Remembering Idiosyncratic Avant-Folkie John Fahey

By David Browne
Updated March 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Two memories of John Fahey: In 1982, I received Christmas Guitar Vol. 1, a set of Fahey yuletide instrumentals. Unlike any holiday LPs I’d ever heard, the stark music, played on just one guitar, was both melancholy and joyous. The same year, the guitarist performed at a New York club. During the show, a friend told me, Fahey announced he had to go to the bathroom — and promptly walked off stage, not returning for some time.

Such duality between the peaceful and the eccentric defined the life and art of Fahey, who died in Salem, Ore., Feb. 22 (six days shy of his 62nd birthday), after slipping into a coma following sextuple heart-bypass surgery. Over 40 years, the restless, ornery instrumentalist recast the role of the acoustic guitar. Though steeped in folk, blues, and classical, his albums were their own beasts, embracing rugged serenity, tape loops, dissonant tunings, oddball titles and liner notes, and indirect emotion. His 19-minute ”The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party” (1966) conjured a crumbling affair entirely with his six-string.

Despite his cult status, Fahey’s impact was sizable. He was one of the first musicians to found his own label (Takoma, in ’59), through which he introduced the world to pianist George Winston. ”John was called the father of New Age, but he always hated that term,” says Mitch Greenhill, executor of his estate. ”He preferred to call his music American Primitivism — primitive in the sense of without sophistication and very raw.” His fans include Ry Cooder and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, and his influence can be heard in indie mood-music players Gastr del Sol.

Fahey’s last decade or so was erratic, punctuated by diabetes, bouts of chronic fatigue syndrome, and a brief stay in a Salem welfare hotel. ”John wasn’t the tidiest person in terms of lifestyle,” says Greenhill. ”It’s a shame we lost him at 61, but we could have lost him a lot earlier.” There were folk guitarists, and then there was John Fahey.



Essential Recordings

The Legend of Blind Joe Death (Takoma); Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes (Takoma); John Fahey, Vol. 4: The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party and Other Excursions (Takoma); The New Possibility: John Fahey’s Guitar Soli Christmas Album/Christmas With John Fahey Vol. II (Takoma); Return of the Repressed: The John Fahey Anthology (Rhino)