Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 28 February 1939, Takoma Park MD; d 22 February 2001) A giant of the guitar, entirely self-taught, experimenting with twelve-string open tuning etc. He once claimed he could play as well as anybody except the legendary Sam McGee (of Grand Ole Opry), but by late '96 he'd thought better of it and told Mojo he was a better composer than a player. He rarely performed live, but his prolific output of LPs ensured a devoted following. His early influence was mostly country music; he discovered blues and wrote a biography of bluesman Charley Patton as his thesis for a Ph.D at UCLA, in the process met and introduced record collector Bob Hite and guitarist Al Wilson, who later formed the band Canned Heat.

Fahey borrowed $300 to form his own Takoma label; his first album The Transfiguration Of Blind Joe Death '59 became a cult item, with a home-made sleeve and whimsical notes in calligraphy; he played banjo as well as guitar on it, eclectic material including 'Bicycle Built For Two' (an 1892 hit first called 'Daisy Bell') and his own tunes such as 'Beautiful Linda Getchell'. He re-recorded the album in '65 and '67, a CD reissue '96 having tracks from all three editions including the eleven-minute blues-raga 'Transcendental Waterfall'; Voice Of The Turtle '68 was also reissued '96. Takoma began as a mail-order business and the albums may have had different titles in UK: he also released Death Chants, Fare Forward Voyagers, Old Fashioned Love, God, Time And Causality and Railroad, some of these on Sonet and PRT in UK, later on Shanachie CDs. Best sellers were Christmas Album and The Best Of John Fahey 1959-77. There were also Days Have Gone By and The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party; he also used 'found sounds', gamelan gongs etc in a spirit of curiosity. Vanguard LPs Requia '67 and Yellow Princess '69 were combined in The Essential John Fahey; Reprise LP Of Rivers And Religions '72 was followed by After The Ball '73, a charming LP drawing on '20s dance music with a small band including clarinettist Joe Darensbourg. Live In Tasmania '81 was recorded there so Fahey could claim a first; Let Go '84, Rain Forests, Oceans And Other Themes '85 (the latter including duets with Terry Robb) were both on Varrick (a division of Rounder) in USA. I Remember Blind Joe Death '88, Old Girlfriends And Other Horrible Memories '92 were also on Varrick. Fahey was first to record guitarist Leo Kottke; he also rediscovered bluesmen Skip James and Bukka White, recording White on Takoma '63; his film work included a song used in Zabriskie Point '70; he was on the A&R staff at Chrysalis label. The Return Of The Repressed '97 on Rhino was a good anthology of Fahey's work.

Having played acoustic in the rock'n'roll era of the late '50s and helped invent new age music during the '60s, he later had a reaction to 'mellow'. Suffering from various mental and physical ailments he was sleeping in his car when his career was kick-started with the help of fans; then City Of Refuge '96 on Jim Kerr Records was a complicated and challenging electric concept. 'I hate all those phoney fake suburban folk singers. Most of them are dead now. When Jerry Garcia died several people phoned me up and said, ''Have you heard the good news?''...' He also released the odd and obscure Womblife, The Epiphany of Glenn Jones, and the atmospheric The Mill Pond, the latter a double seven-inch in an edition of only 1000 on Little Brother Records, reissued in 2008 on Important in a package with a booklet containing 28 of Fahey's charming paintings and collages. There were two posthumous albums of The John Fahey Trio, where he played electric guitar; Three Day Band on Important in 2008 includes meandering group improvisations and a zany monologue in which Fahey developes themes from his two autobiographies, How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life and Vampire Vultures.

With a young lawyer, Dean Blackwood, Fahey founded Revenant, a record label in Austin, Texas; when he received a small bequest from his father he plowed it into the label, which does exquisite audio restoration and reissue of all kinds of stuff from Dock Boggs to Cecil Taylor. After Fahey's death their pet project was finally completed by Blackwood, a sumptuous collection of the complete recordings of Charlie Patton, including CDs compiling recordings by people who influenced Patton and who he influenced; the enormous box is designed to look like a big album of 78s. It won three Grammies in 2003. Revenant's big project in 2004 was a ten-CD set of Albert Ayler.