Ed Denson on Fahey and 'Transfiguration'

An intriguing article from 1966 written by Ed Denson when he was managing John Fahey. I've done my best to crop it so that it will post up here and be reasonably readable despite the joins. It is obvious that Ed Denson is happy to play the same games as John Fahey when it comes to mythologising the 'Transfiguration' album.

Jo Gerrard: Dark Nights

It was raining on Sunday night and I asked my friends to go see John Fahey playing at freight and Salvage on Monday night. i couldn't believe they both wanted to go. I had written to him four months earlier when his Anthology, Return of the Repressed came out. He hadn't written back. My first fan letter and it didn't get answered.


My software business (children's software) was struggling. I was 43. divorced after 11 years with a seven year old son. I was working day and night to get the business up. My live work unit was by the train tracks. I was living on the edge of the world. The business eat, money, time and all my energy. But it was a place to put my art, my writing and I had hopes. When Returned of the Repressed came out I put in my computer's cd-player and with head phones churned out the work. His mastery was inspiring. If John Fahey with all his problems could keep going I could too. I was so inspired I wrote him a fan letter secretly hoping he might write back.


The first time I heard John Fahey was in high school in 1970. He came to Cal poly San Luis Obispo. He was late. His plane had been delayed. We waited awhile. He walked in with a garland of flowers which he took off and put on a chair. He was grouchy and told us that we were making too much noise on our squeaky folding chairs. I remember that concert note for note.


I lived in a small town Arroyo Grande twenty miles away. I found myself listening to guitar, no words, no back up. No singers. No tunes that I could hum. But I was fascinated. (Primarily because he looked a bit like my drama teacher who I had a crush on and because I had never heard anything in any way like what I was listening to). John Fahey took notes that didn't belong together and worked them until I knew they did.


I didn't know my favorite piece Yellow Princess was about a boat. I thought it was me. The Yellow Princess bound in a space and time that didn't fit. In college I bought my first John Fahey album. He always had the worst photographs of himself. He mostly looked like a borderline derelict. (In reality John actually had a good face. Very blue eyes and good strong features. He did look straggly. But he never looked as bad as his photos on the CD's.) The liner notes were about the same as the photos. John had a free form letter.

I followed his career as much as I could. I got married when I was 19 in college and dragged my husband to the Boarding House in San Francisco. We could only get tickets to the second show which was too late for me. fell asleep watching John play and chug Coca-Cola.
I was always surprised truthfully that anyone else liked his music. Usually when I like something, I find I am the only person or one of few. I read he was married to someone named Melody and as John's groupie I felt jealous. Oh to be named Melody. If only he had met me.


It was a Monday night and Stephan Grossman was recording the gig for a tape. John was the last act. Two very long acts went before him. During intermission I saw someone who looked like a Hawaiian Santa Claus walking down the right aisle with dark glasses. I did a double take. It had to be him. Maybe he had gone blind. I knew he had been sick. I had come this far I left my friends and darted out quickly and found him sitting on a couch talking to a young man. I brazenly went up to him and asked him why he hadn't answer my letter. He said he hadn't gotten it. I asked him if he would like to have coffee. He said he didn't drink coffee but sure. We figured out that he was recording the whole next day so we agreed to meet after the show7. I was a little undone by the speed of this. John also looked a little unkempt. I wouldn't have been interested in someone looking like him, dark glasses, tee shirt, and straggly beard but this was John Fahey. This was the person that wrote Yellow Princess. I kept this in my mind and took my heart in my hand. He seemed to have a very sweet side as well and I had a lot to ask him.

The next week was a whole series of events that I haven't really sorted out. Somehow we were very similar in that we were totally unpractical. John was a very sweet person and he was also a total mess. I was nervous about our first dinner date at the Thai restaurant down the street. After all what were we going to talk about? Did we have anything in common besides me being a fan of his? I didn't play music. I was twenty years younger than him. We didn't even have friends in common (in turned out that we actually did).

We found we were both Hindu (by choice not birth). We were also both half Jewish. I asked John questions about Hinduism. He wrote down a mantra and handed it to me and answered some basic questions. John had studied in India and introduced me to Sri Anadamayi Ma one of the great Indian Saints. He told me about the monkeys at the Ashram who stole his shoes who he had to bribe with bananas. He told me the garland I saw him with in San Luis Obispo w'as presented by the head of the Hare Krishna movement Srila Prabhupada who he was friends with.

John was very unassuming spiritually which I appreciated immensely. All of these antidotes were said without any pride and in total humility. (I can't say that about his views on psychoanalysis) John told me he saw Jesus on an airplane. There were black children around him and John felt that Jesus loved them. John said he started to cry and was totally embarrassed at what the other passengers would think. John said at one time he and a girl friend had driven across the United States staying at religious residential places and that they were similar to Ashrams. He mentioned that these sites would change religions. The head minister for instance would decide the church was going to be Methodist and the whole congregation formerly another denomination would change. Later they
might change to Baptist. He said this was not uncommon. He told me This girl friend who he met similar to me on chance eventually went insane. He cared about her a great deal.


John told me that he felt everything had been handed to him. He had worked for nothing. He said that Tacoma had made money by centering on college radio stations. He thought he was popular because people remember when they were in love in college when they listened to him. Tacoma went down because he was never in the studio. He would tell the group to record one person and come back after touring and find they had recorded someone else. His wife also went off with the recording engineer...

He went through my CD collection and taped sections for his new pieces. I traded him the right to my art work for the rights to his music. He looked at my work and said oh sad so sad. Making fun of me and I had to laugh. Yeah I was getting sick of the sad thing too.


He took so many prescription drugs it was shocking, I think it was as many as 28 pills a day. He had restless leg syndrome and many other problems. As he said "I'm always high". I told him about being in awe of him and he kindly told me of how he felt the same way when he met Bola Seta.


Somehow we started planning our future together. John told people I was his fiancée and let him, He moved out of the hotel and stayed in my loft apartment. He started meditating and doing Yoga. He told his agent that he hadn't realized how out of shape he was. He went out with some friends and we talked about how to get him medical coverage in Berkeley. Then it all fell backward. He hurt his leg (reactivated an old injury). I got on his nerves. He accused me of being ambivalent and got very angry about this slight which I didn't understand. He said I was demanding and he could feel it when I walked into the loft. I think it was all too much for him. The thought of changing. He had been living the way he wanted which I am sure was pretty bad as to the trash, and laundry. I basically had to wait on him and it was difficult for me. I felt torn.


The dream of having a creative companion and the reality of waiting on someone much older and sicker when I had a child was staring at me. My Dharma (duty) was to my son no matter what I wanted to do. Taking care of John would not be easy. We both wanted to be together and we both wanted to be apart with no responsibilities. He had dreams of me waiting on him and I had dreams of him helping me.


What amazed me was how many of my friends also loved John Fahey. I had a stream of visitors with their albums for him to sign. He told us about how Charles Manson had come to his record company and how the cover my friend brought to sign was illustrated by someone who they were all scared of. They just let him do it to get him to leave. He liked be in the limelight and he hated it because he said people wanted to make him a God.


Music never stopped when he was staying with me. He bought Balinese music and played the albums which were ethereal. He went through my collection telling me antidotes about different performers. Van Morrison was a nice guy who had very bad stage fright. He said Leo Kottke would rather be on the road than at a home.


John played his guitar the music for "statues" where my young son and his friend would stop when the music stopped. My son asked me when John was going to record Christmas music for Stephan Grossman if John was going to be Santa Claus.

John had me do some sort of hand game with him where I copied his hand movements. He was totally self contained like an avahoota (a wild spiritual man who does not conform to the regular demands of the society). He spit out statements which made me wince. He thought Jung was a Nazi. He got into a lather about several friends who he was very mad at. We both had had very difficulty childhoods. John felt that his years of psychoanalysis had recovered his lost memory of sadistic father. He and his mother had been terrorized. He had sad longing for his father and was upset at his Mother. My story was similar in a much less dramatic manner. We were both loners as most artists are, taking solace from the sad emotional well that was given to us at a young age.

John listened to an artist I now forget. He said his mother played this music when she was ironing. That music was him. I said I felt the same way out his music. The core of me is in his music.


As quick as our relationship had begun it flew apart just as fast. I washed John's plane ticket in his clothes and the paper was everywhere. He was good natured. He told me about giving the house to Melody in exchange for the royalties. I was shocked at the thought of living in the salvation army. He said it was good He felt humiliated but there were a lot of people who needed someone to listen to them and he after many years of psychotherapy did what his therapist had done for him. John got calls at my house and I could see that his career was picking up. Fantasy just signed a contract with him. He has inherited some money from his father. An avant-garde group was interested in collaborating with him (which they eventually did). John was reluctant about touring but I guess he got over that.


I was serving John meals because he was flat on his back. What had started out as a growing romance ended up as me taking care of him and getting worn out. We tried to lighten it up by going to a flea market where John was delighted to see tapes for sale of Hitler's speeches. Red flags went up in my head as I knew he would be playing them as he did all the music he recorded over and over. I did not want to hear Hitler in my house even if it was for an art piece. I drew the first line. I said "you can't play them in my apartment". He said "no one is going to tell me what to do." I said "o.k. then will drive him back to the hotel." In my mind I wanted it to happen fast so I could start the intense cleanup at the loft. During his stay the sink had overflow, the toilet backed up and there was lint from the check all over the rug. I wanted out. Yellow Princess or no Yellow Princess.

John sang to me that "he loved me and he was sorry." But he seemed a bit too happy. I couldn't go backwards. I woke up to the fact. John was way too much for me. I had a son, and a business to get out of the ground. John and I had a scuffle when I helped carry his bags to his room. He wanted me to stay and I was pissed. Still mad about Hitler (and a couple of other heated arguments where he accused me of attacking me). He had scared me.

When he left I took out the vacuum cleaner and cleaned and cleaned, picking up the lint that was everywhere, washing every sheet and doing all the dishes and taking out the trash and I lay on my bed and cried and cried. I hadn't been in a good place in the first place and here it was a week before Valentines Day, a cold winter and I was in a worse place. I felt humiliated. I cried my eyes out after he left and cried to his Guru Anandamayi who I didn't know much about. I begged her to help me and it was the fastest help I ever got. I usually manage to be in despair for sometime. But I felt as though a big Mother figure came and held me.

We tried to keep up a friendship but it was impossible. I wrote letters and John finally answered his phone and we arranged a date for me to come up and see him in Oregon. He stood me up and it was a final ending. I had to let go. He told me he had tried the hardest with me then anyone. I don't know if that was true but I think he thought it was. I don't think he had any reserves. His health was poor and they always say if you don't have a good relationship with your Mother it's very difficult to have a relationship. John said we both needed someone to take care of us. He wanted me to marry someone really good. John where ever you are I did..


Mike Butler: All Pain and No Gain

John Fahey’s UK Tour, 1999

A bowdlerised version of this piece appeared in the April 2001edition of Mojo, to mark John Fahey’s death. It originally appeared in issue 5 of the Abner Burnett Newsletter (December, 1999), and is revised here. As painful as it is, the tale of the showdown between ‘Blind Joe Death’ and ‘Bogus Blind Drunk Burnett’ is the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll disaster story. By Mike Butler.

I don’t understand what you are worrying about. I have been touring this year in Japan, Germany, Holland, and there hasn’t been any kind of trouble anywhere. I’m not a ‘no-show’. Three months ago I decided I like touring and hate staying home and am going to tour the rest of my life. I don’t drink anymore, don’t take non-prescription drugs. I’m trusting you to do a good job, why not trust me to do a good job? - John Fahey to Paul Kelly and Mike Butler, 24 July, 1999

Fahey is freaking out about his new love. The travel agent says that from what she has seen when they show up to confuse the travel logistics, the romance is much more heated on his side of the stove. If Hitomi abandons our artist, we may be conductors on the dark diesel blinds that ride mighty John Fahey into storied oblivion. He may deliver a series of performances so despondent that Worpt is remembered as the promotion company upon whose mount the Grim Reaper rode to extinguish all enthusiasm for all time for ‘Roots Americana’. If so, and he is depressing, I will outdo him measure for measure: macabre, lurid, sordid, self-absorbed negativity - Abner Burnett to Mike Butler and Paul Kelly, 31 August, 1999

Tours don’t happen by themselves. The players behind the scenes are as crucial to the success of a tour as the players on-stage. When the backroom boys become as susceptible to grandiose delusion as any strutting prima donna, the results can be catastrophic. Take the case of Worpt UK...

As a part-time music scribe and a part-time promoter (all these part-times add up to one full-time), I do my best to raise the profile of Abner Burnett, Texas attorney, herbal nurseryman and - here’s the rub - genius songsmith. To this end, I formed a small music promotion company called Worpt UK.

To extend the dramatic personae of our tale: Paul Kelly is a former psychiatric nurse. I knew him as a face, sometimes the only other face, at the improvised jazz gigs we attended in our hometown of Manchester. When Kelly proposed that Worpt UK sponsor a joint-tour by Derek Bailey and John Fahey, I saw possibilities in the scheme. John Fahey has been an enthusiasm since schooldays (about the right age to be impressed by someone with an alter-ego called Blind Joe Death). And Derek Bailey, of course, has carved an entirely new language for the guitar. The idea of the genre-smashing pairing appealed.

Paul Kelly’s integrity was soon thrown into question, however. In 1998 Helter Skelter published Like The Night, CP Lee’s account of Bob Dylan’s 1966 Free Trade Hall gig in Manchester. The book included photographs of the concert, credited to Paul Kelly. The authorship of these photographs was disputed, and became the subject of litigation. Notwithstanding, Kelly proved to be a capable organiser. He found venues, established contacts with promoters in the various regions, booked hotel accommodation and finalised the itinerary in double-quick time. All that was needed was an investor to back the venture.

Abner Burnett is a lawyer by day who occasionally represents widows when their husbands are killed in the oilfields. Drilling crews often drop heavy objects on each other or just blow each other up. Having recently settled a case and picked up his usual exorbitant fee, Burnett is eager to piss it away on a musical mystery tour called Guitar Excursions Into The Unknown - from Henry’s Take On The Tour, an unpublished account of the Fahey tour by Abner Burnett, writing as Henry McCarty.

The tour is called Guitar Excursions Into The Unknown after a track on Fahey’s 1966 LP, The Great San Bernadino Birthday Party And Other Excursions. A company is formed - Worpt UK Ltd - to oversee the operation. Burnett, Kelly and I become co-directors. The venture is immediately plunged - into the unknown.

Derek Bailey dropped out early. A civilised fellow with a lifetime’s experience of playing to empty rooms, Bailey may have had a presentiment of trouble to come. The drafting of a contract with Fahey’s Nashville-based tour agent proved to be a torturous process. The working methods of Do Easy Booking (proprietor, Mark Linn) belie the name.

We are on the edge, which is where all courageous rock & roll lunatics should hang. Everybody get tense. If you’re feeling at ease, find and take some poorly manufactured speed, something with that strychnine veneer - Abner Burnett to Mike Butler and Paul Kelly, 25 August, 1999.

The hunt for passport details turns up some surprises. For instance, Fahey’s middle name is Aloysious, evidence of his Irish American roots. And Fahey’s mysterious ‘assistant’ - whose airfare Worpt is contractually obligated to provide - is eventually identified as Hitomi, a girlfriend acquired during a recent tour of Japan. The course of this Autumn/Spring romance, it seemed, was not running smoothly.

The Tour Journal

Monday, September 6, 1999
‘I got past the saddest music in the world, and I decided to do the angriest music in the world.’ This explanation is announced by Fahey from a hotel-room in Salem, Oregon. I’m conducting a phone interview for pre-tour publicity. Standard questions receive standard replies. Then Fahey’s fluting voice cracks and breaks. ‘I’m sorry to tell you, but my Japanese girlfriend broke up with me.’ Uncertain how to respond, I mumble some ineffectual words of consolation. ‘How will it affect your playing?’ I ask (the inner Promoter beating off the inner Samaritan). ‘It should be excellent,’ replies Fahey. ‘I play better when I’m mad, and I’m as mad as hell.’

He seriously asks me call up his girlfriend in Tokyo. ‘I don’t want her to think she’s going to get away with this,’ he says. ‘And tell all your friends to phone.’ Alarm bells start to ring. Curiously, these alarm bells failed to sound when I read the Fahey quote about Jerry Garcia (in Mojo 39): ‘The more people like that who die the better.’ Certain forms of eccentricity are less acceptable at close quarters, I suppose.

Tuesday, September 14, 1999
The travel agent in Oregon makes a blunder with the ticket. Fahey arrives at Glasgow Airport 24 hours before his due time. I accept reverse charges on a series of increasingly desperate phone-calls. The guitarist is friendless, tired, hungry and penniless. His wallet has been stolen. ‘You gotta rescue me, man,’ he whines in a pitiful falsetto. He is calling from The Post House Hotel at Glasgow Airport. On the third attempt to contact the Hotel, I manage to bypass the automated switchboard and talk to a live human being. I arrange for Fahey, a diabetic, to be given food and care. Kelly, already on the road in a hired van, picks up the unfortunate artiste some three hours after his arrival.

Wednesday, September 15, 1999
I travel to Edinburgh - the first concert of the tour is taking place tomorrow at The Queen’s Hall - and go to meet John Fahey at the Ibis Hotel. I recognise his distinctive form through the glass front. Kelly is with him, and there is also a little fellow in synthetic threads in nervous attendance. I enter.

The stranger vanishes before I clear the door. Gathering myself, I offer the Father of American Primitive Guitar my hand. The Father of American Primitive Guitar leaves my hand dangling. ‘Sit down!’ he barks. Kelly smirks, and remembers an engagement elsewhere. (A telling exchange follows. JF, anxiously: ‘I thought you were going to stay, man. I’m not sure of the figures.’ PK: ‘You can take care of it, John.’) Exit Paul Kelly. I take the offered chair with rising apprehension. Oh horror! Fahey removes his wrap-around sunglasses! He turns baleful, yellow eyes on me and delivers an ultimatum.

He has, he explains, no faith in Worpt UK or our ability to manage the tour. If the money for the first four gigs is not immediately forthcoming, the tour is off. He glances at some hastily scribbled notes, and mentions a figure of £4,400.

Such behaviour is not only unprofessional, but inhumane. In the recent past,. Worpt’s Man in America had conferred with travel agents about the feasibility of a round-trip for Fahey and girlfriend - from the USA to Japan, to Scotland, and back to the USA. Fahey’s pleading phone calls became so insistent that Susan, Abner’s partner, refused to take them any more.

‘Let me put it like this,’ wrote Abner (in a private email to me). ‘If you look up “professional” in the dictionary, Fahey is not even mentioned in the footnotes. Whereas if you look up “flaky as shit” it might have his picture.’

In the ample flesh, Fahey doesn’t look flaky at all. Grey whiskers adorn a scowling death’s head. His unchanging uniform of t-shirt and shorts is permanently soggy with juice stains and body fluids. ‘You better check in now,’ he says, by way of dismissal, having lightened me of £250 (all my ready money, and all the money available until the next day when the bank opens). I retreat to an impersonal hotel room and lie on the bed. I find that my impression of John Fahey has altered somewhat. A great artist with a great soul has been replaced by a horrible old man.

The Tour Journal

Thursday, September 16, 1999
Abner is providing support for the first four dates of the tour. He has other places to be - in fact, he’s marrying Susan in a week’s time - but he has a professional and financial interest in the success of the tour. When Abner steps off the plane at Glasgow Airport and meets Kelly for the first time, the Texan is approximately $10,000 ‘in the grease’.

Kelly had fallen prey to the delusion of self-importance. He had somehow gotten hold of the businessman’s earring, a cellular phone. It clashed however with his work shirt and baggy green corduroys. Burnett had a cell phone also, but hadn’t thought to haul it out for the occasion - from Henry’s Take On The Tour.

John Aloysious is no more friendly when Abner and I visit his hotel room in the afternoon. The old misanthrope is sitting up in bed eating ice cream and pizza (not a judicious meal for a diabetic). Also present are a couple collectively known as The House of Dubois, Scots-based promoters who have taken a special interest in the Fahey tour. I recognise the little fellow from the foyer. He introduces himself as Bob Mills. In fact, we’ve spoken a few times over the telephone. Once I asked, what is in this for you? Mills, hurt by the suspicion, replied that he was happy to work for the love of music alone. He and his business partner, Chris (a dimunition of Christine), cower under Fahey’s scan.

Abner goes over the terms so painstakingly negotiated with Mark Linn. Fahey pauses between scoops of ice cream. ‘I don’t have a contract with you. I’m talking about what that fucker over there promised me’. He gestures towards me with a spoon. Abner and I walk out. Chris runs after us with a compromise: John will take £1,400 as an advance (the figure represents all the money in the Worpt coffers). He insists on cash payment.

Ratfarts are probably seldom heard or properly identified by smell. They waft around the back doors and hallway exits. They mix in the kitchen with the better odours of well-planned dinners. It may have been that each player in the game had been pure hearted and intent upon a successful tour up to the point of confrontation in Fahey’s room. Maybe the bad smell was only ratfarts. More probably though, it was a rank stew of fear that would do anything, worship gone sweaty and stale, ‘ornery pride that denied its own odour and the bad breath of one pissed off jet-lagged Texas lawyer - from Henry’s Take On The Tour.

Upon our return from the bank Abner twice tries to give Fahey his money. At the first encounter the guitarist runs in the opposite direction. ‘I can’t take it now,’ he moans. ‘I’m going to vomit.’

The transaction is deferred until after Fahey’s appearance on Brian Morton’s radio show. He cuts an imposing figure in the hotel foyer, as he hitches up his shorts, dangles a bare leg over the chair-arm, and fingers an unplugged, solid-body guitar by way of rehearsal. The producer has requested short pieces. Fahey announces his displeasure as his bony fingers dig into the frets. He hammers out a single note and counts to five, and repeats again and again. He mutters menacingly, ‘They’re imposing a compositional form on me, and I don’t like that. You’ll be sorry. You’ll be sorry.’

A couple of hours later, with the radio broadcast accomplished, Fahey adopts the same posture as we all gather in the foyer to sort out rides to the Queen’s Hall, where fans are already thronging for their first glimpse of the enigmatic one. Fahey, however, is in no hurry. He counts and recounts his advance fee, arranging piles of Scottish pound-notes on his guitar case. Kelly, in his best Albert Grossman manner, is talking to the producer of Later on his mobile. I hear the phrase ‘force of nature’. Fahey nods in approval and, emboldened, he snarls at Abner, ‘I don’t have a contract with anyone.’ Abner seethes in impotent rage, which is possibly the desired effect.

Half an hour later Abner Burnett carries his first drink of the evening onto the stage of the Queen’s Hall; a double shot of Bell’s with ice. Bugs are already all over the project. Stray dogs languish by the fly-covered carcass panting and staring idiotically - from Henry’s Take On The Tour.

If Abner’s performance is lacklustre, Fahey’s set is lamentable. Turgid single-line licks are repeated obsessively. Juana, a pretty tune, is stretched beyond its natural length. Samba De Orfeu is attempted, fumbled and abandoned. He seems caught between a perverse desire to inflict punishment, and an innate showman’s desire to please. But he no longer has the resources to please, so reverts to his first intention.

The customised Fender Strat that Abner has been instructed to carry across the Atlantic is ignored. Instead, Fahey opts for a cheap model, hired for the radio session. Tuning is a hit-and-miss affair. The line between incessant re-tuning and desultory improvisation becomes increasingly blurred.

‘God-damn,’ says Abner from his seat in the back-row. ‘They’re walking out.’ It’s true. A trickle, and then a stampede, proceed to walk out, obviously wondering why they ever walked in. ‘Absolute mince,’ says one departing patron, summing up the general feeling. I later spent a day replying to letters of complaint. ‘The most puerile guitar playing I have ever heard,’ wrote Mr H Walker. ‘My seven year old grandson can put play better and put more feeling into music...’ Or, from Mrs J Wilson, summing up the general feeling: ‘Either Mr Fahey was drunk or he could not be bothered to play coherently.’

The bad playing, like the bad drugs and the bad food, can only be explained as an expression of profound self-loathing. The crowd is reduced to a core of die-hards, when, quite abruptly, the recital comes to an end. Fahey realises that he’s one minute over the one-and-a-quarter-hour performance time stipulated in his contract.

‘I’ll quit while I’m ahead,’ he remarks, which is asking for it. ‘Ahead of what?’ comes the reply from an audience member not yet completely benumbed by stupefaction. The artiste, unsure of the exit, manages to wrap himself around the stage-curtain as he departs. The echo of Eric Morecambe is poignant.

Abner has long since retired to the bar. A voice calls. ‘You’re not Derek Bailey.’ (The advance publicity has Derek Bailey as the co-star; yes, another clanger.) ‘You’re in trouble.’ ‘Buy me a drink and tell me about it,’ says Abner. It transpires that the stranger used to road manage for Tim Hardin, and knows a train wreck when he sees one. Abner joins the party, determined to forget his troubles. I join the table in time to learn that John Kennedy was shot by a retired football coach from Midland, Abner’s hometown.

Then I’m called away. The sound crew need paying, and I take a taxi to recover the company cheque book from the hotel-room. More expense! The tour has been all pain and no gain.

On return, I find the sound crew packing up in the deserted hall. Deserted, that is, except for a recumbent figure lying on the floor of the stage. Guitar titan John Fahey is snatching a moment of peace away from the mad hubbub. He is belly up as I enter. I duly pay Alex the soundman, conscious that the bulk on stage is stirring.

Fahey settles on one side, and props his head against his elbow. He stares dead ahead with a baselisk gaze. I can’t avoid his stare as I make my way out, trapped by rows of aisles on either side. His sunglasses offer no protection against the scouring intensity of his gaze. I grope for words, but nothing comes out. What can I say? That he was marvellous? That it was the best gig I’d ever seen? I calculate the distance to the door: freedom lies just beyond. I finally blurt out ‘Hello John,’ and make a dash for it.

Kelly, meanwhile, is stalking the bar looking for a dipsomaniac to kick. A strict abstinence man with the intolerance of a recovered alcoholic, Kelly is exasperated by the widespread belief that John Fahey is drunk. I emerge from the auditorium in time to see the former psychiatric nurse interposing his walrus-like frame between Abner and his new friends. ‘He’s not a real drunk, he just postures as a drunk,’ sneers Kelly. He fixes the singer at point-blank range, eyeball-to-eyeball, and spews forth a torrent of abuse.

Now I’ve been subject to this treatment more than once in recent days. I coped by blanking out the rant and saying to myself (because the threat of violence is implicit): ‘If this bastard lays a finger on me, I’ll prosecute’. Red-blooded Texans can’t be expected to show the same restraint. Abner tugs at Kelly’s collar. Tim Hardin’s road manager separates the two men. Kelly’s spluttering hysteria abruptly subsides. He has what he wants.

The Tour Journal

midnight, the morning of Friday,
September 17, 1999

The momentous gig is over. I accompany Abner, now known as ‘Bogus Blind Drunk’, to an afterhours bar called Whistlebinkies. Live music is provided by country-rockers of local repute. They play Pancho and Lefty at least three times during the night. Abner, the finest living interpreter of Pancho and Lefty, later claims that he sang the song on-stage with the band. I have no such recollection, and suspect Abner of planting a false memory.

He relates how a sheriff in a Texas backwater town had recently been exposed as a paedophile. The lawman was dragged out of his sheriff’s office weeping and howling, ‘Jesus Christ! I’m a Christian!’ Thereafter, the strains of faux honky-tonk are periodically accompanied by Abner’s authentic shitkicking cry of ‘Jesus Christ! I’m a Christian!’

‘Every silly son of a bitch who contributed to this debacle is going to get shovelled into the furnace for a long time,’ he says, warming to his theme. ‘Myself included.’ After several more whiskies and beer chasers (and an interval when a neighbour reads our palms), his thoughts turn to a more benign religion. ‘I’m a Buddhist. A little mound of particles which disperses into oblivion where more little mounds are being made.’ He says this with the serenity of complete exhaustion.

It is 3am, and we repair to the Ibis, where Abner has heard encouraging reports of the residents’ all-night bar. By now, Abner is taking a philosophical view of the situation. 'Going up in smoke is my stock-in-trade,’ he says, and collapses onto the floor, leaving his whiskey and beer chaser unfinished. A long-suffering hotel employee helps me carry him to our room.

On the one hand I’ve never seen a man so determined to relive the day he refused to eat his supper. On the other hand here’s a man who knows he’s dead no matter what, but keeps waiting around trying to get heard - from Henry’s Take On The Tour.

‘When a situation looks really, really ugly,’ I had earlier asked Tim Hardin’s road manager, ‘what do you do?’ (After all, I can’t imagine life on the road with notorious stoner Tim Hardin was all Misty Roses.) ‘Get out of it at once,’ he replied without hesitation.

If only things were so simple. But I feel compelled to see this thing through, if only to protect Abner’s investment. I rack my brains, but can’t see any way out of the trap. However, at this very moment, and under the same roof, a disaffected director of Worpt UK is scheming to permanently sideline his partners. (Clue: he wears baggy green corduroys and is a former psychiatric nurse.)

Back in the hotel-room, Abner gets his second wind. He whirls in a demented dervish, hurls half-empty bottles of beer and mineral water at the walls, and yells, ‘God-damn! I’m on tour with two assholes!’ This outburst seems to be a preliminary to a spot of good old hotel-room trashing. For the first time, I understand what this time-honoured ritual is all about. Yet I try to limit the destruction. ‘Don’t do it,’ I plead, as Abner passes over a box of John Fahey merchandise, and aims to propel a box of his own CDs through the window. ‘It’s Calavera. It’s your comeback CD. It’s a fucking masterpiece.’ This only seems to goad him further.

Then, all life drained in an instant, Abner drops on top of the nearest bed and snatches a foretaste of the oblivion to come. His loud snores keep me awake. After an indeterminate period, when sleep finally seems within reach, I jolt into full alertness. There’s a movement in the dark. I switch on the bedside light to behold Abner, fully-dressed and swaying, relieving himself against the wall. ‘I can’t deal with this right now,’ I think, and turn off the light again. In the morning, as Abner sleeps it off, I examine the relevant corner. There is no stain and no discernible smell of urine. Please God, it was all a bad dream.

The Tour Journal

Friday, September 17, 1999
Paul Kelly is loudly declaiming in the foyer of the Ibis (this at midday). His audience comprises hangers-on, casual passers-by and an American Primitive guitarist, but his remarks are addressed to Texas lawyer Abner Burnett. ‘I am not prepared to do business with a violent, drunken...’ (a pause as Kelly searches in his mind for the worst possible insult) ‘... bar-room singer!’ Abner looks perplexed as Kelly resumes his tirade. Deaf to every entreaty, he refuses to let Abner ride in the van. This despite the fact that Abner actually paid for the van hire with his credit card.

The scene becomes a muddle of overlapping altercations. I ask Bob Mills a second time about the money owed from ticket sales. For a man happy to work for love of music alone, he seems strangely reluctant to part with the green stuff. ‘Phone the police,’ roars Abner, who intends to report the van as stolen. At this, Bob loses his nerve, and produces a roll of sweaty bank-notes.

(It transpires that all proceeds from the Edinburgh concert go to the House of Dubois. This despite the fact that Worpt paid for the hall hire, sound-crew, artists’ fees etc. Bob Mills apparently signed the contract. The management of the Queens Hall consult their legal team and agree to pay the local promoter.)

‘Ring the police,’ Abner reiterates. But a simple phone call becomes a complex operation with a WorldCom Global Phone Card (the only thing the public phones in the hotel operate on, and I don’t want to loan Kelly’s mobile). Eventually, the voice of the law comes down the line to sweetly explain that an authorised person can’t be prevented from driving a hired vehicle. The voice expands on the difference between a civil offence and a criminal offence.

Oh God, I haven’t mentioned the missing DAT Recorder yet. To go back a moment: Abner had been asked to provide a DAT Recorder - along with the guitar that Fahey never used - in order to capture the concerts for posterity. He duly purchased the machine and put it to use. Shortly after the gig, Alex the Soundman returned the DAT Recorder to Abner at his seat in the bar. I recall some banter about using the tape for blackmail.

The DAT Recorder was left in the changing-room, along with guitars, CD merchandise, a camera, and other odds and ends waiting to be loaded in the wagon. Every item had been accounted for, with the exception of Abner’s DAT Recorder. Now, in the hotel foyer, each faction divide their possessions jealously. The amplifier - another item hired on Abner’s credit card, incidentally - goes Kelly’s way. He offers to carry the CDs to Manchester, but I decline. ‘Have you got the DAT Recorder?’ Kelly asks, with a smirk. (The serial number, if you should come by it, is SOI-0577723-H.)

Abner hires a car to take us to the next date, which happens to be my hometown of Manchester. There’s a moment of epiphany as the sun sets over the borderlands to the sound of Beethoven’s String Quartet No.13 on the car hi-fi. Abner explains the finer points of music. He plays me, for the first time, some new cuts from his bar-room band, Kay Kay And The Rays. Much later, we arrive at my flat and play back my voice-mail messages.

The tour is off, says a terse message from Kelly. Fahey has flown back to the States. We are to notify the tour venues and cancel existing hotel bookings. Furthermore, he, Kelly, has resigned as director from Worpt UK. Calls to his home for clarification are in vain. At one point, Kelly mimics the automated reply of an answer-machine to avoid conversation

The Tour Journal

Saturday, September 18, 1999
Masquerading as a homeless musician, Burnett busks outside the Royal Northern College of Music to a trickle of patrons expecting to attend a John Fahey concert. An elderly woman gyrates with abandon and proclaims her love for Abner. Of middle-European origin, she tries one dance-step after another and finally settles for something she calls ‘the Elvis Presley’. She is mad, of course, but in a refreshingly benign way.

Sunday, September 19, 1999
With unexpected time on our hands, Abner and I visit Blackpool. The trip amounts to a pilgrimage for Abner: Blackpool has been a source of fascination since he chanced to see the movie Funny Bones. His first sight of Blackpool Tower draws an excited reaction. ‘God-damn! This is it!’ he says, slapping his thigh with one hand while steering the car with the other. We go location-scouting for sites featured in the movie, giving priority to the bar-room scenes. We are rewarded with an anecdote about Oliver Reed from a barman in a basement bar just along from the Tower.

We stumble into a theme pub modelled along the lines of a ranch in the deep American south. Confederate flags and horse-saddles provide the decor. Abner, the only American in the place, is told to remove his jester’s cap (a new purchase from a sea-front arcade): baseball caps are the preferred headgear. A banner with the legend ‘The South Will Rise Again’ takes pride of place.

His euphoria has evaporated. Abner sinks into decline. He came to maturity in a state where secondary schools are routinely named after Confederate war-heroes, he tells me. ‘Don’t these idiots realise thay’re glorifying a culture that sanctioned slavery?’ He extemporises a hillbilly ballad to the country tune playing on the jukebox.

Your dainty hand and six fingers
So creamy smooth in the moonlight
Your eyes seem set pretty close together
I think you might be my baby tonight

Tell me your name
Do you mind that mine’s the same?
True love can conquer DNA

Your skin so beautiful and translucent
I think you might be my baby tonight

Back home, and the tune is forgotten at a hastily-convened sing-around in a converted public loo called The Temple of Convenience. Friends, players, singers and a bull terrier gather to lend moral support. The whiff of disaster is dispersed by conviviality, warmth of feeling and good singing (thank you Helen Pendry, Marcus Hickman, Clive Mellor, Mark Greer, Kirsty McGee, Scott Alexander, Kaisa and Juha Halinen, Sheila Seal, Alan Parry and Oscar).

Monday, September 20, 1999
If consolation can be had from the whole wretched business, it’s that the breach of contract is so transparent. Abner, with a true lawyer’s instinct, had inserted a clause in the contract to say that all disputes are to come under the jurisdiction of Ector County, Texas. Abner chuckles, happily anticipating what a jury in Texas will make of oddball John Aloysious.

It comes as a shock to discover that, contrary to the message, Kelly and Fahey are still at large and touring the country together, honouring some dates and cancelling others. The turncoat Worpt director and his artiste are causing chaos wherever they go. A radio session for Andy Kershaw is cancelled at short notice. The DJ offers a pointed remark about ‘enigmatic guitarists’ on his radio show.

Over a meal at a Chinatown restaurant, I brood on Kelly’s duplicity and my unwitting role in the debacle. ‘It couldn’t be worse,’ says Abner, inconsolably. ‘It’s worse than being in jail.’ He casts around for comparable misfortunes.

‘It’s worse than standing at a crap table where you can’t get any more credit because you’ve just pissed away 3000 dollars.’ He deftly picks up some grains of rice with his chopsticks. ‘It’s worse than your best friend playing mattress slam dunk with your girlfriend.’ A refill of shushi. ‘It’s worse than gettng the shit kicked out of you after you’ve picked a fight.’ An unworthy thought about the relaxed standards of the Ector County Bar Council flits across my mind.

We’re trying to get through this with enough of our asses left over to be able to grab with both hands. I know that each of you has worked hard to get this rolling. I believe we can pull it off. Woe to whomever wrongfully takes advantage of the situation. I don’t exactly understand the nature of it, but time’s revenge seems always to flow justly over the carcasses of the unrighteous - Abner Burnett to Mike Butler and Paul Kelly, 27 August, 1999.

Where are they now?

Derek Bailey, died December 25, 2005.

Abner Burnett is a director and attorney with the South Texas Civil Rights Project, based in San Juan, Texas. A new album, It Ought To Be Enough, is scheduled for release on Waterlily.

Mike Butler is a freelance music writer and a regular contributor to Metro.

John Fahey, died February 22, 2001, after undergoing a sextuple bypass operation at Salem Hospital. His swansong - Hitomi, on LivHouse Records - was released in 2000.

Paul Kelly currently lives in Newcastle, England, and helps organise On The Outside, an annual festival of improvised music in the city. He is proprietor of Music Stuff, a booking and tour management service for improvised music and musicians.

Bob Mills went to ground after repaying some money from Fahey’s Edinburgh concert to Worpt. Current whereabouts unknown.

Bob Mehr: Sheep in Wolf's Clothing

How a high school teacher from Skokie passed for cantankerous guitar genius John Fahey.

Last year Fantasy Records released The Best of John Fahey Vol. 2: 1963-1983, positioning it as an overdue follow-up to a Fahey best-of from 1977. Fahey, the founding father of the "American primitive"steel-stringed acoustic guitar style, had died in 2001, but the label, with access to his enormous archive of tapes, included three unreleased tracks: two rerecordings of Fahey classics from the early 60s and an original called "Tuff" that no one had heard before. But it's not Fahey playing on those tracks, and "Tuff" isn't his song. All three are the work of Charlie Schmidt, a 42-year-old high school teacher who lives in Skokie.

A friend and sometime student of the innovative guitarist, Schmidt recorded the material in 1993 as part of a prank Fahey hoped to play on Shanachie, his label at the time. Fahey had a history of "sowing confusion and blurring attribution," as Schmidt puts it -- he credited a performance on one of his records to a mentor he'd invented for himself, an old black undertaker named Blind Joe Death, and in his liner notes he parodied the mythmaking impulse of folk revivalists, claiming to have made his first guitar from a baby's coffin. But he never got the chance to pass Schmidt's tapes off as his own, and they collected dust for a decade -- until the producers of last year's compilation, fooled by the exactitude of Schmidt's Fahey impression, took the bait. (Schmidt has sorted things out with Fahey's music publisher and informed Fantasy of the mistake, but the label has yet to respond.)

A third Fahey cover from the same session and a new version of "Tuff" -- under its proper title, "The Hyattsville Anti-Inertia Dance" -- appear on Schmidt's own debut album, Xanthe Terra, released in June by the Portland label Strange Attractors Audio House. Schmidt has spent most of his life as a closet musician -- he's played publicly only a handful of times since taking up the guitar at age six, and had never been in a studio before Fahey invited him to record -- but the release of the Fantasy disc started wheels turning for him. "My whole experience has been fairly unusual," he says. "I mean, I was someone who learned to play Fahey in my bedroom as a kid."

Schmidt encountered Fahey's music while in high school in Minnesota in the late 70s. "It took me about six months to be totally smitten," he says. "It transformed me, though." He met his idol during his freshman year at Gustavus Adolphus College, backstage at a show in Minneapolis. "My ruse was to offer to change his strings between songs," he says. "So I just went and introduced myself. I was really anxious around him. He was a very peculiar guy to be around. Made me nervous as hell."

Schmidt moved to the Chicago area in 1985 and kept in touch with Fahey. "I met him backstage like that nine or ten times over the years," he says. "Then he played in the Abbey Pub in late 1992. We hung out afterward and he seemed to be a little more approachable than usual. Much later he told me the reason was that I had passed all the tests."

At that time Shanachie owner Richard Nevins wanted Fahey to cut a new version of his 1963 album Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes, but Fahey was experimenting with the electric guitar and disinterested in revisiting his old catalog. He asked Schmidt to do the recording instead. "To which I kinda sputtered and laughed," says Schmidt. "After all, I was just a fan. I had never even pushed my playing on him. But I thought about it for five minutes and took him up on the offer."

Schmidt went into a studio in Skokie in March 1993, recorded a note-perfect rendition of the album plus four of his own songs, and sent Fahey the master tapes. But then Shanachie dropped Fahey and Fantasy reissued the original version of Death Chants, rendering the project moot. Schmidt's tapes disappeared into Fahey's archive. "In retrospect I'm glad it was never released," he says. "I never gave them another thought."

But the two men's relationship continued to grow. "One day in the mail, there arrived a large box full of archival materials of his life," says Schmidt. "Letters, old receipts, photographs, writings. And then a couple weeks later, more boxes and material. It was his way of thanking me for doing the recording." It was also his way of asking Schmidt to write his biography. "I was flattered, but it was hard to make any progress with him on that," says Schmidt.

Fahey, who suffered from Epstein-Barr and diabetes, spent much of the 90s in poor health. And despite several new discs and reissues -- including the 1994 Rhino anthology Return of the Repressed and the experimental 1997 album Womblife, produced by avowed fan Jim O'Rourke -- by the end of the decade he was nearly destitute and living in welfare hotels or gospel missions. Schmidt visited him in Oregon in 1998, a surreal trip that inspired Xanthe Terra's opening track, "Salem Journeys." ("My notion of 'really messy room' was instantly redefined," he writes in the liner notes.)

The last time Schmidt saw Fahey was at the Empty Bottle in October 2000. "He played beautifully, one of his best concerts," he says. But four months later, at age 61, Fahey died of complications after heart surgery. At the funeral in Salem and at a memorial concert in Berkeley, California, where he was invited to play, Schmidt got acquainted with Cul de Sac guitarist and Fahey disciple Glenn Jones, who recommended him to the Strange Attractors label.

Schmidt is a married father of two school-age girls and teaches ESL full-time at Maine East High School in Park Ridge, so a music career won't be his first priority anytime soon. But Xanthe Terra has already received a glowing review in the Wire, and he seems to have caught the bug. "I want to continue making records and would love to share my work on the stage," he says. "It's been refreshing to hear what other people think about it."

And what would Fahey have thought? "I'd never venture to guess what he'd say about anything," says Schmidt, laughing. "But I like to think he'd approve."


R. Anthony Lee a.k.a."Flea": The Wolves Are Gone Now

The early musical life of John Fahey

Let’s begin with Chester Petranek. And let’s begin by correcting Fahey’s misspelling of his name as “Petranick”. Since my memory of these days is none too trustworthy, as will become glaringly obvious as we go along, I checked this by Googling on “Chester Petranek” and confirming that he was indeed the founding director of the Montgomery County (MD) Youth Orchestra, in which I played under him until 1955. Petranek was not, however, as Glenn Jones suggests, John’s high school guidance counselor. JF is closer to the truth when he says (Turtle notes VII) that Petranek was the director of a Takoma Park brass band; I can’t think of any band Fahey might have played in under Petranek (considering that he admits he played clarinet badly) except the Takoma Park Junior High band. He would not have been playing under Petranek in high school because he went to high school in Prince Georges County and Petranek didn’t teach in PG County, and John had probably dropped the clarinet like a live centipede

by that time anyway. However, John does credit Petranek with giving him, in that short time and under less than optimum circumstances, his first exposure to “Western hi-art” music. Whether this entirely explains Petranek’s later enshrinement as one of the major figures in Fahey’s mythology, one can never know. It may simply have been partly because “Chester Petranick” is a funny-sounding name (accent on the second syllable, by the way).

Although I must have played (French horn) in the same junior high school band with John for a year or two (I was two years ahead of him in school), I don’t remember him from there. I think I must have met him at the Episcopal Youth Fellowship of Trinity Episcopal Church, which was in a part of Takoma Park in Washington DC less than a mile across what was called the District Line. The meetings of the Youth Fellowship began with an Evening Prayer service, and presumably because of my modest repu-tation as a pianist, I had been asked to play organ for these services—little more than a few hymns, really. It must have been my playing for these services that attracted John’s attention, and somehow he ended up inviting me over to his house after the youth group meetings to listen to his records (this would have been about mid ’50s). With his usual stretching of reality, he claims (Turtle notes VII again) that he “hired a well-known church organicist, Mr Robert Anthony Flee. Mr Flee was to go around the Washington DC record shops and purchase what were, in his opinion, recordings of all the very good or better hi-art works, and teach Fahey something about them.” Well, aside from the probably deliberate misspelling of “organist” (perhaps a subtle reference to the fact that I was studying organic chemistry at University of Maryland after 1955), this departs from reality on the following points: (1) He didn’t hire me; it was an exchange between friends. (2) I was not a well-known church organist; I was an amateur beginning student totally unknown outside Trinity Episcopal. (3) I did not go around the Washington record shops to buy the records I thought he should hear; he already had his own collection at that time, which was at least as good as mine. In ironic fact, I probably learned at least as much about hi-art music from Fahey as he learned from me. It was he who introduced me to, among others, the Symphony #2 and the Finnish tone poems of Sibelius, Vaughan Williams’s Symphony #6, Roy Harris’s Symphony #3, Glière’s Symphony #3 “Ilya Murometz,” and probably Bernstein’s Symphony #2 “The Age of Anxiety” (which, written in 1949, would have been very new at that time). (As you can see, he was fond of symphonies.) In the notes to “Desperate Man Blues” (Legend of BJD), John refers to Sibelius’s 7th Symphony, and in Death Chants, the narrator “owes it” to Sibelius; I’m sure there must be other references which show his primary indebtedness to Sibelius, but I can’t find them. Vaughan Williams occurs as the composer of “King’s Weston” (“At the Name of Jesus,” Death Chants).

One composer I did introduce him to was Harry Partch, who is a minor figure in the myth, referred to mostly in terms of some of the instruments he invented to perform his music, e.g., cloud chamber bowls and surrogate kithera (Death Chants). When Glenn Jones compared the small audience for John’s first pressing of BJD to that for Partch on Gate 5, I was not surprised that he knew about Partch, but I was a little surprised that he knew about the Gate 5 label. My own connection with Partch is rather interesting. It seems that, as a young man in California, maybe in the ’20s, Partch had briefly and unsuccessfully wooed my Aunt Dorothy (which struck me as rather odd when I learned years later that he was gay). So I guess Aunt Dorothy told Partch some time in the ’50s about this nephew of hers who was interested in modern music, and lo and behold, at a time when I’d never heard of Partch, I received in the mail the Gate 5 issue of “Plectra and percussion dances.” I was immediately enthralled, and when I took it to John, he was immediately enthralled. This soon led to one of the many amusing incidents by which I’m sure we gave the Trinity youth group leader many gray hairs. It happened that Trinity had a phonograph system in the rector’s office which was used to play recordings of hymns on an electronic carillon—bad recordings of a bad sound played on a bad system—through loudspeakers installed in the belfry of the church, so that the hymns might be heard by the heathen masses. And it also happened that the first sound on the record was that of the cloud chamber bowls, which were made from glass carboys which had been used in the particle physics lab of some university, maybe U of C Berkeley, and which had a very bell-like sound—not quite carillons and not quite tubular chimes, but bell-like. So, as you might have guessed, the Demonic Duo, one evening after youth group, played Partch through the sound system, so that the heathen masses that night heard, not “Jesus loves me,” but “Plectra and percussion dances.” It was one of our better pranks, but we had already conspired to liven up the ordinarily dull Evening Prayer services when Fahey persuaded me to insert into the organ music passing references to some of the music we’d heard from his recordings, so I might subtly insinuate Harris’s 3rd Symphony or “Uncloudy day” into an improv while Fahey tried to hide behind the pew so people wouldn’t see him cracking up in hysterical laughter.

Since “Uncloudy day” was obviously not part of his hi-art repertoire, this brings up my other lesson from Fahey. In addition to the music mentioned above, he also gave me my first introduction to blue-grass/hillbilly and blues; I think he was collecting the first category before the second, and I clearly remember the likes of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs. Even this early he had developed his famous eclecticism, and would follow Sibelius’s Second symphony with the Stanley Brothers’ “White doves will mourn in sorrow” with no sense of disjunction. (Another example of our attempts to enliven the youth group meetings was when the leader asked if anyone had any ideas for group activities, and Fahey very seriously deadpanned, “I think we should go gathering flowers for the Master’s bouquet,” and I, having heard the Stanley Brothers record, immediately followed, just as dead-pan, “Beautiful flowers that never decay,” and then another member of our musical clique continued, “Gathered by angels and carried away,” and John finished, “Forever to bloom in the Master’s bouquet.” By this time, of course, the entire group was in stitches and the poor seminarian who was our leader was probably wondering if God had really called him for this kind of work.) It was also at this time that I remember him making his own early attempts at playing the guitar, still mostly imitating what he’d learned from the records, but already doing some of his earliest original work as well.

A word should be said about these activities taking place at his home after youth group. Both of us—he obviously, I less obviously—owe a great debt to his mother, Jane, who was an absolute saint and for me almost a surrogate mother (not a surrogate kithera), as I was not overly fond of my own sainted dam. I think she sometimes regarded her weird son and his weird friend with a certain perplexity, but she was an unfailing source of loving support and warmth and gracious hospitality, and I remember her very fondly. Oddly, I can remember the inside of their house, particularly John’s room, more clearly than I remember where it was located. The father was a mysterious, shadowy figure who was almost never there—fortunately, from what I gathered about him later from both Jane and John.

Wherever it was, I remember it had an enclosure in the back yard for Fahey’s turtles. As we all know, he was very fond of turtles; they were almost his totem animal more than his pets. Years later, when he had moved to an apartment where he couldn’t keep his own turtles, he made it his mission to rescue turtles he saw crossing the road, knowing they’d probably be hit if he didn’t help them. When he was driving through the South on his record-collecting trips, he would pull over to the side of the road in a screeching halt and run out into the middle of traffic to pick up a turtle. He would give long diatribes about turtles at his concerts. He knew perfectly well (I think) that “the voice of the turtle” in the Song of Solomon referred to the turtle-dove, but he chose to interpret it as a member of the Order Chelonia for his own purposes.

Ah yes, the record-collecting trips. In Transfiguration, the disgusting, degenerate, insipid young folklorist asks the somewhat equivocal shoeshine man if he has any old arms or legs he’d like to sell.

In his record-collecting trips, he would walk through the rural Southern black ghettos waving an old 78 and yelling, “Got any old phonograph records? Buyin’ up old records!” And occasionally, whether out of discouragement or just ordinary insanity, he really would yell, “Got any old arms or legs you’d like to sell? Buyin’ up old arms and legs!” This was in the early to mid ’60s, and it’s been suggested that one of the reasons he managed to survive unscathed from being a conspicuously white presence in the rural black South at a time when civil rights workers were being murdered for such audacity, was simply because the rednecks, if they noticed him at all, probably dismissed him as too crazy to bother with.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This all happened after I had come back from Army duty. In February 1957, during what might loosely be called a nervous breakdown, I’d joined the Army, and thus didn’t see anything of John until my discharge in April 1960, although I occasionally got a few of what passed for letters from him, which presaged his later liner notes in their rambling surrealism. Actually, the one exception to the above was one and a half months in late 1958 when I was in a nut ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, only a few miles from Takoma Park, having been declared crazy by an Army shrink for telling my commanding officer that I refused to recognize his authority. I had off-base privileges at WRAMC and so was able to visit my old stomping grounds several times, and by this time Fahey had moved his church affiliation from Trinity to St Michael & All Angels, Adelphi, which figures prominently in the early records. As I later learned from Glenn’s superb history of this time in his notes for BJD, John had also by this time started his recording career with the first pressing of BJD, but I don’t remember John mentioning it at the time. Actually, and ironically, it is at about this time that my memory begins to fail me on a lot of points, and I’m greatly indebted to Jones for his history. Soon after I got my Army discharge, Fahey introduced me to St Michael’s, which had recently lost its organist, and John was instrumental in getting me hired as the new organist there. By this time he had already established his following of what I call his adoring fans, which included, among those mentioned in the liner notes and the official website, David and Robbie (“Grubbert”) Gardner and, most importantly, Nancy McLean. The McLean and Gardner homes became valuable gathering places and emotional refuges for both of us, and Nancy’s mother Janet became greatly significant in my own later career in church music, as Nancy was (in a different way) in John’s. As I only recently learned from Jones, Fahey’s career was already beginning to take off in the early ’60s, and I was blissfully unaware of it at the time; I was still thinking of John as an interesting friend who had a devoted following of teeny-boppers at St Mike’s. In fact, I was by this time becoming less and less a part of his musical life and development, and was outside the new circle of colleagues and professional contacts he was developing —Denson, Bussard, all the others—not, I think, by deliberate rejection, but simply because I didn’t fit in. I didn’t play their music or their instruments, I didn’t go to their concerts, and with the exception of “Will the circle be unbroken,” I was not useful to them.

However, I was still part of the original group of friends, and there were moments, during Fahey’s return visits from his activities in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Boston, when there was a sort of return to earlier times. Before he studied philosophy at Berkeley, he had studied it at American University in Washington DC, and I clearly remember the time when he came to my house to pick me up in his old Chevy and drove around for quite a while hysterically yelling, “Beeble greeble freeble snarf! Grable mable spagle warf! Bargle snargle warfle splork!” (another precursor of the later liner notes). It turned out he’d become unhinged from reading Sartre’s Being and nothingness, and for months afterwards at St Mike’s, he would suddenly, at totally inappropriate moments, yell with oracular emphasis, “BEING IS!!” and then break into maniacal laughter. One of his adoring fans, who was an acolyte in the church, painted “BEING IS” on the soles of his shoes, so it would be visible to the congregation while he was kneeling at the altar.

And there was the time I almost broke into the new circle by arranging a series of concerts myself—three, I think—although I can’t remember when they were. The first one of the series was at St Mike’s, down in the basement—an unimaginably horrible place acoustically and in every other way for a perfor-mance—and, being still pretty clueless about the success Fahey was already enjoying, I can remember being totally blown away at what a huge crowd it drew. (Some of the recordings located at St Michael’s may have been made at this concert.) This was also the first time I saw his soon-to-become-famous stage presence, which included most memorably his obsessive tuning of the guitar for about five minutes after each set. There were times when he seemed to spend more time tuning it than playing it, remind-ing me of the quote attributed to Stravinsky: “Harpists spend ninety percent of their lives tuning their harps and ten percent playing out of tune.”

A word might be said about the gas station behind “The Gas Station Tape” and “The Not Gas Station Tape.” Fahey did indeed work the night shift at Martin’s Esso in Langley Park, one of those amorphous suburbs in the sprawl that was sort of indistinguishable from Adelphi or Lewisdale. The station was on the central intersection of Langley Park (University Boulevard & New Hampshire Avenue), and people new to the area would stop and ask John how to get to Langley Park, and he would give them directions sending them in about a 10-mile-long circle which brought them right back to Martin’s Esso, where they would look in confusion at Fahey, who would smile cheerfully and wave to them as they drove by. Being a slow shift, the job allowed him a lot of time to sit out front and practice—reminiscent of Blind Eggplant Langlais, who used to sit outside his used hodolog outlet in Heliotrope late at night and practice extemporaneous passacaglias on his diamond marimba—and it’s credible that he could have made some tapes there. If Martin’s Esso, or a successor gas station, is still there, perhaps they should be asked to put up a memorial plaque recognizing the station’s role in Fahey’s early career.

In July 1968 I moved to Colorado and very soon totally lost touch with Fahey, primarily because he was one of the worst people I ever knew for writing letters. But this is about his early musical life, and once we get past 1968, it’s no longer very early. I not only lost touch with him personally, I also lost touch with his later musical career and recordings, which I gather went off into some directions that departed rather radically from his earlier history—vide Stravinsky, Pärt, the Beatles, et al. But my memory is of the young Fahey and his early, bittersweet, soul-stirring, grist-laden, chthonic, plangent, equivocal, dithyrambic, hodological, polymorphic, transsubstantial music.

David Dunlap Jr: The Cosmos Club

Turtle sex, chiropractic death, and peyote under the pillow: a year-by-year account of American primitive guitar

From harmless service organizations to election-rigging worldwide conspiracies, every secret society worth its shadowy rep cultivates an air not only of exclusivity but also of mysticism. Record collectors are typically thought of as irascible loners, but in the Washington of the ’50s and early ’60s, there existed a group of scruffy young blues and folk fans who could’ve given the Illuminati a run for their all-seeing eyes. They thought of themselves as the guardians of a tradition the rest of the world had either forgotten or misinterpreted. They adopted fake names. They invented strange mythologies. They hatched plans to bring their favorite historical figures back from the dead—or at least back from the commercial oblivion to which the music biz had consigned them.

But most of all, they inspired admiration and awe. Though they never used the term themselves, this bunch of vintage-78 obsessives was known by others as the East Coast Blues Mafia. “There was a loose collective among the enthusiasts and collectors known as the Thong Club,” recalls Gene Rosenthal, founder of Silver Spring’s Adelphi Records. “We would wear these leather thongs around a finger and our wrists. To be a member, another member would have to put a leather thong on you. [John] Fahey put mine on. We would wear them until they were stinky and scuzzy.”

Fahey remains the most well-known member of the club: the great, tragic player whose elegant fusion of blues, country, and folk he called “American primitive guitar.” If the style has a defining moment, it might be when the Takoma Park resident and his friend and fellow 78 collector Dick Spottswood returned from a 1956 record-hunting trip to Baltimore with a copy of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Praise God I’m Satisfied.” Having grown up listening to bluegrass, Fahey was freaked out by the intensity of the blues—and couldn’t get it out of his head. Later that day, after the 17-year-old guitarist and his friend parted, a haunted Fahey called Spottswood and insisted that he play Johnson’s song for him over the phone.

In 1959, Fahey went to the Frederick, Md., home of Joe Bussard, another collector who ran his own label, Fonotone. There, singing and playing into a single microphone, he recorded some tracks under the bluesy pseudonym of Blind Thomas. Bussard recalls that the session “was recorded between 2 and 4 a.m.—it took him that time to get a little loose, get the booze in him.” That same year, Fahey made his first full album, Blind Joe Death. He pressed up 100, maybe 150, copies himself and sold them from the Langley Park gas station where he worked. The set was reissued on his own Takoma Records in 1964, just in time for such exploratory tracks as “In Christ There Is No East or West” and “The Transcendental Waterfall” to seem pre-psychedelic.

It’s hard to imagine that these pranksterish fanboys had any idea of the impact they would eventually have. Spottswood became one of the world’s preeminent musicologists and hosts a long-running American-music show on WAMU FM. Bussard has seen his collection of 25,000 records mined for compilations and box sets. Fahey has influenced guitarists of several generations and styles, from ’60s folkies to ’90s postrockers to ’00s freak-folkers. These days, even Takoma’s more obscure artists are big names: Harry Taussig, who released only two tracks on the label, in 1966; Max Ochs, who shared a compilation with Taussig but never actively sought out a musical career; and Robbie Basho, who put out several albums of “esoteric doctrine of color & mood for 12 & 6 string guitar” but was largely uncelebrated at the time of his death in 1986.

The last two were friends at the University of Maryland, College Park, which Fahey also attended. College kids expanding their minds while listening to American roots music? If it sounds mundane on paper, it certainly doesn’t on disc. There was something not only fanatical but also strange and spiritual about the way these guys went about their folk revivalism, which goes a long way toward explaining their music’s enduring appeal and global influence. OK, maybe the Thong Club and their buddies didn’t pull the world’s strings—but they sure could pluck ’em.

John Fahey

Fahey was one of the most acclaimed fingerpickers of his generation, with a love of the blues so intense he was driven to track down several of his musical idols in various forgotten corners of the country. Shortly after Fahey’s birth, his family moved from Washington, D.C., to Takoma Park, Md., which figured prominently in the personal mythology he detailed in the liner notes to his albums. The turtles the 11-year-old and his friends threw at the windshields of passing cars on Piney Branch Road and Philadelphia Avenue would reappear as a theme in his work, possibly representing memories of childhood sexual abuse. As a teenager, Fahey often played alongside Sligo Creek, which he commemorated in song as the Sligo River. His unique style was influenced not only by the records that he and his Thong Club friends doggedly tracked down but also by a fishing-trip meeting with Frank Hovington, a black singer and guitarist whose playing inspired Fahey to buy his own guitar from the Sears-Roebuck catalog for $17.

Robbie Basho

Born in 1940, the man who would eventually become Robbie Basho was adopted at a young age by Baltimore resident Dr. Daniel Robinson and named Daniel Robinson Jr. Once enrolled at the University of Maryland, he made a rapid transition from barrel-chested jock to cosmic beatnik to 12-string innovator self-styled in honor of a 17th-century Japanese poet. Though Basho didn’t start playing guitar until college, he proved to be a natural. Max Ochs recalls that he was “eager, anxious, intense, and had a bit of an inferiority complex,” adding that “he sweated.” Over a two-decade career, his songs morphed from raga-style instrumentals to Native American tributes that featured Basho’s distinctively challenging vocal style. He found moderate success on genre-defining New Age label Windham Hill in the late ’70s, but his final album, 1984’s Twilight Peaks, was rather ignominiously distributed by a company called the Art of Relaxation.

Max Ochs

Ochs might be the least-celebrated artist in the entire Takoma catalog. Indeed, he can hardly be mentioned without a reference to the more well-known Phil Ochs, a distant cousin. Yet he represents something the East Coast Blues Mafia and its ilk have always appreciated: a man more dedicated to music than the Faustian bargains of the music business. He taught himself to play guitar while growing up in Annapolis, Md., but, like Fahey, he changed his style after a chance encounter with a black musician, a hitchhiker who showed him how to open-tune. Though Ochs was a vital member of the early College Park scene that birthed the Takoma label—he even helped Basho begin reworking the Indian raga for guitar in the early ’60s—he never sought fame or critical praise. In fact, he’s released only 23 songs over the past 30 years, 18 of them quickly recorded to help promote a concert in Japan. For the past several decades, he’s essentially pursued a life of social activism and quiet contemplation punctuated by the occasional live show at a local crab shack.


Twenty-one-year-old John Fahey meets fellow folk-blues guitarist Max Ochs, 19, at the Unicorn, a Dupont Circle coffeehouse. Another guitar player, Daniel “Robbie” Robinson Jr. also meets Ochs around this time, at the University of Maryland, College Park. The pair participate frequently in campus hootenannies, which are also attended by Fahey and his girlfriend, Pat Sullivan, herself an accomplished guitarist. “She had a spell on Fahey,” Ochs recalls.

At the University of Maryland, Ochs meets ED Denson in a class called Mystical Creative Writing, taught by Ezra Pound collaborator Rudd Fleming. Ochs says that he and Denson, who already knew Fahey from attending hootenannies at the Cabin John Recreation Center, “engaged in a friendly rivalry. It was blatant that we two were Dr. Fleming’s favorite students. ED was Beckett and I was Joyce. I was more into the musicality of words.”


Denson moves to Berkeley, Calif., to become a music critic for the Berkeley Barb, an alternative newspaper. He’s accompanied by his future wife: Pat Sullivan. As a goodbye present, Denson leaves a peyote button under Ochs’ pillow. “There was a place in Texas called Lawson’s Cactus Farm where peyote was still legal,” Denson says.


Fahey follows Sullivan and Denson to Berkeley, where he enrolls in a graduate program in philosophy at the University of California.

Robinson listens to Ravi Shankar for the first time—for hours on end in a darkened room. As a result, he switches from blues guitar to raga guitar.


Robinson also moves to Berkeley and soon changes his name to Robbie Basho in honor of haikuist Matsuo Bashoÿ. He and Fahey play frequently at local coffeehouses. Denson, meanwhile, gets so involved with the Free Speech Movement that he fails to graduate. “I was only one credit away, too,” he says.

Though Fahey’s self-released first album was ostensibly on Takoma Records, the label didn’t properly exist until this year, when Fahey and Denson formed a partnership with record distributor Norman Pierce to re-release some of Fahey’s old material.

Denson and Fahey travel back and forth between California and Maryland. Fahey records some sessions at engineer/blues enthusiast Gene Rosenthal’s studio in Silver Spring. They’re released on Takoma as The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites. Rosenthal claims that “unused tracks from those sessions were used uncredited on the three subsequent Fahey releases.”


After hearing a recording of Bukka White’s “Aberdeen Mississippi Blues,” Fahey sends a postcard to “Booker T. Washington White, Old Blues Singer, Aberdeen, Mississippi.” Denson recalls that Fahey “made sure to write the words ‘You could make $100’ in big letters on the back to get his attention.” The card is forwarded to White’s new address in Memphis, Tenn. Fahey and Denson convince him to move to Berkeley, setting him up with a room, some coffeehouse gigs, and a release on Takoma, Mississippi Blues.


Basho releases his debut album, The Seal of the Blue Lotus, on Takoma.


Fahey visits Ochs in New York, where Ochs is living near Tompkins Square Park with his girlfriend, Turtle. Ochs remembers that she “had freckles on her nose and was great at meditation.” Ochs plays Fahey “Imaginational Anthem,” a piece he’s written as a tribute to his guest.


Denson puts together a folk-rock band called Country Joe and the Fish. According to Ochs, the impresario “originally offered to build a band around me, but I was busy in New York.” Denson devotes so much time and energy to his “rock projects” that Fahey buys him out of his share of Takoma. “Jan [Lebow], his first wife,” Rosenthal says, “was controlling his alcohol, Valium, and Seconal intake so that he was functioning enough to run the label.”

Fahey visits a Buddhist temple in California, where a monk suggests that he hire schoolteacher/guru Charlie Mitchell to help run Takoma.


Inspired by Takoma, Rosenthal founds Adelphi Records. “I named it after a Fahey song, ‘The Downfall of the Adelphi Rolling Grist Mill,’” he says. The label releases music by East Coast Blues Mafia member Backwards Sam Firk and Fahey-esque guitarist Harry “Suni” McGrath.

Fahey visits Mitchell at the meditation-based First Liberty Church, where Mitchell leads the congregation. Fahey expresses an interest in recording the church’s choir. When Mitchell goes to the Takoma office, he finds it in such a state of disarray that he refuses Fahey’s offer to run the label.

Hyattsville resident Kerry Fahey introduces himself to Fahey after the guitarist plays a show in Adelphi. Despite no genealogical evidence, John “sort of decides that we had to be cousins,” Kerry recalls.

Fahey releases The Voice of the Turtle on Takoma. It features “A Raga Called Pat, Part III & IV” and effusive, obtuse liner notes that refer to Sullivan as the “Evil Devil Woman.”

Takoma releases Leo Kottke’s debut studio album, 6- and 12-String Guitar. The Minneapolis guitarist’s playing is more dexterous and less dissonant than Fahey’s. The release eventually sells more than 500,000 copies, making it the most popular in the label’s catalog and helping Kottke earn a major-label deal.


Mitchell finally agrees to run Takoma and is named president of the company. He tells the First Liberty congregation to follow Swami Prabhavananda, founder or the Vedanta Society of Southern California, and starts going after past-due invoices in Takoma’s accounts receivable.

Fahey agrees to release Kerry Fahey’s Jefferson Street Jug Band on Takoma, but changes his mind after listening to the demo Kerry hand-delivers to him in California. Instead, he offers Kerry a job at the label, which he accepts, doing everything from shipping to record-producing.

Director Michelangelo Antonioni flies Fahey to Rome to record some music for a love scene in his film Zabriskie Point. Fed up with the “orgy scenes” and Antonioni’s anti-Americanism, Fahey punches the filmmaker, knocking him out.


Takoma releases Leo Kottke’s debut studio album, 6- and 12-String Guitar. The Minneapolis guitarist’s playing is more dexterous and less dissonant than Fahey’s. The release eventually sells more than 500,000 copies, making it the most popular in the label’s catalog and helping Kottke earn a major-label deal.


Basho releases Voice of the Eagle, an album that shifts his focus from Asian mysticism to Native American mysticism.

Reprise Records releases Of Rivers and Religion, Fahey’s first LP for a major label. Future Cul de Sac member Glenn Jones hears Fahey’s music for the first time when his high-school art teacher plays him the album’s medley of Harry T. Burleigh’s “Deep River” and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River.”


Reprise releases the Dixieland-flavored After the Ball, Fahey’s last album for a major label. “I don’t understand why [the Reprise albums] got bad reviews,” the guitarist despaired to music-geek mag The Wire years later. “It’s like every time I wanted to do something other than play guitar I got castigated.”


Fahey briefly serves on the advisory board for Guitar Player magazine.


Will Ackerman, a young guitarist from Palo Alto, Calif., founds Windham Hill Records to release his Fahey-influenced first recording, In Search of the Turtle’s Navel. Over the next several years, the label becomes synonymous with New Age music.


Fahey and Mitchell decide to sell Takoma to Chrysalis Records. “It was a tough time in the record business,” Mitchell recalls. “Fahey wanted to do it, and I gave him no argument.” Mitchell enrolls in law school, because, he says, “lawyers are the people who make all the money in the music industry.”


After a recording hiatus of several years, Basho releases Visions of the Country, the first of two albums he made for Windham Hill.

George Winston releases the platinum-selling December on Windham Hill, a company well on its way to becoming the world’s “preeminent lifestyle music label.” In 1972, Winston had released his debut, Ballads and Blues, on Takoma, but sluggish sales led to its quick deletion from the label’s catalog.


On Feb. 28, Basho dies on a chiropractor’s table in Berkeley after an “intentional whiplash” procedure causes several blood vessels in his neck to burst.Thirty-three-year-old guitarist Steffen Junghans first hears Basho’s music while living in East Berlin. “I discovered it with a German-licensed release of the first Windham Hill guitar sampler from 1981,” he says. “About five or six months later, I got a message that Robbie died nearly at the same time that I was discovering him.”

Fahey contracts Epstein-Barr virus and divorces his third wife.


George Winston releases the platinum-selling December on Windham Hill, a company well on its way to becoming the world’s “preeminent lifestyle music label.” In 1972, Winston had released his debut, Ballads and Blues, on Takoma, but sluggish sales led to its quick deletion from the label’s catalog.


Fahey “retires.” Despite or because of his ailment, he is on and off the wagon. He takes up residence in a series of shelters and welfare motels and subsists by pawning his guitars and selling valuable records he finds in thrift stores.


Jones’ Boston-based art-rock band, Cul de Sac, covers Fahey’s “The Portland Cement Factory at Monolith, California” on its debut album, ECIM.


Junghans changes his name to Steffen Basho-Junghans in tribute to his favorite guitarist. “I saw something of a direction from Matsuo Bashoÿ, the 17th-century haiku poet, Robbie Basho, and myself,” he says. “I couldn’t forget that [Robbie Basho’s] name came into my life just when his own ended.”

Massachusetts-based music critic Byron Coley writes a feature on Fahey for Spin. The story prompts Dean Blackwood, a 24-year-old record collector from Arlington, Texas, to track down the destitute guitarist at a Salem, Ore., boardinghouse.


Fantasy Records buys Takoma and begins reissuing Fahey’s out-of-print LPs. Geffen Records plans a Fahey project to be produced by Jones and Coley, but the album is never completed.

Fahey’s father dies and leaves him a $250,000 inheritance. He decides to invest the money in another label and co-founds Revenant Records with Blackwood.

Fahey returns to Takoma Park for the last time to collect possessions from his father’s house. Real-estate developer Art McMurdie, who buys and remodels the property for resale, finds a loaded gun by the back door. He accidentally shoots a vacuum cleaner. Fahey’s childhood home, he says, is the “smelliest and most in a state of disarray” of any he’s worked on.

Denson receives a law degree from distance-learning institution William Howard Taft University. He passes the California State Bar exam and begins specializing in defending cases involving marijuana possession. “Being in Humboldt County,” he says, “I am kept pretty busy.”


Basho-Junghans co-writes the liner notes for Fantasy’s best-of-Basho collection, Guitar Soli.


Twenty-seven-year-old musician Jack Rose hears Fahey’s 1974 LP Fare Forward Voyagers (Soldier’s Choice) on WUVT FM in Blacksburg, Va. “Basically that record was the blueprint for me on how to merge Asian and American country blues into a raga form,” he says. “When I first heard it I thought the entire record was improvised. Later I found out ‘Thus Krishna on the Battlefield’ was improvised, but that the…title track was completely composed.

Thirsty Ear Recordings arranges for Fahey to record with Cul de Sac, which the guitarist refers to as a “retro lounge act.” The acrimonious proceedings were chronicled extensively by Jones and ultimately became the liner notes for the resulting album, The Epiphany of Glenn Jones. “John and I hadn’t talked since the sessions,” Jones recalls. “The day he got the notes, he called me, and in a sweet, quiet voice, said, ‘These have to be the notes to the album.’

Fahey records a song titled “On the Death and Disembowelment of the New Age.”


A disappointed Rose heckles Fahey at a show in Dublin, Ireland, where the guitarist plays his more dissonant, postrockish work. “I’m not proud of it,” Rose admits. “But it was an honest reaction to his ’90s music, which a couple of years later I grew to love and respect.”


On Feb. 22, a few days shy of his 62nd birthday, Fahey dies after undergoing a sextuple-bypass surgery. On the inside of his funeral program is an inscription from the Song of Solomon: “For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”

Rose releases his first solo album, Red Horse, White Mule. Rose had previously been a member of Pelt, which made a transition from minimal drone rock to serene acoustic folk. His solo work is marked by a strong Fahey influence.


James Blackshaw, a young musician from Kent, England, puts out his debut, Celeste, a CD-R of pastoral acoustic-guitar numbers with an initial run of 80 copies. “Discovering Robbie Basho was a real turning point for me,” Blackshaw says, “and to call him influential with regard to my own work is an understatement. Much more so than Fahey, even.”

Revenant’s Charley Patton compilation, Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues, wins three Grammy Awards.


Ackerman releases Returning: Pieces for Guitar 1970–2004, which wins a Grammy for Best New Age Album.


Former Sony Music executive Josh Rosenthal (no relation to Gene) releases a compilation of instrumental guitar music, Imaginational Anthem, on his Tompkins Square Records. It’s named after Ochs’ song, which appears on the album twice. Rosenthal believes that the disc “requires attention and meditative listening to be fully appreciated.”

National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition does a feature on the contemporary freak-folk movement and its roots in the early Takoma Records discography. Rose and Jones are both interviewed. When asked about the resurgence of American primitivism, the latter says, “It may have something to do with the music’s handmade feel in a digital age.”

Atlanta label Dust-to-Digital releases a box set that features some of Fahey’s Blind Thomas recordings, made for Thong Club member Joe Bussard’s Fonotone label in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The package includes “Blind Blues,” “Paint Brush Blues,” “Poor Boy Blues,” “Wanda Russell’s Blues,” and “Weissman Blues,” but not the contemporaneous “Pat Sullivan Blues.”


Vanguard Records releases I Am the Resurrection: A Tribute to John Fahey. Though Pelt is one of the contributors, Rose thinks that the disc “is a real piece of crap. I don’t see what Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart, Currituck Co., or M. Ward have to do with his legacy.” The tribute, he says, “should have featured artists who are “inquisitive about music…not the rehashed mid-’70s soft rock and whiny singer-songwriters that seem to dominate the current musical landscape.”

Blackshaw’s fourth album, O True Believers, comes out on Feb. 28—“exactly 20 years to the day since Basho’s death,” Josh Rosenthal notes. “Very odd.”