During a particularly troubled time in the mid-1990s, it became a ritual of mine to play John Fahey’s “Dry Bones in the Valley” (from his 1975 album Old Fashioned Love) before starting my day. Workday, weekday, whatever. I’d eat breakfast to it, iron my clothes to it, head off to work with it echoing in my head. To this day, I couldn’t tell you why. It’s a magnificent instrumental track: just Fahey on his steel-stringed acoustic guitar, playing a three-part epic that starts as an ambling country blues, then descends into a dark passage that resolves into an intricate circling figure that fades into the distance. Nothing else on the album measures up to it — certainly not the dim Dixieland tracks that were Fahey’s characteristically self-sabotaging response when mainstream record companies took an interest in his work in the early 1970s. Similarly, when Fahey found himself the focus of renewed interest two decades later, he responded with albums full of tedious sound collages and musique concrete dabblings.
Infuriating as it could be, Fahey’s mulish, contrarian temperament went hand in hand with his music, which at its best was a meeting ground between the blues, world music and free-form improvisation. His blues credentials were impeccable: not only were his early records steeped in country blues, he wrote a scholarly treatise on Charley Patton and helped return Bukka White to the limelight after years of obscurity. As an offshoot of this scholarship, Fahey invented a mythical bluesman, Blind Joe Death, and celebrated his work with liner notes so poker-faced that some fans took him at face value. For all his forbidding mystique and fuck-you sarcasm, Fahey could be a great concert act when he was in the mood: the first Fahey album I bought, Live in Tasmania, captures him in a warm, fully engaged performance with wry asides to the audience.
The video shown above amusingly sets Fahey’s “Desperate Man Blues” against some vintage film clips — the poster did the same trick with “I’m Gonna Do All I Can for My Lord,” “America” and “Tell Her to Come Back Home.” (Whoever you are, kkerins, you’re definitely on Fahey’s wavelength.) To see the man himself at work, here’s a clip of a concert performance of “Candy Man.” There are plenty of other film clips on YouTube.
As for the records, novices can start with the anthology Return of the Repressed, then check out earlier works like The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death. There’s plenty of room for exploration: Fahey left a lot of work behind, and even when the junk is discarded, what remains is one of the most intriguing bodies of work in American music.