John Fahey, the Lazarus
by Sean
Please note: MP3s are only kept online for a short time, and if this entry is from more than a couple of weeks ago, the music probably won't be available to download any more.


John Fahey was clearly one of the most important American musicians of the past hundred years. The "important" thing is so ambivalent, though. What does it matter if an artist influenced his peers? What does it matter if he inspired people with his adventurousness, his feeling, his chops? For me, listening at home, what matters is if he was good. Was John Fahey good? Yes, John Fahey was good. He was damn good. If Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and the British folkies could be said to have resurrected a pastoral spirit, something English-Scottish and green, then over the ocean John Fahey was starting something: he was pulling mud and weeds and inventing an America that feels obvious to me now. A mythic blues-and-folk-reared place that I can only really conceive of thanks to the compositions of Fahey, the Old, Weird sounds, his music's soulful dusty riverbed spirit.

When asked, Fahey would readily admit that he repeated things. His compositions are series of knots, themes untangled one after another. There's something cathartic in that sequence of unknotting. And there's something magic in it too. Each time you hear one of those same knots untangled, glinting with sun- or moonlight, the threads seem to come apart in a different way. Like John Fahey's fingers are finding strings where there oughtn't be any. Like that.

In February, Vanguard Records releases I Am The Resurrection: A Tribute to John Fahey. The calibre of artists they recruited is a testament to Fahey's talent: Pelt, Currituck County, (inevitably) M Ward, Calexico, Grandaddy, Cul de Sac, Howe Gelb, Devendra Banhart, and many more.

These are a couple of songs from I Am The Resurrection. And I'm including the Fahey originals, too, because they're even better.

John Fahey - "Commemorative Transfiguration & Communion At Magruder Park".

Sufjan Stevens - "Variation On 'Commemorative Transfiguration & Communion At Magruder Park'".

Sufjan's "Variation" more than anything recalls his Hark Christmas records that have been popping up over the web - not just because of the reverent prayer that he sings at the end of the piece, but also in the song's sleigh-ride spirit, the wintry snowtracks of percussion, flute and oboe. If Fahey's original is a back-porch affirmation, a solitary coming-to-grips with epiphany, for Sufjan the song is a communal affair: it's a gazebo full of friends, a church choir with a Charlie Brown conductor. And yet Surfin' Stevens doesn't get carried away. This never gets too showy or dazzling. Fahey's modesty remains intact, there amid Stevens' glad frankincense and myrrh.

John Fahey - "When The Catfish Is In Bloom".

Peter Case - "When The Catfish Is In Bloom".

Peter Case is a name I didn't know, but his track is by far the best thing on all of I Am The Resurrection. Funny that it's also the closest to the original in sound. (When I got the CD in the mail I thought "Oh god - thirteen artists trying to outplay Fahey.") What's different between the two? Case's is warmer, softer, it's less fierce. Case is playing something about dusk or dawn, while Fahey plays about night. Case loves the song more than Fahey does - he's tenderer with it, more attentively examining the curve of its hip. Fahey's hungry and Case is content; Case plays from memory and Fahey plays from instinct; Fahey's dead and Case is alive.

[Hear more at the I Am The Resurrection MySpace page]
John Fahey: [buy Requia or The Yellow Princess]


Haiku Contest results tomorrow, probably (and Destroyer, too): so many fantastic submissions.

Posted by Sean at December 14, 2005 3:00 AM

Peter Case was in the Plimsouls before starting a solo career in the 80's. I lost track of him after the first couple of albums but his eponymous one is a doozie. I can email you an mp3 of my favourite track "Walk In The Woods" if you like. Merry Christmas and thanks for all the downloads, especially that best of year selection.

Posted by dymbel at December 14, 2005 6:42 AM

Thanks Sean ! Another marvel, again ...

Posted by garrincha at December 14, 2005 7:07 AM

Is John Fahey the same guy as Jeff Fahey? Because Jeff Fahey was in Lawnmower Man, which would make these songs a lot cooler.

Posted by Ash Karreau at December 14, 2005 10:47 AM

I always did like Peter Case.

Posted by Matt at December 14, 2005 1:15 PM

Check out the Peter Case website. Here's a FAQ link to start you off.

Posted by MeloMan at December 14, 2005 3:43 PM

Peter Case is great, I carried his bags for him once when I was a bellhop in Chicago (nice guy but bad tipper)

I would pay anything for a Peter Case track about baseball that was a b-side of a radio promo back in `87. anyone have that? it's gotta be one of the best baseball songs ever

Posted by craig at December 14, 2005 7:16 PM

wonderful post, thank you sean.

Posted by anne at December 14, 2005 7:49 PM

Though his style was very different John Fahey was as great a guitarist as Jimi Hendrix. I have about 10 of his albums right from the Blind Joe Death ones to the final one released before his death.

Posted by DJ Gordy at December 14, 2005 8:16 PM

When I heard Fahey for the first time in 1970 (yes, 1970, sorry!) I was, well, gobsmacked. Glad to say that, years later, I'm still impressed by his, as you say, instinct. Especially the way he always conceives of the music as a whole creature, figures out its shape and structure. He never just "plays the notes": he knows what he wants it to look like before he touches the strings. Then he builds the thing right in front of us while we watch with our ears. It's like watching a highly skilled carpenter, precise, never flamboyant, and somehow very humane.

Posted by moominpappa at December 14, 2005 9:23 PM

dymbel - please do! and happy holidays to you.

moominpappa - you should start a musicblog.

Posted by Sean at December 15, 2005 2:54 AM

I always loved Peter Case too, I have to admit.

Posted by Chico at December 15, 2005 9:20 PM

John Fahey's music has been a presence in my musical life since the mid- late 60's. (See moominpappa-you're not the oldest reader of STG--and I'm sure I'm not either)Sean- your remark about 'unthreading the knots' is right on target. Sometimes I listen and its a struggle, but its always been also a blessing...the knots confuse and challenge, but then on one listening a triplet tumbles out and the string becomes linear for a brief moment, and then reties into a new know for another listening. The time between listening might be years, but those years are momentary as well, because they are in Fahey time....You may enjoy the liner notes from The Voice of the Turtle, for they do inform about the transfiguration in magruder park...
Thanks for the post
All this comes from just hearing the Fahey I'll go back to listen to some of the new reflections...

Posted by J at December 16, 2005 9:46 PM

I strongly recommend Fahey's book "How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life." Simply GREAT.

Posted by Chris Farstad at January 21, 2006 11:55 AM

peter case is a flat-out genius - one of the greatest singer-songwriters there's ever been.

Posted by steveinengland at January 27, 2006 11:03 AM

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Sean Michaels is the founder of Said the Gramophone. He is a writer, critic and author of the theremin novel Us Conductors. Follow him on Twitter or reach him by email here. Click here to browse his posts.

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