John Fahey, a ground-breaking guitarist whose influence spread from the folk underground to the fringes of avant-garde rock, died on Thursday at a hospital in Salem, Oregon. He was sixty-one.
Fahey, who had been in ill health for several years, underwent two open-heart surgeries in the past week, and was placed on kidney dialysis late Wednesday night, according to hospital reports.
Born in Takoma Park, Maryland in 1939, Fahey was a musical prodigy, mastering piano and Irish harp at an early age. But it wasn’t until he was introduced to the “hillbilly” music of Bill Monroe in his early teens that music became his passion — a passion he’d pursue with vigor, finger-picking the nights away on a $17 Sears guitar.
An iconoclast from the start, Fahey began his recording career in disguise, donning the mufti of an “authentic Negro folk” musician named Blind Thomas to issue a passel of eerie sides in 1958. Soon after, he presaged a D.I.Y movement that wouldn’t flower for decades by putting $300 worth of his minimum-wage earnings on the line to start his own label, Takoma Records, and issue his “official” debut, Blind Joe Death.
Fahey would re-record that album twice, and would reprise the character on 1965’s The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, a gripping suite widely considered his masterpiece. Along the way, he’d also turn Takoma into a veritable clearinghouse of “uncommercial” guitar talent, releasing albums by Leo Kottke and Peter Lang and helping nurture the talent of the young George Winston.
Fahey, who earned an M.A. in folklore and mythology from American University, was always as interested in the genesis — both spiritual and literal — of the music that fascinated him as he was in its form. Still, he disdained attempts to intellectualize his work, insisting that he was merely “an American primitivist.”
After eschewing the rustic trappings of his earliest music for a series of highly experimental recordings — including the musique concrete eye-opener Requia and Other Compositions for Guitar Solo — Fahey began trying on and discarding various musical garments. He honed his steel-string playing, working with Dixieland musicians and venturing deeper into minimalism, the latter of which showed up in the music he recorded for the art-house staple Zabriskie Point.
None of this, suffice to say, made John Fahey a household name. Forced to sell Takoma’s assets to Chrysalis Records in the mid-Seventies, he retreated from the music business and fell into deep emotional and financial distress. Subsisting on sales of musical rarities — including his own — he was missing in action for more than a decade until an early-Nineties boom of interest from fans such as Glenn Jones of the Boston band Cul de Sac, who toured and recorded with Fahey in recent years.
“His music was and is as important to me as any I’ve ever heard,” says Jones, who admits that recording The Epiphany of Glenn Jones with Fahey was not the simplest task. “Like a lot of people, I made the mistake of heroicizing John, confusing the man with the music. But, thanks to John, I got past that, and I came to love the man too.”
Whether it was the influence of these new collaborators, or simply an internal rejuvenation, Fahey roared through the late Nineties, undeterred by his battles with diabetes and Epstein-Barre Disease. He began alternating his steel-string acoustic with electric guitar, which he played fiercely, conjuring up machine-shop visions every bit as vivid as the pastoral pictures he painted on his lovely acoustic releases.
In recent years, Fahey also returned to his role as chronicler of great sounds past, using his Revenant label as a launching point for several volumes of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (for which he shared a Grammy for his liner notes), as well as his own new recordings — one of which was finished shortly before his death.