The Transfiguration of John Fahey – Nothing Primitive Around Here
When you take an overview of any form of modern music, or music in general, for that matter, it seems that some form of eccentricity is a prerogative. Not only for good stories to tell or write about, but first and foremost for exceptional music.
Late, great John Fahey (2001), maverick guitarist, composer, painter, writer, record label owner and a few other things in between is no exception. Shying from the limelight (which he didn’t get), but not from being revered (which he did get), he is responsible for actually starting a few musical genres based on musical forms that preceded him or of which he was a direct part of — re-discovering and discovering a number of influential artists, writing an influential master thesis on the blues, starting two influential record labels, surviving on his painting skills, and having his own dedicated page on a number of online quote pages.
Well, when I made my first record, I thought that it would be a good joke to have me on one side, John Fahey on one side, and this guy Blind Joe Death on the other side.
Along with all of that he brought along a hefty dose of eccentricity. From planting 78 rpm copies of his first album Blind Joe Death (1959) in used record stores and fooling quite a few self-proclaimed connoisseurs at the time, to tipping ashes of his burning cigarette into the opening of the acoustic guitar he was about to play on during a live TV interview. And that is not even a tip of a needle, let alone an iceberg.
How can I be folk, I’m from the suburbs, you know.
Along with eccentricity and painting, there was one more thing he shared with another comparable music figure – Captain Beefheart. It was serious illnesses. Fahey suffers from Epstein-Barr Syndrome, which he did overcome, but he was also a diabetic, something which his chronic alcoholism certainly aggravated, and accelerated his premature demise.
“American Primitive Guitar”
Certainly one of the reasons Fahey was able to fool old blues aficionados with his first album was the fact that he was such a fervent follower and collector of all music. And while he was concentrating on folklore developed musical styles, anything modern or classical did not escape him – if it was good. And Fahey both had the ear and sensibility to make such a distinction.
That is why it is no surprise that he started out as one of the early practitioners of independent music production and release. His Takoma Records was not only the vehicle for Fahey’s music but also for the resurrection and bringing to light of such blues greats such as Bukka White and Skip James, but also of the names that were new to the ’60s like Mike Bloomfield and Leo Kotkke.
The other thing in composition is opening up the unconscious.
It was actually the wish of a big label, Chrysalis to acquire Kotkke, that pried Takoma Records out of Fahey’s hands – the big label realized that it was cheaper for it to buy Takoma, to whom Kotkke owed one more album, than getting the artist out of his recording contract. A typical Fahey way of ‘doing business,’ or not doing it for that matter. Later on in his career, Fahey was instrumental in forming Revenant Records, which now stands as one of his legacies, still operating and currently being, among other things, one of the best reissue labels around. But it is Fahey’s guitar style, or to be precise, styles, where his greatest legacy stands. He named his finger picking “American Primitive Guitar” – an acoustic style with different open tunings, use of modal scales, and practically perfect technique that was based an all American (and World) music forms It’s a name that still stands to this day and is used to label not only Fahey, but all that picked up on it (and that number is countless).
Of course, the name is something Fahey came up with in his standard left-field style, and there is nothing primitive about it. Nor can it in any manner be labeled ‘naive,’ something that has been associated with the painting style of Henri Rousseau or Ivan Generalic, and something that Fahey stayed away from when he himself took up painting. What it can be named is sophisticated, intricate, and exhilarating; which certainly does not end the list of superlatives. He never repeated himself, even when playing live, he never tried to replicate his studio recordings, always adding at least one nuance to a down theme. Compare, for example, his interpretation of “The Sunny Side of the Ocean” on the studio original (The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death) or at least two live versions (Live In Tasmania (1981) and On Air (2005 recorded in 1978).
Almost none of Fahey’s work truly sold or hit a wider audience, even in his heyday during the ’60s and early ’70s. It wasn’t the iconic The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death (1965), or Requia & Other Compositions for Guitar Solo (1967), that exemplify his “American Primitive Guitar” or let alone his more experimental material like The Yellow Princess (1969). Nor his latter-day works like City of Refuge (1997) and Womblife (1997), where Fahey goes into the terrain of modern classical (even musique concrete), and ambient.
What did bring Fahey something to survive on was a series of Christmas albums that started off in 1968 with The New Possibility. That album sold well over a few hundred thousand copies, something Fahey tried to replicate later on (and did). But what is specific with Fahey’s take on the ‘festive’ musical material is that he actually takes everything festive out of it and concentrates on the essence of spiritual elements involved, and it seems the audience got it.
I was looking for people from southern musical culture, and now these people are looking for me.
More or less something Fahey said two years before his death on his following and becoming a musical source for musicians like Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Jim O’Rourke (who produced his Womblife album). At that time he was living in a run-down motel in Salem, Oregon, as he put it, “between nowhere and no place,” during a period which could be called Fahey’s ‘last hurrah’ as his illnesses and alcoholism greatly impaired his playing dexterity. But he was obviously experiencing a resurgence and re-discovery of sorts, as more current musicians started to recognize all he gave. That included his master thesis on John Patton, one of the true initial sources of blues music, and defended at Berkley.
“The Dean Dub”
Even though he was playing and recording with Moore, O’Rourke, and Cul De Sac, one of the initial post-rockers, Fahey was actually surviving on his painting, which is still commanding hefty prices in galleries across the US. As far as his latter-day solo recordings are concerned, they tend to appear on Bandcamp and elsewhere from cassette tapes that Fahey sent around to friends, followers, and people he appreciated, along with some artwork he prepared.
As for fame, it can go to your head and you can become full of yourself.
Whether Fahey intentionally shied away from ‘success’ is a debatable thing, he himself, in one of his famous quotes said – “from a social perspective, I am looking for friends, not acolytes.” But his musical, visual, verbal, and even eccentric legacy remain, as they should be.