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John Fahey’s Dance of Death

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There is a kind of pasture. It is a delicate, inviting place. The scene is bucolic, crepuscular, and…humid. Perhaps we are in the South, somewhere near Baton Rouge. Fireflies emit their flickering signals with poignant delicacy. They are of one mind. Perhaps there is some August plantation home, foregrounding a purpling sky and the silhouettes of magnolia trees. The sound of whippoorwills. On the wraparound veranda, there is a man with little to say. This is how John Fahey’s instrumental guitar opus, “Sunflower River Blues,” begins.

The vaguely plaintive, lackadaisical strumming of suspended chords inaugurates “Sunflower River Blues,” and so begins a representative excursion into Mr. Fahey’s style, the first of its kind in a genre named, by Fahey himself, “American Primitive Guitar.” American Primitive Guitar is, as its name suggests, a kind of guitar playing which eschews the harmonic complexities and requisite education of classical guitar. While performed in a similar way, American Primitive is more rooted in the “untrained” tradition of blues and folk music (that is, outside the purview of European conservatories). It makes use of the repetition, propulsive rhythms, melodies, and precise fingerpicking of the Mississippi Delta, and often melds those qualities with the reserved, wistful moods of certain European folk and classical pieces.

But this is selling Fahey short. Fahey was a true synthesist, pulling from whatever genre appealed to him. Despite his ostensibly untrained background, the possibilities of the acoustic guitar are on full display in Fahey’s idiosyncratic recordings. He borrowed from the blues, Indian ragas, flamenco, Celtic folk, and even recorded some Christmas albums. Fahey was a musicologist in the most proper sense of the word, and the product of his curiosity was a truly timeless art form.

What does it mean for art to be “timeless?” Is it a piece’s expression of some universal feeling? A feeling which belongs not to some particular ethnos, nation, spatial/temporal locality, specialization, or tribe, but to humanity as a whole? If so, it’s easy to see why Fahey’s work might be labeled as such. Setting aside the music itself, something about the “primitive” aspect of American Primitive Guitar is associated, for me, with timelessness, some antediluvian state of harmony with Nature which transcends modern notions of in-group and out-group.

Such an association is problematic, and no doubt the result of an internalized “noble savage” mythos. However, Fahey himself was quick to dismiss any such lofty interpretations of his coinage. In a 1980s interview, Fahey says, “All I meant was, one, that I don’t have a name for it, and two, the closest you could come would be to call it primitive, in the painting sense. A primitive painter is one whose untutored. That’s all I meant. But other people got hold of it and gave it other connotations.”

Here. Fahey seems to have understood that his utilization of traditional forms was not dialectically opposed to musical innovation and progress. He was not attempting to go backwards in time to some pastoral age, to some recondite Truth lost in the cumulation of technology. Rather, Fahey was looking ahead, and not just as a pioneering artist, but as a thinker.

“Timelessness” can be thought of, literally, as the lack of time, or being outside of time. That which is truly “timeless” is eternal, and Fahey’s recognition of eternity is unmistakable. His penetrating religious sense seems to have bolstered his understanding of the Great Beyond. In a letter to writer Jeff Broome, Fahey explained, “The life of faith is not something we do in cute little catch words, biblical references, bumper-stickers, clubs, cheap publicity, biblical literalism, etc. Christianity is something you do in your closet, ie., unobserved, unadvertised. It is not just one more thing advertised cheaply among other things & of, consequently the same nature & same class as those other things.”

Fahey’s religion is noncommercial, individual, nonsectarian. In true Christian fashion, the joy of certain Fahey pieces, such as “Sunflower River Blues,” is offset by a fair bit of apocalypticism elsewhere. In “Wine and Roses,” the opening track from the album The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites, Fahey evokes a plague-ridden funeral dirge, sounding at times like a 17th century John Dowland piece, albeit whittled into the blues. It comes as no surprise, then, that Fahey would say, in an interview, “I think we're in an apocalypse and it's pretty bad and getting worse.”

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Image via Getty Images

written by
Edward Liaboh
May 18, 2021