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Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist

Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist


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John Fahey hovers ghostlike in the sound of almost every acoustic guitarist who came after him, from Leo Kottke to Jimmy Page. In essence, John Fahey is to the solo acoustic guitar what Jimi Hendrix was to the electric: the man whom all subsequent musicians had to listen to. 

Fahey made more than forty albums between 1959 and his death in 2001, most of them featuring only his solo steel-string guitar. He fused elements of folk, blues, and experimental composition, taking familiar American sounds and recontextualizing them as something entirely new. His artistic voice transformed the cultural landscape of his time—and ours. 

Yet despite his stature as a groundbreaking visionary, Fahey's intentions—as a man and as an artist—remain largely unexamined. His memoir, How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life, was largely fiction; his liner notes were full of half-truths. John Fahey's real story has never been told—until now. 

Journalist Steve Lowenthal has spent years researching Fahey's life and music, talking with his producers, his friends, his peers, his wives, his business partners, and many others. He describes how Fahey introduced prewar blues records and the men who made them to a broader public; how his independent label Takoma set new standards; how he battled his demons, including stage fright, alcohol, and prescription pills; how he ended up homeless and mentally unbalanced; and how, despite his troubles, he managed to found a new record label, Revenant, that won Grammys and remains critically revered. 

This portrait of a troubled and troubling man in a constant state of creative flux is the compelling story of a great American outcast. 

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613738795
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/01/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 1,194,492
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Steve Lowenthal is a longtime music writer whose work has been published in Spin, the Village Voice, and many other publications, including his own magazine Swingset. He runs the VDSQ record label dedicated to current instrumental guitar music and manages the label Black Editions. He lives in Los Angeles. David Fricke is a senior editor at Rolling Stone magazine.

Read an Excerpt

Dance of Death

The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist

By Steve Lowenthal

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2014 Steve Lowenthal
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61374-522-9



"I just watched shades of red pass over everything. This went on for some time. Until the red went away and the black came. The black did come and then it too went away. And so did the memories. It took awhile but the red, the black and the memories all went away. For thirty years they went away and only came out in psychoanalysis."

— John Fahey, How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life

Takoma Park, Maryland, in the mid-1950s embodied the promise of postwar America at its fullest. Among the first planned commuter suburbs, Takoma Park centered around the B&O Railroad. The Victorian-style houses that dotted the landscape were close enough to Washington, DC, that the employees of the growing government who lived there could get to and from work in a reasonable amount of time, and yet far enough away from the city's unsavory elements that they could feel safe. Deep woods ran through and surrounded the landscape, enough to remind its denizens that it too was once wild. Lush hardwood scenery punctuated the skyline. The Sligo Creek ran through the wilderness, creating a gorgeous naturalism (a nine-mile park ran through the middle of the town). One could easily get lost among the foliage when the light hit and reflected through the multihued leaves of autumn's canopy. Takoma Park was the best of many worlds.

Maryland straddled both sides of the racial and cultural divide, with some areas increasingly liberal and others that hung close to old Southern ideologies. Takoma Park was largely considered among the more left-leaning towns. There still lingered traces of racism, though more generally in the older, more established communities of Montgomery County and nearby Prince George's County. Takoma Park was hardly integrated in the 1950s, with pockets of poverty where poor black or poor white families lived. A public works building close to Ritchie Avenue still had segregated bathrooms. African Americans were employed by the city mainly for trash collection. There were no freeways connecting Takoma Park to other cities, so, as in many suburbs, life remained slow.

The children were the first generation raised in suburban incubation, and they would experience fewer of the hardships of the previous eras, with depressions and world wars behind them. Yet some were left with a hunger for rebellion — or at least for a glimpse into a world that wasn't their own. Unable to connect with the ideas of their time, these teenagers looked backward at the ignored cultural leftovers of years past, finding new value in forms of expression such as blues, bluegrass, and folk music. There were mysteries in records, feelings that were not discussed in any other language. These scratchy, roughly rendered sounds transported listeners back to a time when the problems of 1950s modernity were only distant imaginings.

John Aloysius Fahey was born on February 28, 1939, in Washington, DC, to an adoring mother, Jane Hayes, and a distant father, Aloysius. Al worked at the National Institutes of Heath and spent a lot of time out of the house. Jane worked as a secretary at the US Geological Survey, though her main focus was her son. In 1944, the Faheys moved from the city to a house on New York Avenue in Takoma Park, an ideal setting for a young family. Al ran the house with strict Catholic discipline. Having grown up in an orphanage, his upbringing had been difficult and filled with abuse, which influenced how he treated his shy, meek son. He controlled his family with a sharp tongue and a firm hand. Both athletic and quick-witted, he quickly grew disappointed in his clumsy son, who rarely showed much interest in sports. Their one common trait was a love of music. Al knew music theory and played Irish harp around the house. With red hair and freckles against his pale skin, his heritage was plain to see. The family often took trips to local fairs to see country and bluegrass performances at places such as the New River Ranch in Rising Sun, Maryland, where they saw artists like the Stanley Brothers perform. In the summer months one could often hear classical music blasting from the open windows of the Fahey house.

Jane was softer than her husband, with the darker features seen in her son. She got by with a pleasant smile, always avoiding difficult subjects and under the thumb of her husband. Jane doted on her child and offered him constant encouragement, becoming his unquestioning champion. "I remember the night we moved into the new house in the suburbs," Fahey recalled in How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life. "I was sleepy and didn't like what was going on. I remember the following morning, feeling afraid and shy, but preparing myself to go across the street where I saw the local kids hanging out. My mother was encouraging me. She gave me a lot of support."

Those Takoma Park kids formed a neighborhood gang of about fifteen members, mostly boys but a few girls too, and made it a point to know who was moving in, especially the fellow children. Eddie and Larry were two older elementary school kids who decided to admit Fahey, who was about five at the time. The connection to his new neighborhood gang provided him with company and acceptance for the first time. Every day — starting from the day after he met them until sometime in 1948 — they came over to his house and took him everywhere they went. "Every day. Everywhere. And they taught me. For some reason they loved me and felt sorry for me, instead of simply snubbing me like most kids would do, they took on the responsibility of rearing me and educating me," recalled Fahey in his memoir, romanticizing his friends' kindness. They raised him in the way only slightly older peers could. They taught him about sex and simplistic politics, and contradicted the ethos of the Catholic Church.

There was a dishonesty in the church that Fahey could never come to terms with. He was taught that the meek inherited the earth, but in school the spoils went to the popular and the strong. Day-to-day normalcies rang false to him. "They made us into monsters," wrote Fahey. "We didn't want to be monsters. But we are monsters. And it's all their faults. All they care about is keeping up with the Joneses, whoever in hell the Joneses are."

The competitive nature of navigating social pecking orders left him cold. Fahey instead retreated into a lush fantasy life, along with his friends. Since Takoma Park had brought them all together, they saw the town itself as possessed of magical properties. They dreamed of a secret race of cat people who lived in Magruder Park, one of their favorite local escapes, and only came out at night. The group created its own "history" and pieced together various complex story lines relating to their imagined local demigod, whom they named "the Great Koonaklaster." "Eddie glorified the neighborhood and the people who lived there," remembered Fahey. "He told us all that it was a special place like Valhalla or paradise. The very soil was sacred. The water in the creeks and springs was holy water. The oak trees were the highest in the world. And these oak trees weren't like regular oak trees. They were sacred oak trees planted by the Great Koonaklaster himself while he was creating the world." Through ritualistic chanting the local gang would state their devotion to this imaginary deity in exchange for magical milkshakes and protection from adults. Turtles were considered sacred in their world.

This imaginative spirit helped ameliorate the ever-growing problems at home. In response to his father's temper, Fahey began to take out his frustrations at school. In the seventh grade he was suspended for attacking a female classmate. "But it wasn't fair," wrote Fahey. "After all, I was just doing what my father did to me all the time. Nothing unusual. What was all the fuss about? Oh I knew. I knew. I was wrong and my father was wrong, too. Very much in the wrong. Evil. But I couldn't tell anyone or he might come and get me and kill me."

Things at home soon came to a head. Al and Jane divorced just before John entered high school, and the task of raising their son fell squarely on Jane's shoulders. John and Jane moved out of the house on New York Avenue, where Al would remain for the rest of his life. They moved into Jane's mother's apartment at 7101 New Hampshire Avenue in nearby Prince George's County. Traumatic as divorce would be for any teenager, the split was most likely to John's benefit. Now he no longer had to live with his father, who had nothing kind to say to him or much to offer him. However, Jane struggled to make ends meet, and John never got along with his grandmother, whom he found cold and unloving. The move also separated him from his Takoma Park pals, and he began attending high school in nearby Adelphi.

John developed a hot-headed impulsiveness, overcoming his once-shy demeanor. When he began high school in 1952, the pop charts were filled with bland singers like Rosemary Clooney and Eddie Fisher, everything pleasant and mundane. Fahey began to identify himself as an outsider, feeling he had nothing in common with the popular representations he saw and heard. "I don't know if you boys experienced junior and senior high school the way I did," Fahey said. "I hated them — for various reasons. Aside from the boredom, and the jail-like atmosphere and all the other terrible things, there was no atmosphere for honesty." Fahey would soon find a perfect template for his new persona in bad-boy, leather-clad figurehead James Dean. Fahey became a tall young man at six foot four, with a slim yet solid frame. With such an imposing presence, he was able to adopt the role of the rebel easily. And with his black leather jacket and slicked-back hair, he looked ready for trouble — even though he was far from a tough guy.

School seemed to increasingly offend him as he continued into his teens. Neither teachers nor students provided him solace. He began a search for something, anything that he could connect with. If the suburbs were false and couldn't handle the truth, he would look elsewhere for a language to express his disconnection. "They taught us to love each other at the same time they taught us to kill one other," he wrote. "But it wouldn't work with me. It just wouldn't work. I tried. I really tried. But I couldn't make it work. And then I felt guilty. I hated myself. I really did. I hated myself because I couldn't make these two things work together. I couldn't. You don't know how hard I tried to follow those crazy-making instructions, mores, assumptions, actions. Even today, when I think about it, I almost start crying."

Girls he had crushes on, kids who beat him up, and the normal teenage social pressures all seemed liked gigantic, life-altering traumas to him. The everyday trials of growing up from which most recover hit him extremely hard. While many adolescents consider themselves miserable, Fahey seemed more miserable and alienated than most. With his vivid imagination came equally lucid nightmares. "I wanted to kill my parents and then myself," wrote Fahey. "That's what the strange dreams meant. I wanted to kill us because there was something wrong with us. And everyone knew it, too."

He sought refuge in music. One day, while flipping through the radio stations, he became drawn to the instrumental tapestry of classical music. Fahey embraced the strident power of revolutionary Russian composers; they became the first soundtrack to his rebellion. In his memoir he imagined vicious fantasies: "At Mount Rainier Junior High School, in the same town where William Peter Blatty's exorcism actually took place, the kids took one of the teachers onto the roof and threw him off, killing him. Maybe the revolution was beginning. I listened to WGMS, then called WQQW. They played a lot of Shostakovich and Prokofiev — Russian, Communist composers. The music was so angry that I believed the revolution was going to come. And it did."

Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring had infamously sparked riots upon its initial performances with its brazen use of atonality. In stark contrast to his beloved children's work Peter and the Wolf, Sergei Prokofiev also composed war sonatas, venting his anger at the Soviet regime. Fahey, inspired by these composers and seeing a way to tell stories without the trappings of language, began to trace out his own musical aspirations. Through the power and violence of Russian music he discovered concepts of dissonance, atonality, and drastic rhythmic shifts. He dreamed of destroying the structures that tormented him, hearing this in the reverberations of his tiny radio speaker. Finally, the music spoke a truth he could relate to.

But anger wasn't his only excessive emotion. He would be prone to fits of great joy, energy, and enthusiasm, too. His passions for what excited him were as severe as his hatred for what bothered him. His musical focus shifted in 1954 at the age of fifteen, when his favorite station changed formats to country and western. He started to hear records like Jimmie Rodgers's "Blue Yodel No. 7," a fiddle and acoustic guitar number lamenting a girl who left the singer so lonesome that he didn't know what to do. Fahey's reaction was immediate. "It reached out and grabbed me and it has never let go of me," he remembered. "I went limp. I almost fell off the sofa. My mouth fell open. My eyes widened and expanded. I found myself hyperventilating. ... I screamed for help but nobody was around and nobody came. Nothing has ever been the same since." Inspired and moved by those sounds coming through the radio, Fahey decided to pick up a seventeen-dollar Sears & Roebuck guitar. He earned the money by taking up a local paper route.

On summer nights he walked the streets of Takoma Park, exploring the boundaries of his neighborhood, which included a trash collection site near which several low-income families lived, less than a mile from his own house. One night he ran into an older black musician named Elmer Williams, who lived down on Prince George's Avenue. He was picking a guitar in a Blind Boy Fuller style. Soon Williams would teach Fahey how to play the twelve-bar blues in E. It was Fahey's first-ever encounter with a black musician. Every summer Friday night there would be giant outdoor crab boils in the mixed part of town. Fahey recalled going once and hearing Williams play for hours at these parties while neighbors and guests danced hypnotically in the street.

Like many lonely teenagers he found playing guitar an ideal activity, because it required no one else. He sat in his room with his instrument for hours on end. Feeding his newfound musical habit, he set out on a mission to find any information he could about music of all kinds, picking up musical techniques and ideas where he could. The first step was trying to track down a copy of the song he couldn't get out of his head, "Blue Yodel No. 7." Few people had any interest in or knowledge of this music, which barely existed in physical form. Asking around school, he heard about a young record collector named Dick Spottswood, a popular kid two years Fahey's senior who had friends in many different circles. Spottswood had a far different high school experience than Fahey. Indeed, not everyone who sought out such music was as tormented as he was. "When we were still in our teens the road ahead was filled with choices. We were lucky. We were kids getting good educations," Spottswood says. Fahey seemed troubled and disgruntled, while Spottswood was far more amiable and well adjusted.

"We had mutual friends who introduced us," recalls Spottswood. "He gave off very much a tall, tough-guy image. He dressed in T-shirts with the cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve and a toothpick in the mouth — that kind of thing. He had long black hair. He was very good-looking in a tough, blue-collar kind of way. At least that was the image he gave out. When I came to know him I could see behind the façade, but that's what he wanted to show to the world."

The two became friends, and together they would listen to blue-grass artists like Bill Monroe, while Fahey drank enough Coca-Cola to kill a normal man. Fahey would drive the pair to local thrift stores and soon beyond, up to Baltimore to hunt for records. Spottswood noticed that his new friend seemed to be suffering a great deal from his home life: "He was subject to such mood swings. He was depressed a good bit of the time, and at times when he was on the other side of the spectrum his enthusiasms threatened to carry him off," he says.

Although the suburbs were planned for families, kids had few desirable options for spending their free time. For a while Fahey hung out at the local pool hall with some greaser kids, but ultimately he knew he didn't fit in there. There was nothing there to stimulate his growing existential concerns. Through the Episcopal Youth Fellowship at Trinity Episcopal Church he found a refuge from the banality he saw around him, as well as a safe haven for intellectual and theological conversation. Away from the high school socialites, he put aside his tough-guy act and revealed a more pensive side. Attending an Episcopal church also doubled as rebellion against his Catholic father. There he met Anthony Lee, who played organ at services. Lee was a self-described awkward teenager and happily adopted the nickname Flea. "My first impression of John was simply that he was weird, which appealed to me because I was considered weird too," remembers Lee. At the time, Lee was a closeted homosexual and naturally a target in the repressive environs of 1950s suburbia. But Fahey, no stranger to ridicule from his strict father, did nothing to defend him. Lee recalls that "Fahey and I never hung out anywhere except at Trinity and at his home, primarily because he was ashamed to be seen in my company by his hard-rock friends, in whose presence, at Trinity Church, he mercilessly ridiculed me." Fahey, though deeply sensitive, had a sadistic side; he was able to target people's vulnerabilities, a trait gleaned from his father.


Excerpted from Dance of Death by Steve Lowenthal. Copyright © 2014 Steve Lowenthal. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword David Fricke vii

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction xiii

1 When the Catfish Is in Bloom 1

2 Sunflower River Blues 15

3 The Legend of Blind Joe Death 25

4 On the Sunny Side of the Ocean 33

5 Poor Boy Long Way from Home 49

6 Voice of the Turtle 65

7 View East from the Top of the Riggs Road B&O Trestle 87

8 Old Fashioned Love 105

9 Let Go 125

10 When the Springtime Comes Again 141

11 Dance of the Inhabitants 155

12 Red Cross 171

Epilogue: I Remember Blind Joe Death 185

Source Notes 189

Bibliography 203

John Fahey Discography 209

Index 215

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