Born in 1939 in Maryland, John Fahey pioneered the use of traditional country and blues finger picking to showcase the acoustic steel string guitar as a solo instrument that could play a mix of traditional and non-traditional musical genres. He collaged ideas associated with Bartok, Charles Ives, Indian and Gamelan music, Tibetan chanting and western hymns, into often eerie, unpredictable improvisations and meditations. A proficient self-taught guitarist by his teens, Fahey referred to himself and his musical style as “American primitive,” although he had a B.A from American University and an M.A. in musicology from UCLA. He released his first album in 1958 under the pseudonym Blind Joe Death. During his trips collecting music and records in the south, he rediscovered Delta Blues legends Bukka White and Skip James whom he helped get recorded. Fahey released numerous albums and performed from the sixties until the early nineties. He was ranked thirty fifth in Rolling Stone’s 2003 “One Hundred Greatest Guitarists,” but his eccentricities limited him to a cult following. Before he died in 2001 he had stopped many years of drinking, recovered from Epstein Barr disease and was playing and recording again. He turned away from his earlier styles, what he called “cosmic sentimentalism” and began exploring more experimental electronic music.
Once, in the winter of nineteen sixty four
I met John Fahey at Mother Neptune’s,
The coffee house by Los Angeles City College.
I was eighteen, growing out my hair,
With a joint in my pack of Chesterfields,
As I counted on my burning fingers
All the trespasses that would raise the lamp
That would cauterize the needle,
To dip in ink from a broken ballpoint pen.
Blue stigmata carnations that someday
Would bloom as music inside my head,
Or later, now, as words on this page.
John came in wearing a blue work shirt,
Jeans, and a sport coat, which I thought
Was very cool in those days.
He was holding his hand on his head
“So it wouldn’t fall off,” someone joked.
It was only later that I came to recognize
The resolve of the posture,
Having been certain at times, that if my voice
Receded any farther into the corner of the room
It would turn itself inside out
And I would start talking in tongues and disappear
Like smoke from a signal fire,
Out the top of my head.
He was dangling a soda bottle by the neck
Jack Daniels mixed with Coca Cola.
He borrowed my Gibson with the faded, redish top
And played Christmas songs, in open tunings
One after another, until figures in white robes appeared
Up to their waists in a familiar river
In the smoked-up windows of the coffee house,
Singing “ Low How A Rose ‘Ere Blooming,”
And he smiled once or twice, like the Cheshire Cat.
“We three Kings,” transfigured
Under the Mixolydian colors of a modal star.
Sometimes he seemed to move through himself
Like the current in that river,
Talking easy to me, every once in a while,
As if we were friends, a slow, droll voice,
German philosophy that I didn’t understand.
Of rivers and religion, how he used to go fishing
For days at time with Bukka White
When the catfish were in bloom,
Bukka White, who told him,
Be careful what you ask for John,
The past is really in front of you, before your eyes,
The future is out behind.
Maybe you need to learn to walk backward
In your own footprints,
Like a Seminole Indian.
“Joy To The World,” finger-picked and syncopated
With a blues turn around and an old-timey riff.
A reverence for the mood, not the holiday,
Whatever brooded over that river
That we have given so many names.
He finished with “Silent Night,” which he played
Like a Hawaiian lullaby with the back of a kitchen knife,
Sliding it up and down the neck of the guitar
That he held tilted on his lap like a baby.
Nice little instrument with some decent sustain,
He drawled, You don’t see many red guitars.
You got a real sweet spot
Up around the tenth fret, on the B string.”
It doesn’t need much tremolo.
You can feel it can’t you,
In your hands and chest
Right through the sound box and fret board?
And I nodded my head,
Even though I didn’t feel a thing.
The Song of the Turtle
“Days Gone By,” when those cool fingers
Whispered over skin and flesh.
His Mother’s hands fluttered and cooed like birds,
Nesting, conjuring the murmurs,
A light in the palm of the heart, touching,
A rocking softness, before he had words to speak,
A face that he entered,
Bigger than the sun, painted and rouged.
The perfume, the smell of liquor, coffee and cigarettes,
Augured the moistness of lips that parted
And closed, on his neck and chest.
She would cool the kiss with a puff of breath,
Then touch the spot with her forefinger
As if to seal it like Solomon’s Pentagram,
Drawn on his body in invisible ink
That women seemed to notice
When he closed his eyes and curved his long neck
Back and to the side when he played,
As if listening for a voice, the cradled humming,
When the shades were drawn in the darkened living room.
His father worked for the government across the line,
A.J., who sang and played the upright piano,
Laid on those heavy ancestral hands at night,
Who drank and doled out the fruit when his mother left.
John, his hair slicked back with Brillcream.
“Just a little dab will do you,” John Aloysius Fahey.
He raised turtles in a concrete pit behind the house.
When he was little and the night noise had subsided
The turtles used to sing to him of days gone by,
When the Catfish were in bloom.
At The Ash Grove, 1965
“Ever I get my new house done
Sail away, ladies, sail away.
I’ll give the old one to my son.
Sail away ladies, sail away.”
His hands shook, so he played the first piece fast,
Just to burn off the adrenalin,
Guitar low on his hip,
His head tilted back and to the side,
Long neck curved, eyes closed.
Transcendental Water Fall,
Requiem for the Last Steam Engine Train.
The Maiden Voyage of the Yellow Princess.
Dance of the Inhabitants of the Invisible Bladensburg Castle.
Imagine Bartok in syncopation, Stravinsky and Ravel
Finger-picked on a steel string guitar.
He slid a tarnished lipstick tube
On his little finger up and down the strings,
While his thumb played the alternating bass,
And his fingers picked melody and harmony,
Left hand hammering down, pulling off
The pleasures from the slack and sympathetic strings.
Open tunings gave him perfect chords
In odd and unfamiliar inversions,
The spaciousness of Open C for example,
The top two strings both tuned in unison
Without the third interval became a drone of bees.
The same note, played on different strings
Is not the same note, if every object
Posits its own universe.
The regress of overtones reassured us
Of some kind of order
To whatever it is we are crossing.
He followed the chromatic descent to the dark
Root of the tonic, the turnaround and hesitation.
Don’t look back John.
Whatever’s there might be gaining on you.
The anticipation of another twelve bars
As the steamboat comes around the bend,
The whistle piercing the mist
Before the smokestacks emerge above the willows.
The calliope pipes “The Tennessee Waltz.”
A Day of the Dead skeleton in the pilot house,
Grins and holds the wheel steady.
A deck hand that looks just like you, John
Checks the fathoms, and marks the twine.
Then a hymn, simple and four square
When the hour is fulfilled,
Jesus Is A Dying Bed Maker and all
Who navigate that river squeezed into a tune.
A Raga For Mississippi John Hurt.
The Camptown Races, A Bicycle Built For Two.
Variations on Saint Saens’ The Yellow Princess.
He stabilized the fantasies on the harmonic armature
Until it had a life of its own,
Decks of teak and mahogany,
A jade prow and an ivory hull.
Not much banter in between songs
Except for one quiet monologue
About seeing Jimmy Reed perform
Seated in a straight back chair.
His wife stood behind him,
Her hands on his shoulders,
Whispering lyrics in his ear:
“I got a bird that whistles
I got a bird that sings,
But without my Corina
Life isn’t worth a thing.”
John fiddled with the tuning pegs
Squinting out at the audience.
In the middle of the second set
He toppled backwards off the stool
Knocking over his doctored bottle of Coke,
Clutching his guitar to his chest.
Gravity may be one of God’s clearer manifestations,
Along with pressure and coincidence, he mumbled,
Slowly, deliberately, as he set himself up again.
People laughed nervously
But I suppose we encouraged his oddities,
In exchange for a peek around the bend in that river
That we have given so many names.
Marking on the twine is nine fathoms.
Sail away, Johnny, sail away.
About the Author:
Ed Frankel divides his time between Northern California and Los Angeles where he teaches for the UCLA Writing Programs and Antioch Los Angeles B.A. and MFA programs. His recent poetry has appeared in Fugue, The Dogwood Journal of Poetry and Prose, Nimrod, Pedestal and others. His chapbook, When The Catfish are in Bloom: Requiem For John Fahey was published in Fall 2008 by Finishing Line Press. His Chapbook People Of The Air will be published by New American Press in January 2009. He was nominated for the Pushcart Best of the Small Presses Prize 2006. His essay “In the Lap of the Angel of History: A Memoir,” is included in Cesar Chavez and the Farmworker Movement, 1962-1993. Sal Si Puede Press. Ed can be contacted at his website, Edfrankel.com.