I had heard such sounds before, heard them as a little boy lying in bed in the wiregrass country of south Georgia, heard the sounds of animals crying far off in the woods, heard the sounds the black woods hands made having what they called church … and heard the sounds I could not identify — the really frightening ones. I had not been so frightened since I was a boy lying slender and white and frail in the dark bed, finding a sound in the night, losing it, waiting for it again, a soft sighing sound that might have been the wind easing through the tops of the long-needle pines, or might have been cattle lowing a long way off, but always came back to sounding most like a simple human exhalation right outside the rusty screen of my bedroom window, the quietly released breath of a man standing quietly, just watching, waiting. I loved the woods, but for years I lay awake at night fearing that sound.
– Stanley Booth, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones
If a tree falls in the woods but no one hears it, does it really fall? Who cares, trees come a dime a dozen in the woods. But if that tree is stripped, chopped, processed, fashioned into a guitar and placed into John Fahey’s plump and knobby fingers, will anyone hear the sounds he conjures from it? Does it even exist? Yes and no, in no particular order.
For the better part of four decades, John Fahey has existed in a vacuum, cultivating contradiction, spinning innovation. His contributions to American music are no less singular than those of some of the century’s true giants — Bill Monroe and Louis Armstrong come to mind — and his influence is only slightly less pervasive. Monroe and Armstrong are dead, and Fahey has had a right mind (and body) to join them on a few occasions, but he lives, modestly, in a motel room in Salem, Oregon, has for 15-odd years. John Fahey knows his place is in this world, because there’s no suffering in heaven. And without suffering, where would that leave him?
I had heard such sounds before…
To borrow again from Stanley Booth (maybe he should be writing this piece), like every true original, John Fahey has a strong sense of tradition. The components of his muse — his steel string guitar, his country blues, his love of classical melodicism and dissonance, his fascination with railroads and other manifestations of the industrial age — all have their origins in the early 20th century.
Fahey is a formidable expert on the age. Growing up in Takoma Park, Maryland, he fell in with some of the most rabid record collectors in the region. Compelled by a love of early country and blues 78s, this charter group of vinyl junkies embarked on frequent trips to the South, canvassing black neighborhoods in search of records and the artists who recorded them. Though cryptically recorded and packaged, Fahey’s own first album, Blind Joe Death (ca. 1959, pressed in a quantity of 100 and sold, primarily, out of the gas station where he worked at the time), reveals his love of these musics and demonstrates his already keen grasp of their lexicon. Not bad for a man barely 20.
By the early ’60s, Fahey had switched coasts and was enrolled in a newly inaugurated graduate program in folklore studies at UCLA. The program led to him visiting the South again with some frequency. On two such expeditions, Fahey “rediscovered” blues greats Bukka White and Skip James, both of whom would enjoy fruitful second careers (and in the case of James, an arguable artistic peak; reference Skip James Today ca. 1966 and Devil Got My Woman ca. 1968) during the blues revival of the day.
…a simple human exhalation…
Back in Los Angeles, Fahey continued to cultivate his own playing. With the help of Ed Denson, another transplanted beltway native who oversaw the business end of Fahey’s Takoma record label, he issued a series of recordings that defined his art and earned his audience. Exhaustively titled albums such as Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes, Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites, and The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party and Other Excursions bore the heavy yoke of history, the isolation of timelessness, the exquisite pain of a simple human exhalation.
For some reason, the hippies loved it.
Still, Fahey emerged from these lonely spiritual excursions with his humanity and good humor intact. Like, say the Let it Bleed-era Rolling Stones (a comparison he would probably loathe), Fahey suffused tradition with his own talents so seamlessly that his innovations were often indistinguishable from homage, or even hoax. Reference Fahey’s 1968 album, The Voice of the Turtle, an album of ragas, “field recordings” and sundry guitar wizardry all bound by some impossibly dense and completely fabricated liner notes (the first sentence alone is 561 words long), penned by Fahey. Aping the academic, Folkways-style liner notes of the day, Fahey purports that sections of Turtle date back as far as the ’20s. And if you weren’t aware of his gift for gag, you probably would have believed him.
…losing it, waiting for it again…