Just as folk music was exploding on the counter-culture scene in the 1960s, John Fahey started playing solo, steel-string acoustic guitar.
But he was no folk musician.
“He hated the folk audiences,” said Steve Lowenthal, author of “Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist.” “He hated the hippies. Had no interest in their politics. He wasn’t interested in psychedelic culture or drugs. He found it all repugnant.”
Fahey pioneered American primitivism, a guitar-playing approach based on the finger-picking techniques of country blues, but drawing in influences from everywhere, including classical, Indian ragas, Indonesian gamelan, spiritual hymns, syncopated rag music, even abrupt tape-editing ideas drawn from European avant-garde musique concrète.
Even among the hippie freaks, Fahey was an outlier. Born in 1939 in Takoma Park, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., Fahey did not wait to be discovered. At 20, while working as a gas station attendant, he recorded and released his first album, “Blind Joe Death,” starting a small label called Takoma.
He was also an important record collector, dredging basements and attics in the deep South for old blues reocrds. He took many trips through Southern states around the same time as the Freedom Rider, knocking on doors offering to buy records. His efforts brought Son House, Skip James, and Bukka White — among others — out of obscurity and into the canon of American blues music.
“Dance of Death” is the first biography about Fahey, portraying him as a difficult artist. Few people liked him. Even those who championed his music found him personally abrasive and temperamental. He was known to berate audiences from the stage.
But fans still came for the music. They still do.
“I meet kids all the time in the 20s in Brooklyn. They all know John Fahey,” said Lowenthal, a music writer based in Manhattan. “None of them have Joan Baez records. They don’t own a Pete Seeger record. But every kid who is into cool records owns at least one John Fahey record, because it would be powerfully uncool if you didn’t.”
Not just in Brooklyn. Philadelphia has a strong roster of American Primitivism guitarists. One of the finest, Jack Rose, died in Philadelphia in 2010. Matt Sowell is following in his foosteps, having released two albums of instrumental rags.
“It’s a matter of feeling. As instrumental artists, we don’t have lyrics to express what we are saying,” said Jerry Hionis, an American primitive guitar player from Media, Pennsylvania. “Each player — their life and what they are putting into it — comes out in their playing.”
Hionis has self-released two digital albums. The most recent “Arrakian Circle Dances” (February 2014) is filled with song titles like “The Case of the Mortician’s Four Wives” and “The Knees Will Be Broken for Those Who Don’t Know How.” He admits the song titles often reveal very little about the songs they represent, being instrumentals.
John Fahey sometimes gave his instrumentals elaborate titles that are hidden messages about his personal life, such as “The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party,” a crushing event in his romantic life, none of which appears in the song, being an instrumental. Likewise his album “The Voice of the Turtle” included a 12-page booklet of notes and images of people who would not be recognized by most of the buyers. The album art was so expensive, the record company lost 15 cents for every unit sold.
The music was as close to psychedelic as Fahey would venture, without resorting to an electric wawa pedal.
“His emotion when he played — for me at least — I could sense that he was by himself. not only as a player, but just in general,” said Hionis. “You could tell he was just doing his thing. Nobody got him. He didn’t get other people.”
Another Philadelphia musician, singer-songwriter Birdie Busch (Emily Busch) is not a classic American primitivist — she sings, for starters, and her songs are arranged for an entire band. Nevertheless, she feels an influence from Fahey.
“I find a kindred spirit in how [something] simple can sound cosmic and other-worldly,” said Busch. “I don’t like to be pigeonholed in any way, and that’s something I get from his music.”
Although a fan of Fahey’s music, Busch never looked into his life much beyond his dislike of the “folk musician” title, and his obsession with death. A heavy drinker all his life, he died in 2001 at age 61, having released over 40 studio and live albums.