John Fahey Film: In Search Of Blind Joe Death

James Cullingham (who made a Fahey doc for Canadian radio in 1982) has made a nice film about John Fahey. It is the first such documentary – a surprise to Cullingham as much as anyone else. It’ll be on BBC4 in November apparently,  but in the meantime it’s showing in London in the coming week. Details at the bottom of this, which is a news piece from Uncut magazine I wrote a couple of months ago. 

The film tells an at times enchanting, occasionally disturbing story, tacitly as much about the rise of Fahey as a hip figure as much as anything else. (It’s hard to imagine Pete Townshend, sincere as his admiration for Fahey  is, participating before now in such a film.) I hope you have the opportunity of checking it out. There is more info at:

To hear Pete Townshend talk about him, as he does in a new documentary film to be shown on BBC4, one would think that music fans would already know a great deal about the wayward, brilliant career of John Fahey.

“He seemed to be the folk guitar equivalent of William Burroughs or Charles Bukowski,” says Townshend in the film, In Search Of Blind Joe Death – The Saga Of John Fahey. “He had that powerful thing we look for in American writers and artists. He created a new language.”

As the film explores, Fahey’s music (much of it released on Takoma, his own record label) expanded immeasurably the potential for the guitar as a solo instrument, along the way touching on folk, country blues, music concrete, Indian and Brazilian music, even noise – yet never constrained by any one for long. Fahey’s policy did not bring him riches (before he died, at 61, he had been living in an Oregon motel room), but it would be a mistake, says film-maker James Cullingham, to skew his narrative – a childhood scarred by abuse; problems with alcohol and prescription drugs – towards tragedy.

“He was an imp and a great kidder,” says Cullingham. “He loved American roots music, but refused to become a fetishist about it. He recovered the work of African American musical geniuses, but treated them as human individuals, not as icons. In that regard, he loved to deflate the folk and civil rights movements. He believed in music and resented attempts to mix it with political debate.”

Cullingham met Fahey in Toronto in 1982, and made a documentary about him for Canadian Public radio, interviewing Fahey as he restrung his guitar prior to playing a packed-out club set, afterwards making dinner for Fahey and his wife. Cullingham and Fahey stayed in touch for several years. When his attention turned to the idea in 2009, Cullingham was astonished that nobody had yet filmed a Fahey documentary.  Here, after all, was a man whose expansive music was bolstered by an equally rich and eclectic personal mythology.

“He loved turtles and the natural world,” says Cullingham, “and I think saw them, in some personal way, as a source of his inspiration and a comfort. He studied world religions, mythology and the origins of psychoanalysis. He knew a staggering amount about railway history and rivers. He could muse and write entertainingly about such topics.”

Though it is his classic 1960s recordings for Takoma that are most revered, Fahey continued to reinvent his music, collaborating towards the end of his life with underground musicians like the No-Neck Blues Band. He even began painting.

“I’d suggest the last five years of his life were among his most productive,” says Cullingham, “and according to his closest friends he was as funny and zany as ever. He forged on as an artist while renouncing many material comforts.”

One of the many nice moments in the film is of Fahey playing live on a local TV station guitar show sometime in the late 1960s. During a slightly awkward but amusing interview, the presenter tells Fahey her thoughts.

“A lot of people sound like other people,” she says. “You don’t sound like anybody.”

Fahey smirks, shyly. “Good.”


From James:

In Search of Blind Joe Death – The Saga of John Fahey returns to London next week – one year after its Raindance Film Festival premiere.

Thursday, October 3 19h at Goldsmiths, University of London. The film + live music + discussion = good times, indeed!

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