John Fahey: the guitarist who was too mysterious for the world

He adopted pseudonyms when no one had heard of him and drifted into poverty and alcoholism. But Fahey was one of the great pioneers of American blues and folk, as a new film shows

I bought my first John Fahey album around about the same time that I discovered the novels and short stories of Richard Brautigan and the two American mavericks are linked in my consciousness to this day. The album in question was The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, originally released in 1965 in its ornately drawn gothic cover, on Fahey’s own Takoma label and later reissued on Transatlantic.

It may have been the way the name evoked the mythology of an older, lost America that made me connect it in some vague way with Brautigan book titles like Trout Fishing in America, In Watermelon Sugar and A Confederate General from Big Sur.

Both Fahey and Brautigan were makers of mischief as well as myths, who played around with form and tradition. Both seemed to belong to an older era – on the Picador book cover of Trout Fishing In America, Brautigan looks like he would have been quite at home hanging with the Band at Big Pink. In many ways, they were artists in thrall to what Greil Marcus famously called “the old weird America”, the traces of which remained only in folk stories and ballads, in the oldest, most primitive-sounding versions of folk, blues and country. But they were also, in their different ways, modernists negotiating their way mischievously and not altogether reverently into new forms, new languages.

As I found out much later, The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death was a title intended to confuse. Likewise the strange overblown sleeve notes – “A disgusting, degenerate, insipid young folklorist from the Croat & Isaiah Nettles Foundation for Ethnological Research meandered mesmerically midst marble mansions in Mattapon, Massachusetts …” Fahey was having his own kind of fun at the expense of blues and folk music collectors, of which, ironically, he was one. The music, though, was something else: intricate, intriguing, multi-layered, resonant. It has stayed with me ever since, becoming, over the years, a constant.

Continue reading