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John Fahey: Age 61
February 22, 2001
Bypass Surgery

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photo by Tim Knight

 
John Fahey
  OBITUARY
  BIOGRAPHY
  LINKS
  DISCOGRAPHY --Amazon
  BOOKS--How Bluegrass Destroyed My Life by John Fahey
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GORDON'S CD PICK: Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes
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OBITUARY

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

GUITAR INNOVATOR JOHN FAHEY DIES AT 61

Guitarist John Fahey, whose eccentric acoustic stylings influenced a generation of musicians, died this morning at Salem Hospital in Salem, OR after undergoing a sextuple bypass operation 48 hours previously.

John Fahey was born on February 28, 1939 in Takoma Park, MD. His father played popular songs on the piano and Irish harp, and his mother was also a pianist. John spent his youth raising wood turtles and fishing in the Susquehawa River and upper Chesapeake Bay. On Sundays the family went to the New River Ranch in nearby Rising Sun, MD where they heard the top country and hillbilly groups of the day, like Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers. On a fishing trip in 1952 John met a black singer and guitarist named Frank Hovington, whose fingerpicking style so intrigued John that he bought his first guitar soon thereafter, a Sears Roebuck model that cost him $17.00, and started teaching himself to play.

After getting a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion from American University, Fahey moved to Berkeley, CA in 1963, where he established his own label, Takoma Records, and began his long recording career. The following year he moved to Los Angeles, got an M.A. in Folklore and Mythology from UCLA, and was instrumental in the rediscovery of blues artists Skip James and Bukka White. He expanded the Takoma label to include fellow guitarists Leo Kottke and Peter Lang, among many others, and New Age pioneer George Winston was another whose early career was nourished by the quirky innovator. In recent years the Takoma catalog has been purchased by Fantasy Records of Berkeley, CA, and Fahey's Takoma LPs are now being systematically reissued on CD. Bill Belmont at Fantasy calls Fahey "A true American musical genius."

Although Fahey preferred to be known as an American primitivist, he was widely acknowledged as the "godfather of the New Age guitar movement," and his recordings (over thirty albums for a wide variety of labels) showcased his ongoing musical explorations. Several were sonic explorations in the alternative music vein, and all had exotic titles (a 19-minute excursion was called "On the Death and Disembowelment of the New Age," while another was called "Old Girlfriends and Other Disasters." At the same time, he never lost his early love for traditional and roots music forms, and during the early 1990s he formed another record label, Revenant, to reissue classic recordings of early blues and old time music. At the time of his death he had just completed a new album.    

   
     

NY TIMES

       
John Fahey, 61, Guitarist and an Iconoclast, Dies at 61

By JON PARELES

John Fahey, a guitarist who carved out a private corner of Americana only to see it become a foundation of new age music, died on Thursday at Salem Hospital in Salem, Ore., after undergoing sextuple heart bypass surgery, said Mitch Greenhill, the president of Folklore Productions and Mr. Fahey's executor. Mr. Fahey was 61 and lived in Salem.

Playing a six-string acoustic guitar, Mr. Fahey used country-blues fingerpicking and hymnlike melodies in stately pieces with classical structures. Wordless and unhurried, his music became a contemplation and an elegy, a stoic invocation of American roots, nameless musicians and ancestral memories. Behind its serene surface, the music was both stubborn and haunted.

"I was creating for myself an imaginary, beautiful world and pretending that I lived there, but I didn't feel beautiful," Mr. Fahey said in an interview with The Wire magazine in 1998. "I was mad but I wasn't aware of it. I was also very sad, afraid and lonely."

From the beginning, he was an iconoclast and a maverick. He started two independent labels. In 1959 he founded Takoma Records, which released his own albums, blues albums and recordings by other guitarists including Leo Kottke. And in 1995, he and his manager started Revenant Records, dedicated to what it called American Primitive music.

Although he didn't sing or write lyrics, Mr. Fahey was a voluble author of liner notes. His albums were crammed with parodies of academic analysis and tales of a fictitious blues guitarist, Blind Joe Death, and his disciple, John Fahey, who purportedly "made his first guitar from a baby's coffin." He shared a Grammy Award for the liner notes to the 1997 "Anthology of American Folk Music" (Smithsonian Folkways).

Mr. Fahey was born in Takoma Park, Md., on Feb. 28, 1939. His father and mother both played piano, and his father also played Irish harp. On Sundays, the family went out to hear bluegrass and country music. Mr. Fahey said that hearing Bill Monroe's version of Jimmie Rodgers's "Blue Yodel No. 7" and Blind Willie Johnson's "Praise God I'm Satisfied" changed his life.

He started teaching himself guitar when he was 12. He also began collecting and trading old 78-r.p.m. recordings of hillbilly songs, blues, gospel and jazz, going door to door in the rural South to find them. A fellow collector, Joe Bussard Jr., recorded Mr. Fahey on 78-r.p.m. discs for his Fonotone label, under the name Blind Thomas. In 1959 Mr. Fahey recorded his first album and pressed 100 copies, the first Takoma Records album. One side of the LP was credited to "Blind Joe Death," the other to "John Fahey."

Mr. Fahey studied philosophy at American University in Washington and then at the University of California in Berkeley, where he played at folk clubs in his first paid engagements. In 1963, he recorded his second album, "Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes." He and his partner in Takoma Records, ED Denson, tracked down two Mississippi bluesmen, Bukka White and Skip James, and recorded them for Takoma, bringing them to new audiences on the folk-revival circuit.

Mr. Fahey entered a graduate program in folklore at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1964, and wrote his master's thesis about the Delta bluesman Charley Patton. After he received his degree, Mr. Fahey turned to music full time.

His compositions expanded, embracing the modalities of raga along with dissonances not found in country or blues; 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.

Along with his Takoma releases, Mr. Fahey also made albums for Vanguard and Reprise Records. His pristine 1968 solo album of Christmas songs for Takoma, "The New Possibility," sold 100,000 copies initially and has been perennially reissued. Mr. Fahey spent time at a Hindu monastery in India; a 1973 album of extended solo pieces, "Fare Forward Voyager" (Takoma) is dedicated to a guru. Takoma was sold to Chrysalis Records in the mid- 1970's, and in the 1980's Mr. Fahey made albums for the Shanachie and Varrick labels. New age performers like the pianist and guitarist George Winston, who made his first album for Takoma, prospered with a more ingratiating solo-guitar style.

Mr. Fahey suffered setbacks in the late 1980's. He divorced his third wife, Melody, and lost his house. He suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome and diabetes. His drinking grew worse. For a time, he lived at the Union Charity Mission in Salem. He often supported himself by scouring flea markets for used classical records to sell to collectors. He sometimes pawned his guitars.

But he was rediscovered in the 1990's. Rhino Records compiled a retrospective, "Return of the Repressed," in 1994, and alternative rockers working on "post-rock" instrumental music sought out Mr. Fahey. He sobered up and restarted his career. In 1996 he released "City of Refuge" (Tim/Kerr), followed by two albums in 1997 and one each in 1998 and 2000. He continued to experiment, playing electric and lap steel guitars and freely using electronic effects.

Last year, he published a book of loosely autobiographical stories, "How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life" (Drag City Press).

"I never considered for a minute that I had talent," he wrote in 1994. "What I did have was divine inspiration and an open subconscious."

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All-Music Guide

One of acoustic music's true innovators and eccentrics, John Fahey has been crucial in expanding the boundaries of the acoustic guitar over the last few decades. His music is so eclectic that it's arguable whether he should be defined as a "folk" artist. In a career that has seen him issue several dozen albums, he's drawn from blues, Native American music, Indian ragas, experimental dissonance, and pop. His good friend Dr. Demento has noted that Fahey "was the first to demonstrate that the finger-picking techniques of traditional country and blues steel-string guitar could be used to express a world of nontraditional musical ideas — harmonies and melodies you'd associate with Bartok, Charles Ives, or maybe the music of India." The more meditative aspects of his work foreshadowed new age music, yet Fahey plays with a fierce imagination and versatility that outshines any of the guitarists in that category. His idiosyncrasy may have limited him to a cult following, but it also ensured that his work continues to sound fresh.

Fahey was a colorful figure from the time he became an accomplished guitarist in his teens. Already a collector of rare early blues and country music, he made his first album in 1959, ascribing part of it to the pseudonymous "Blind Joe Death." Only 95 copies of the LP were pressed, making it a coveted collector's item today. (In the 1960s, Fahey would re-record the material for wider circulation.) In college, he wrote a thesis on Charley Patton (an exotic subject at the time). Yet Fahey did not perform publically for money until the mid-'60s, after his third album.

Fahey's early albums for Takoma in the mid-'60s laid out much of the territory he would explore. His instrumentals, filtering numerous genres of music into his own style, evoked haunting and open spaces. At times they could be soothing and plaintive; at other times they were disquieting, even dissonant. The more experimental aspects of his material even foreshadowed psychedelia in their lengthy improvisations (some cuts lasted as long as 20 minutes), use of Indian modes, unpredictable stylistic shifts, and overall eerie strangeness. His persona as a weirdo of sorts was amplified by his bizarre and lengthy song titles and liner notes. He also employed odd guitar tunings that continue to exert an overlooked influence on contemporary musicians to this day.

Fahey remained consistently popular on a cult level through the mid-'80s. His most commercially successful efforts, oddly, were probably his Christmas albums, which are among the more interesting holiday records of any genre. For a time he ran the Takoma label, where he was instrumental in starting the career of Leo Kottke (who owes much of his stylistic inspiration to Fahey), as well as promoting lesser-known talents like Robbie Basho. He was a catalyst in other subtle ways, helping to form Canned Heat by introducing Al Wilson (who played on a Fahey album in 1965) to Bob Hite, and rediscovering Delta bluesman Bukka White with his friend Ed Denson.

Fahey sold Takoma to Chrysalis in the mid-'70s, but continued to record regularly, and also tour (though his live performances were erratic). In 1986, he contracted Epstein-Barr syndrome, a long-lasting viral infection that, combined with diabetes and other health problems, sapped his energy and resources. Although the Epstein-Barr virus was finally overcome, the mid-'90s found him living in poverty in Oregon, where he paid his rent by pawning his guitar and reselling rare classical records. The appearance of a major career retrospective on Rhino, Return of the Repressed, in 1994 boosted his profile to its highest level in years. Now in his mid-50s, he still plays, is writing a book of memoirs, and he returned to active recording in 1997 with City of Refuge. The Fahey discography is dauntingly large and diverse; the neophyte is advised to start with the two-disc Return of the Repressed, or search for the Takoma LPs (which have unfortunately become hard to find). — Richie Unterberger

 

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