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John Fahey

One of acoustic music's true innovators and eccentrics, John Fahey was a crucial figure in expanding the boundaries of the acoustic guitar over the last few decades. His music was so eclectic that it's arguable whether he should be defined as a "folk" artist. In a career that saw him issue several dozen albums, he drew 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 non-traditional 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 played with a fierce imagination and versatility that outshone 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 publicly 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. In 1997, he returned to active recording with City of Refuge and was planning a Revenant definitive package of Charley Patton's work when he died following sextuple-bypass surgery at the age of 61. The Fahey discography is dauntingly large and diverse; the neophyte is advised to start with the two-disc Return of the Repressed, but those who wish to dig deeper will be very pleased with Takoma's extensive reissues, which started to appear in the late nineties. ~ Richie Unterberger, Rovi
full bio

Selected Discography

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Track List: Georgia Stomps, Atlanta Struts, And Other Contemporary Dance Favy Dance Favorites

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Track List: Fare Forward Voyagers (Soldier's Choice)

Comments

Got the honor of opening for him in Sacramento & Portland in '98 right before he passed...a couple nights I will never forget, a brilliant musician
I saw John perform in 70's at Blues Alley in D.C.. As others have experienced, he came out on stage drunk. He was eating a big cookie and thru it out into audience saying what kind of cookie is this? His speech was slurred and I thought he might fall off the stage. He sat down and played flawless. I thought he was disrespectfu l to his fans/audienc e and felt sorry and embarrassed for him. Love his music and hope his soul is at peace.
Definitely one of the greats
Love this piece must listen to more of John Fahey's music.
inkblots4me1
I always loved Yellow Princess! I listened to it regularly in the 70's.Such genius on the guitar.Sorry to hear of his demise,thoug h . . .
tigtig2
Saw him play at McCabe's Guitar in Santa Monica many times. Tacoma was just a couple doors down. Another Tacoma artist from those days is Rick Ruskin - another great guitarist.
canalady
Thanks Pandora. Just discovered Fahey thanks to you!
extollager20 0 6
Just started listening to Fahey a couple of months ago, keep ordering just one more CD every few days. I started with The Legend of Blind Joe Death. Something special.
I heard him play at UC Davis in 1971. He was 45 minutes late, and when he got there he opened a 32 oz 7-Up, drank a few swigs, squinted at the audience as we all watched him, and finally said, what's that smell? It did smell faintly like manure, which was about right for an ag school. Then he put on a great show. After the concert sold his record albums for $5 each (I bought 2). The guy was a genius on the guitar.
Anyone notice how a John Fahey radio station plays a bunch of crap that isn't John Fahey or anything like it?
Very nice
cef1953
P.S.
Woody Guthrie is nothing like John Fahey IMHO..2 different styles... so there is no comparison.
cef1953
To J Blanchette- What a great story!!

With genius comes madness i suppose.... His music takes me on a mental vacation.
What is the sound of one hand pickin?
doccnagel
Very good bio. Thanks RIchie.
normant12
Saw him once live a long time ago, wonderful !
I love dead quirky eccentrics
I look forward to exploring this Artist.
otps91
Fahey's guitar awakens areas of our brains that were in a coma for decades.
otps91
Kottke and Fahey are the best ever. They cannot be touched unless Jesus plays guitar during the Millennial Reign.
couplesrecov e r y 1
He was true to his muse. He's a part of my musical history. We appreciated his uniqueness.. . l i s t e n e d to him in college in a beat up old house with buddies. Used to listen to him and Andre' Segovia, Christopher Parkening, Charlie Bird, and the then new George Winston...th e y all fit well with books and beer and precocious conversation s . . . .
I saw John in a small venue in San Francisco in the late 70's, he was drunk when he came out on stage, yelled at the waitress to get him a drink, stole a beer from the table down by the front of the stage, took some pills with his beer on stage ( downers I believe ), and generaly pissed off just about everyone in the theater, and then proceeded to play like a transcendtal saint that had touched the face of God. A shadow and a light not to be duplicated or amoungst again.
dalejonesban j o
John Fahey and Etta Baker true pioneers of american solo guitar. Like Segovia once said , the guitar is a small symphony.
This is a very smooth and relaxing version.
Kyle,
They're both good. Isn't that like comparing apples and Chevrolets?
Lovely way to start the day!
If you can find and get your hands on a copy of "The Transfigurat i o n of Blind Joe Death", its generally recognized as the essential John Fahey album.
jeffbrough
Thank you Mr. Fahey...
ed438
Oh heaven
He pulls all the stops and wow what a guy
chambeob
Strongly recommend Fare Forward Voyagers--th e 22 minute version on the album of the same name. It's an expansion on a set of themes that show up on other albums, but it is a wonderfully constructed weaving of that material into a sort of steel string guitar raga.

PS Album title refers to TS Eliot's Four Quartets, a set of four long poems that weave aspects of eastern religion, particularly the Bhagavad-Git a , into Eliot's vision of Christianity .
He is (was) my grandmother' s nephew, so that would make him a second cousin?
Inspires me to pick up the guitar. And play it. Whatever "it" is. I know I heard of him in the 60's/70's but can't recall where or why.
wow
Never heard of him before, but I'm really enjoying Candy Man (Live)
woody guthrie is better
i thought therefore i was!
What would Buddha smoke?
i've played alot of his songs, they're really fun.
Beautiful
Maybe without the chemicals... .
My major goal in life is to be able to play John's version of "Sunflower River Blues" with the same feeling, intonation and tempo as did he.
danpaquin
This guy is giant in American folk if not the most well known. As important as John Hartford, Townes Van Zandt, Tom Rush (Canadians are American too!), Tom Paxton. There is a swell of young'ns influenced by him starting to appear. Check out Jack Rose for example: http://www.p a n d o r a . c o m / m u s i c / a r t i s t / j a c k + r o s e
jdrobinson22 5
I first heard Dance of Death in Cambridge in 1966, and it remains some of the most important music in my life today, which may show a certain limitation on my part. It has led to many other similar artists, from Kottke to Peter Lang to Cul de Sac.
Too weird for my taste, also, which is why I like it.
To weird for my taste... talented none the less,I must admit.
I first heard Yellow Princess in 1971. It still rings in my heart.

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