A Quart of Whiskey Won’t Alleviate Guitarist John Fahey’s Blues

Guitar music gave John Fahey a bridge to the subconscious, and his subconscious evidently was a scary realm.

Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist
Steve Lowenthal
Chicago Review Press
April 2018 (reprint)

“Consciousness,” wrote the American guitarist John Fahey, in his introduction to a book of sheet music, “is in a constant state of flux. The stable element, therefore, must be the commitment to sit there with your guitar for six hours and express yourself through your music.” Going against the most basic dictum of traditional guitar teaching, he said playing every day doesn’t matter much. Rather than worrying about technique, the first priority of a young guitarist should be learning to evoke emotions through specific chords and progressions.

Fahey personally felt floods of “images, memories, deja vu experiences, and emotions” every time he played. So he stole away a couple of times a week, not telling anyone, and played for hours. “I can guarantee that you will come out of these sessions with something new—a composition, an arrangement, a fragment,” he said. “In order to conquer boredom and chaos, you cannot avoid coming up with something new.”

Fahey, who died from heart troubles in 2001, is a perennial favorite among folkies and noise-rockers, and discovering his vast catalogue has been a rite of passage for several generations of guitarists. An obsessive collector of pre-war blues records, he blended the fingerpicking of Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Blake with harmonies and dissonance he learned from Romantic composers like Bartok.

Critics are always harping on his influence; as with figures like Roy Acuff and Alex Chilton, the common refrain is that even if you’ve never heard his recordings, you’ve heard music that wouldn’t exist without him. There’s no question that he spawned a subgenre of folk music—“American Primitive”, the instrumental guitar style popularized by Leo Kottke—and he’s been acknowledged as a “secret influence” on the early Sonic Youth.

But the publication this summer of his first biography, Dance of Death, written by the journalist Steve Lowenthal, gives occasion to reconsider his place in American music. Lowenthal shows with new clarity that for as much as he’s been imitated, Fahey’s artistic vision was wildly unique. He was weird in unsettling ways, making him more akin to Captain Beefheart than Bob Dylan, and to shoehorn him into an official narrative about the development of folk music is to insult his memory. After all, he invented a new guitar dialect, and not as a commercial ploy but because he needed it for self-expression.

RATING 7 / 10