no mood for an interview. My long-distance phone call was keeping the Takoma Park transplant from dishwashing chores at the Salem, Ore., shelter where he lived in the early ’90s.
I told him I was writing a story on bluesman Skip James. I wanted to know more about how he’d scoured the Delta for Jamesa ghost beckoning from battered old 78s Fahey heard as a teen in D.C.before finding him in a Mississippi hospital bed in 1964.
Fahey seemed perturbed that James was the subject of my piece instead of him. I couldn’t much blame him. After all, Byron Coley’s 1994 Spin story on Fahey had just been publisheda profile that would ultimately resurrect the guitarist’s career, much in the same way that Fahey’s “discovery” of James and other forgotten bluesmen gave them a second chance and a new audience during the ’60s blues revival. For now, though, Fahey was just another down-and-outer with kitchen duties at the Union Charity Mission: not the best place for a warm chat about the good ol’ days. Even so, I was hoping to hear a stirring anecdote or two about the wide-eyed acolyte meeting the wise old master.
“I didn’t like him, and he didn’t like me,” Fahey said flatly, adding that he had footed the bill that enabled the destitute 62-year-old to check out of the hospital: “I bought Skip James for $200.”
As I was to learn, this response was classic Faheycontentious, cantankerous, and straight to the heart of the matter. No mincing of words, no romanticizing, and no apologies: The rage and tormented melancholy that made James so compelling on record wasn’t so charming in person. “I expected to find something interesting and enlightening,” Fahey later wrote. “But instead, all I found was this obnoxious, bitter, hateful old creep.” Others would call this a harsh judgment, but most would agree that James was a major head casejust like Fahey. “They both had big egos,” recalled an acquaintance of both James and Fahey. “Skippy pretty much expected hero worship, which he pretty much got from most everybody, but Fahey was a pretty arrogant person.”
When it was his turn to be rediscovered, Fahey seized the opportunity, and his second career proved far more fruitful than James’, who succumbed to cancer in 1969. In the brief span before his own death, at 61, on Feb. 22, Fahey effectively established his legacy on his own terms, not only as a performer but as a writer and a record-label owner; in whatever guise, he remained a staunch champion of the music that had changed his life back in the ’50s. (For the best single collection of his writings, see How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, his memoir of rants and reminiscences.) As much as any single person, Fahey advanced a persuasive case that the blues, jazz, and hillbilly performers of the ’20s and ’30s created the most vital and enduring American music of the past century.
Considering his early-’90s predicament, Fahey’s comeback was an unlikely one. After years of battling chronic fatigue syndrome, alcoholism, and diabetes, he dropped out of the music business, even living out of his car for a spell. “Byron’s story was how I found out that Fahey was still alive,” says Dean Blackwood, who co-founded the Revenant label with Fahey. “I had been a fan of his music, but I had no idea of what had become of him. I just assumed he was one of the casualties of the music who disappeared and died penniless.”
A 78 enthusiast and law-school student, Blackwood contacted Fahey in late 1994, and the two hit it off, plotting to launch a reissue label of “American raw music,” Fahey’s term for the work of a wide array of visionary iconoclasts, from Dock Boggs to Captain Beefheart to Ornette Coleman. When Fahey’s father left him an inheritance, he sank the money into Revenant. The label’s 1997 Boggs set is typical of Revenant’s exacting standards: a definitive CD of the banjoist’s early work, encased in an exquisitely produced, 64-page text- and photo-crammed hardbound book with the antiquated look and feel of a priceless heirloom.
Meanwhile, Fahey started performing again. But instead of latching onto the neo-folk revival he’d helped to spark, he opened shows for noise merchants such as Sonic Youth and Cul de Sac at rock clubs, far from the coffeehouse circuit of his heyday. Now wielding an electric guitar, he presented new material reveling in distortion and industrial clatter, refusing requests from ponytailed grayhairs who wanted to hear Takoma John fingerpick the old songs. (Like another reluctant icon of ’60s counterculture, Robert Crumb, Fahey was an ardent hippie-hater.)
During his resurgence and up until his death, Fahey resided in a series of motels in Salem. His nomadic, nonmaterialist ways were in keeping with the man Blackwood knew: “John was an essentialist, and the only thing essential to him was his arthis writing and his musicand everything else was just a distraction.”
Unlike his fellow record collectors, Fahey had no interest in records as objects of obsession. “I have this kind of unhealthy fetishistic relation with 78s,” says Blackwood, speaking for many of his cohorts. “But he was a collector of the music, not the records. He would tape the ones he liked and trade ’em or sell ’em. He internalized the music and incorporated it into his own work. For years, he didn’t have a single 78 in his possession, and when he died, he had zero.”
It was record collecting that led me to call on Fahey again, in 1998, when I was working on a story about Joe Bussard, whose stash of rare 78s rivals any in the world (“Desperate Man Blues,” 2/12/99). Bussard and Fahey had been pals in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and Fahey still regarded Bussard as a kindred spirit in rebellion against mainstream pop culture. This time, Fahey proved as amiable as an old friend, brimming with insights and lacing his comments with his signature savage wit. He talked about the salad days of his record canvassing, when the city of his youth bore little resemblance to the present-day version: “Prior to ’55, Washington, D.C., was a city of Southern culture, like Richmond. So was Baltimore. So, from a cultural point of view, until all the goddamned government workers moved in from strange, horrible Northern places like Ohio and Minnesota and took over, there was a lot of Southeastern folk music, live and canned, black and white, all over the place.”
Best of all, there were 78s for the picking, because television had relegated the Victrolas to the attic, along with any old shellac discs that had escaped the garbage bin. It was the thrill of the hunt that gripped Fahey most, and he rattled off the precise locations of memorable finds: “Canvassing in and around Washington and Baltimore, as far north as Havre de Grace and even Philadelphia, I found hundreds of hillbilly and race records. A copy of ‘God Moves on the Water’Cherry Avenue, Takoma Park. Stump Johnson on Paramount doing ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You’ and ‘West End Blues’ by Louis [Armstrong]. Some Riley Puckett records right outside the Takoma Park Library. Down the creek, I found several Amy Smith OKehs. On Richie Avenue East, I found a Kokomo Arnold record and the Carter Family doing ‘When the Roses Bloom Again in Dixieland.’ See what I mean? I could go on and on like this.”
At first, Fahey was strictly a bluegrass fanatic. His parents took him to hillbilly concerts at the New River Ranch in Rising Sun, Md., and he caught the bug upon hearing Bill Monroe’s “Blue Yodel No. 7” on Don Owens’ show on WARL-AM. Soon after, he started picking Lester Flatt runs on a Sears guitar, but a meeting with record collectorand current WAMU-FM DJDick Spottswood opened up his musical horizons.
Two years older than Fahey, Spottswood had immersed himself in the country blues after finding a copy of Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” at an Adams Morgan record shop for $1. On a 1956 canvassing expedition to east Baltimore, the pair made a nice haul and went back to Spottswood’s, where they listened to their loot, including a beat-up copy of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Praise God I’m Satisfied.” Fahey wasn’t interested in black music at the time, recalls Spottswood, and he dismissed the record as “some crude, weird shit” and went home. “A couple hours later, John calls me up and says, ‘Would you play that record again?’ So I played it for him over the phone, and he said, ‘I’ve changed my mindI really like it.’ So that was his particular epiphany.” (Fahey later said that the record at first nauseated him and then made him weep; he compared it to a conversion experience: Johnson’s one-two punch of salvation and slide guitar left Fahey “smote to the ground by a bolt of lightning.”)
Not long after, when the 20-year-old Fahey showed up at Bussard’s place in Frederick, Md., he had transformed himself into a blues guitarist. Bussard had a makeshift recording studio in the basement of his parents’ house, and he’d begun issuing 78scustom-made on a secondhand disc-cutting machineon his own Fonotone label. Under the name Blind Thomas, Fahey recorded scores of Fonotone 78s, which Bussard peddled to the collectors’ market without revealing that the performer was actually a recent grad of Hyattsville’s Northwestern High School now studying philosophy at American University.
Though it began as somewhat of a lark, the Blind Thomas material reveals Fahey the musician already in full bloom, ransacking old blues and country songs for ideas to flesh out his excursions and meditations. Several tracks feature the only singing by Fahey ever captured on record, as he growls like his hero Charley Patton about “Kierkegaard, and Jean-Paul Sartre, and Schopenhauerthey all got the blues.” (Truth be told, Fahey made a wise decision to forge ahead strictly as an instrumentalist.) Bussard labeled the Blind Thomas songs “authentic Negro folk music” in his mail-order catalog, and few buyers were the wiser. The records are now as rare and collectible as the early 78s they were modeled after. A batch of mint copies recently sold at auction for $700 each.
“American primitive guitar” was what Fahey called his music, and this is the most primitive, raw, and instinctual work he left behind: a former understudy announcing his freedom from mere homage. What you also hear is Fahey’s attraction to the mystery and drama of the blues, and his attempt to illuminateor at least to confrontthe suffering and sense of dread he heard on those Blind Willie Johnson and Patton 78s.
In addition to the solo turns (which Fahey titled “Songs of Old Takoma”), there are also some recordings of shuffle-band tunes with Fahey in a small-group setting. The Fonotone sides are a blueprint for Fahey’s entire career, especially in the brooding approach that would make him famous a few years later as Blind Joe Death. “These records are crucial to understanding Fahey,” says Blackwood, who plans to rerelease the entire Fonotone catalog next year. Fahey was dismissive of these early recordings, telling Blackwood a few months ago, “You can put out the Fonotones after I’m dead.” Says Blackwood, “He didn’t want us wasting Revenant time and money on his old stuff while he was around.”
Blackwood says that Revenant will first forge on with a pet project of Fahey’s: a seven-CD set of Patton’s complete recordings. For Fahey and many country-blues fanatics, Patton is the most important bluesman of allthe real King of the Delta Blues Singerswith Robert Johnson and the rest mere pretenders to the throne. Besides gathering all of Patton’s own work, the set will also feature all the sessions he played on. The package includes a reprint of Fahey’s 1970 book on Patton (originally published in England and long out of print) and new liner notes by Spottswood and others, all housed in a “78 album” box. “This was Fahey’s dream project for 40 years,” says Blackwood. “I feel like I’m on a mission now, to complete this Patton set like John wanted.”
Fahey was creating new material right up until the end and had recently recorded four CDs’ worth of demos, including originals and songs by George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. “He does this great version of ‘Summertime’ on electric guitar, real languid and spacious, giving every note time to decay,” says Blackwood. “He played it for me over the phone, and I could feel the hairs on my head standing up. And there are some other acoustic pieces where he reverts to the old thumb- and fingerpicking style of days of yore.”
The old days were very much on Fahey’s mind during his recent hospitalization, as he awaited a coronary bypass operation. On the night before his surgery, he and Blackwood had a long phone conversation: “He had a realistic outlookthat he might not come out on the other side. One of the things he mentioned wanting to do if he recovered was to go to D.C. and hang out with Spottswood and Bussard and other old friends. I had never heard him express anything like that before. But I didn’t feel like it came from any kind of desperate place. He seemed to legitimately be reflecting: ‘Maybe I’d like to reignite some connections I had with people.’ He had been in a kind of self-imposed isolation.”
Isolation, self-imposed or not, was central to Fahey’s art, epitomized in his chosen form: the solo guitar. The sense of exile and alienation was what he identified with in his heroes, loners such as Patton, restless revenants doomed to drift forever in a universe beyond their comprehension. In his memoir, Fahey described attending a Hank Williams show during one of local promoter Connie B. Gay’s riverboat excursions, which plied the Potomac from D.C. upriver to Maryland. Williams showed up drunk and berated the audience: “Why don’t y’all go straight to hell?” Fahey was hoping to hear his favorite Hank song, “The Singing Waterfall,” but instead Williams played “Alone and Forsaken,” in Fahey’s words, “the most distressing desolation song” ever written.
“Even though he’s living in the desert and life is hell without her and hears wild dogs and senses the coming of the Apocalypse,” Fahey wrote, “he sang ‘Oh where has she gone to, where can she be/She may be forsaken by another like me.’ Hank is worried about her! This sentiment I have never heard anyone else sing….After the downriver show was over the boat stopped at Marshall Hall Amusement Park and dropped anchor for a couple of hours. My friends and I knew we couldn’t get backstage to see Hank. We were too young. So we walked ashore and went looking for girls.” CP
A funeral service was held for Fahey in Salem, Ore., on Friday, March 2, two days after his 62nd birthday.