Blast From The Past – John Fahey
John Fahey (February 28, 1939 – February 22, 2001) was an American finger style guitarist and composer who pioneered the steel-string acoustic guitar as a solo instrument.
His style has been greatly influential and has been described as the foundation of American Primitivism, a term borrowed from painting and referring mainly to the self-taught nature of the music and its minimalist style.
Fahey borrowed from the folk and blues traditions in American roots music, having compiled many forgotten early recordings in these genres. He would later incorporate classical, Portuguese, Brazilian, and Indian music into his signature style.
Fahey wrote a largely apocryphal autobiography and was known for his coarseness, aloof demeanor, and dry humour. He spent many of his latter years in poverty and poor health, but also enjoyed a minor career resurgence with a turn towards the more explicitly avant-garde. He died in 2001 due to complications from heart surgery.
In 2003, he was ranked 35th in the Rolling Stone “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”
During his early days of recording he would sometimes insist on being known as “Blind Thomas” which was an early sign of his habit of inventing “blues personas”, later when he made some money he would be a champion for lost blues singers.
Blind Joe Death was his 1959 debut album, however, ultimately there ended up three different versions of the album.
The original self-released edition (above) ran to fewer than 100 copies and as such is obviously extremely rare.
It was one of the first albums recorded and produced by an independent artist being as it was released on Takoma Records, Fahey’s own creation. It was not marketed and made no impression on the American record-buying public.
The album had a first re-release it was however not a re-pressing of the original release as Fahey had in 1963 decided to to re-record much of the material, as he felt he had become a much better player.
This second pressing claims that “On Doing an Evil Deed Blues”, “In Christ There Is No East or West”, “The Transcendental Waterfall”, “Desperate Man Blues”, and “Uncloudy Day” are 1964 rerecordings and the rest (“St. Louis Blues”, “Poor Boy Long Ways from Home”, “John Henry”, “Sun Gonna Shine in My Back Door Someday Blues”, and “Sligo River Blues”) are the original 1959 versions. “Uncloudy Day” was actually the same recording, as was “St. Louis Blues” in an edited version.
The 1959 album contained a version of Blind Blake’s “West Coast Blues”, which (despite being rerecorded in 1964) was not included on the album. To fill the gap, the new version of “Transcendental Waterfall” was extended to over 10 minutes long, a glimpse of things to come.
By 1967 Fahey had released a number of albums and was very successful thus it was decided that his first two albums be released in stereo; they were both rerecorded, resulting in a third version of Blind Joe Death (as above), with a new, shorter version of “The Transcendental Waterfall” and a new song, “I’m Gonna Do All I Can for My Lord”.
The 1967 version received five stars in the second edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide, however, it should be noted that the 1967 versions of Blind Joe Death and Death Chants, Breakdowns & Military Waltzes were actually recorded in mono, and briefly released on mono LP. Later in 1967, these recordings were edited to create a stereo effect and released on stereo LP with new artwork.
The 1996 Fantasy/Takoma CD release, The Legend of Blind Joe Death, contains the 1964 and 1967 versions of the album, with a previously unreleased 1964 recording of “West Coast Blues”, however, this CD does not include the latest ‘shorter’ 1967 recording of “The Transcendental Waterfall”, as mentioned above.
For years Fahey and Takoma continued to treat the imaginary guitarist Blind Joe Death as a real person, including booklets with their LPs containing biographical information about him including the “fact” that he had a guitar made from a baby’s coffin and that he had taught Fahey to play.
Fahey sometimes incorporated the myth of Blind Joe into his performances, wearing dark glasses and being led by the arm onto the stage.
Blind Joe had after all appeared again in Fahey’s 1965 release “The Transfiguration Of Blind Joe Death”.
Again it was only recognised for it’s brilliance following later re-issues, it is interesting to note that the distinctive cover of The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death is briefly focused on in a shot of a record store in Stanley Kubrick‘s film A Clockwork Orange. The jacket design and drawing are by David Omar White.
After its reissue in 1997, “The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death” received highly laudatory reviews with often “On the Sunny Side of the Ocean” being identified as the “undeniable highlight of the album”.
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