The Return of Blind Joe Death
John Fahey, Revenant Records, the music of the spheres
By Robert Cochran

From Gadfly Sep./Oct. 1999


John 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.

Ever 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.

Sam 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.

Which 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."

Then 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.

Hoping 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.

Then 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 black folksongs."

Such 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.

The 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."

And 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.

As 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.

One 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 play it?"

A 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 down hard.

But 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 on Requia.

So 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.")

Finally, 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."

Another 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.