Return of Blind Joe Death
John Fahey, Revenant Records, the
music of the spheres
By Robert Cochran
Gadfly Sep./Oct. 1999
Fahey and Revenant Records seem a match made in
heaven. In 1997, Fahey, a 1960s acoustic guitar
hero and experienced music producer, is something
of a revenant himself, one returned from long
absence. He joins forces with attorney and self-described
"78 fetishist" Dean Blackwood to set
up Revenant; they want to reissue old records,
rescue the music from oblivion. A laudable if
eccentric impulse, and one that connects them
to an older tradition.
since the 1920s, when the wide availability of
radios and phonograph record players spawned a
pop-music recording industry, the music then popularized
has had its fierce adherents, folks who loved
it too much to willingly let it die. The history
of the record industry is filled with such people—Ralph
Peer, who made the first records of both Jimmie
Rodgers and the Carter Family in Bristol, Tennessee,
in July and August 1927; H. C. Speir, who auditioned
blues wizard Skip James in his Jackson, Mississippi,
music store in 1931 and promptly sent him north
to Grafton, Wisconsin, to record for Paramount;
Harry Smith, who built the seminal 1952 Folkways
Anthology of American Folk Music
out of his own 78 collection.
Phillips, the white man out of Florence, Alabama,
who established the Memphis Recording Service
in 1950 to record black musicians and ended up
discovering Elvis Presley, Howlin' Wolf, Jerry
Lee Lewis, Ike Turner, Johnny Cash and a host
of other first-generation R & B and rockabilly
stars, may be the most widely recognized figure
in this group. Most of the others are celebrated
only among devotees of the music they made famous.
But they were the ones who crossed the lines,
who took a hundred local musics to a wider world.
They most often weren't born to the music, but
they heard it deeply, in all its power, and acted
to proclaim its worth. Old voices, archaic instruments
and tunings, weird sounds—they issue like
ghosts, which is what revenants are, from the
grooves of old records. Technology makes it all
possible, but the man or woman who hears the music
and falls under its spell is of central importance.
brings us back at last to our subject. John Fahey
is a child of the suburbs, born in Takoma Park,
Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., on February
28, 1939. His parents work for the government
and love music. A piano is in the home. The boy's
newspaper route delivers to Goldie Hawn's house;
later, he's night manager at Martin's Esso Station,
a busy East Coast fuel stop. It's the only all-night
place in the county, pumps 100,000 gallons a month.
It's a nocturnal social center, and its young
manager is a big shot. "I became a very important
person for the only time in my life," Fahey
remembers in 1994. "I have very nice dreams
of going back."
one day he hears Bill Monroe's "Blue Yodel
#7" on the radio and is mesmerized. It is
a sound he cannot resist. Later he'll call such
sounds "raw music" and make the search
for them a lifelong passion. But the Monroe song
is his first encounter. His search for the out-of-print
record leads him to collector Dick Spottswood,
and eventually to Blind Willie Johnson's "Praise
God I'm Satisfied." The young man (who up
until now has scorned black music) is reduced
to weeping and rises up a convert, a passionate
lover of blues.
for success with girls, he buys a guitar (a Silvertone,
for $17). By 1958, despite rating himself a "slow
learner," subject to despondency, he's ready
to record. First he does some two dozen blues
sides for collector Joe Bussard's Fonotone label
in nearby Frederick, Maryland. On some of these
he bills himself as Blind Thomas. The voice is
lugubrious—"Poor boy, poor boy,"
he moans, the suburban young man still living
with his parents, "long way from home"—but
the guitar is already strong. Then Fahey goes
out on his own. With gas station earnings and
$300 borrowed from his Episcopal minister, he
produces one hundred copies of John Fahey/Blind
Joe Death, calling his label Takoma.
Blind Joe is a second avatar of Blind Thomas,
a fictional mentor, though this time Fahey has
the good sense (in his notes) to construct Mr.
Death as not only blind but also mute. The strong
guitar stands on its own—no more slurred
white boy moans. The year is 1959.
California calls. Fahey goes to Berkeley in 1962
and gets busy. Before the decade is out, he records
seven more albums. He and Ed Denson discover and
record Mississippi bluesman Booker White; he relocates
(with Henry Vestine and Bill Barth) Skip James,
hears wonderful music and commercial potential
in a Leo Kottke demo and produces Kottke's breakthrough
album, 6- and 12-String Guitar, for Takoma.
Later, he enrolls at UCLA and writes his study
of Charley Patton as a thesis. A professor, however,
he'll never be. Imagine the consternation of his
mentors, for example, when they see themselves
denounced as incompetents in his introduction:
"It is a sad commentary on American scholars
of folk music that between 1927 and l962 the commercial
recording industry did an infinitely better job
of collecting, preserving, and making available
to the public native American folksongs—especially
comments, and the attitude they reflect, do not
endear the candidate to his ostensible superiors.
But to hell with them. They're tired old farts,
and, anyway, Takoma Park John is by now semi-famous,
touring regularly, making money and more records.
The good times roll. Romance blossoms. Fahey marries,
goes to Rome to do a soundtrack for Michelangelo
Antonioni's Zabriskie Point, records
an album in Tasmania, meditates in India. His
liner notes evolve to lengthy, bizarrely learned,
serio-comic essays attributed to Elijah P. Lovejoy,
Charles Holloway, Esq., Chester Petranik.
Blind Joe Death narrative and myth is enlarged:
Death has a day job "embalming the downtrodden
people of Takoma Park who had gone before";
his student and guide Fahey "made his first
guitar from a baby's coffin and led the blind
Negro through the back alleys and whorehouses
of Takoma Park in return for lessons."
so on. Standard white-boy-meets-the-blues gush,
but Fahey mixes it in with Welsh folktales, girlfriends,
Finnish epics, and spoofs of academic folklorists
and record collectors. Girlfriends, in fact, are
prominently featured in both music and notes—both
the opening cut of The Transfiguration of Blind
Joe Death and the nineteenth photograph
in the notes to The Voice of the Turtle
are called "Beautiful Linda Getchell."
Photographs of Evil Devil Woman and Knott's Berry
Farm Molly (inspiration for the four-part "Requiem
for Molly," from Requia) also
appear. Even Blind Joe Death himself is accorded
a photo. Featured on the jacket of The Voice
of the Turtle is a retouched old Vocalion
advertisement including a photograph labeled Blind
Joe Death. The singer pictured, however, is in
fact Blind Joe Taggart, a Chicago gospel shouter
who recorded under several names from 1926 through
the early 1930s.
a performer, Fahey is a favorite of hippie audiences,
though the admiration is far from mutual. Fahey,
in fact, despises the whole "volk music"
boom, heckles audiences at length while retuning
his guitars, denounces Pete Seeger and "Joanie
Phoney" Baez and describes Jerry Garcia as
a "psychic vampire." Mr. Fahey, it turns
out, is no better suited for wealth and fame than
for academic life. He fails to tend to business.
He speaks his eccentric mind. Promoter/producer
Sam Charters later calls Fahey the only artist
he ever worked with whose sales go down
after personal appearances. Such surliness surfaced
early in Fahey's career. The gas station, academia,
now touring. The collaboration with Antonioni
had ended in a fistfight.
nasty tale, laden no doubt with apocryphal elements,
made the rounds in blues and folk music circles
in the 1960s. Fahey, not yet famous, goes to a
party somewhere where another guy is playing a
very nice guitar, some Gibson or Martin treasure,
his pride and joy. He's not bad, people are listening,
clapping between numbers, singing along sometimes.
When the guy takes a break, Fahey speaks up. "Mind
if I play?" he asks. Right away everybody
sees he's amazing. He doesn't sing, not even once.
Just plays, on and on, no pause between songs.
He's all over the map—blues, ragas, old
hymns and marches, folk songs. Everybody's hearing
everything. This goes on maybe thirty minutes.
Whole crowd is just blown away. Then he stops.
When the clapping and yelling die down, Fahey
looks up at the guy who played earlier, the instrument's
owner. He's still holding the guitar. "This
is a very fine guitar," he says. "Don't
you think it should belong to somebody who can
reputation for two qualities in tension—a
talent large enough to attract admirers and a
chip on the shoulder sufficient to drive them
away—defines Fahey. Finally, everything
crashes. Takoma changes hands, divorces and heavy
drinking follow, also long and debilitating bouts
with an Epstein-Barr viral infection and diabetes.
By 1994, Fahey is broke and homeless, holed up
in a Salvation Army shelter and a skids motel
in Salem, Oregon, pawning his guitar to pay rent
and dining on convenience-store fare. A miserable
close in the offing, looks like, for another of
our best and brightest. Blind Joe Death brought
no. Just as all seems lost, a larger narrative
intervenes, the standard salvation curve we all
learn as children and never forget, even if we
come to disbelieve. Not for nothing did John Fahey
grow up with Episcopalian ties, get his start
with an assist from a cleric's funds. It was a
Fahey signature from the beginning to place a
hymn at the close of each album—"St.
Patrick's Hymn" at the end of The Transfiguration
of Blind Joe Death, "Episcopal
Hymn" to finish Death Chants, Breakdowns,
& Military Waltzes, "Fight
On Christians, Fight On" as the last cut
rescue comes—sympathetic and admiring profiles
appear in music magazines in 1992 (Acoustic
Guitar), 1994 (Spin)
and 1998 (The Wire). In 1997, Rhino
issues the aptly titled Return of the Repressed:
The John Fahey Anthology. Fantasy Records
acquires and reissues the first Takoma albums,
including Fahey's Blind Joe Death,
The Voice of the Turtle, The
Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death
and America. New work appears—City
of Refuge, Womblife,
The Epiphany of Glenn Jones. Fahey
hears music in even more places now—his
favorite bands are alternative and industrial
outfits, and he records The Epiphany of Glenn
Jones with Massachusetts avant-rockers
Cul De Sac. (As early as 1967, remember, he's
mixing crowd noises and sirens, Charley Patton,
brass band marches and large-animal roars, choirs
and Hitler speeches into various parts of the
Requia number, "Requiem for
Molly." Fahey's most recent Internet announcements
tie this ever-widening sonic appreciation to a
larger tradition. The "favorite leisure time
activity" of famed Czech composer Anton Dvorak,
viewers are informed, was "to listen to trains.")
full-body resurrection arrives—Fahey and
fellow enthusiast Dean Blackwood establish Revenant,
a label announcing itself right off as specializing
in "raw musics." The Takoma experience
won't be repeated, Fahey explains, because Blackwood
knows music, is honest and has a law degree.
That this is a rare constellation of virtues is
the clear implication. In their continuing lifelong
quest for sounds, Fahey suggests, they can forge
ahead unafraid. Blackwood has his back. Early
Revenant issues include a variety of treasures,
like the first records of Ralph and Carter Stanley
(the old Rich-R-Tone 78s from 1947-1952), described
as "truly despairing, spectral... the Stanleys
at their rawest and most unadorned."
early project features the gospel wails of American
Primitive, Volume 1, containing
"high intensity/low varnish killers"
by such old Fahey favorites as Charley Patton,
Booker White, and (yes!) Blind Joe Taggart. A
third collects everything recorded in the 1920s
by the great Dock Boggs, "who sounded as
if his bones were coming through his skin every
time he opened his mouth." These are the
sounds Fahey heard long ago on those first Bill
Monroe and Blind Willie Johnson oldies, back in
Takoma Park. Raw music, American primitive. This
is where, to cite Elvis-discoverer Sam Phillips,
the soul of man never dies.