Man Out of Time


John Fahey’s life on earth ended in 2001, but the iconic guitarist was always a man out of time. Fahey the musician was an obstinate blues scholar who advanced a decidedly non-folkie version of instrumental Americana and who formed his own record company at the age of 20. Along the way, he revived the art of steel-string solo guitar. Fahey the man was perennially self-destructive, squandered money quickly, and spent his final years in Oregon flophouses or living out of his car.

Fahey hated the decade in which he came to prominence and reserved a particular antipathy for the grandiose self-indulgence of hippies. In 1964, while most people his age were digging the Beatles, John soldiered down to a hospital in Tunica, Mississippi, and unearthed lost bluesman Skip James. He took James to the Newport Folk Festival, where the elder was treated like an anthropological discovery. The appearance revived James’s long-dormant career, though after the fact Fahey determined that Skip was a recalcitrant s.o.b. and regretted wasting his own time and effort.

In 1970, despite differences with the director and disdain for the other performers, Fahey appeared on the soundtrack of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. (“I hate all those phony fake suburban folk singers,” he later insisted. “When Jerry Garcia died several people phoned me up and said, ‘Have you heard the good news?’ “)

So he was a cultural misanthrope. But big deal: Fahey’s fingerpicking utilized open tunings, Charlie Patton’s unorthodox Delta blues, classical structures, and syncopated ragtime rhythms. Perennially dissatisfied with his work, he denounced his own performances and re-recorded entire albums. He always had a soft spot for baroque and medieval carols—Fahey’s bestselling works are still his Christmas LPs.

In 1959, he formed the proto-indie Takoma Records and put out his first recording, Blind Joe Death. Blind Joe Death served as a recurring melancholic-blues alter ego and established Fahey’s resolute artistic vision. It was Fahey’s dream to generate an “American Primitive” school of steel-string soloists and raise the experimental folk-form to the level of classical music. His aesthetic inspired many disciples, some of whose records Takoma released, most notably Leo Kottke’s 1969 6 and 12-String Guitar. In the 1990s, modernists like Jim O’Rourke regenerated Fahey’s meditative legacy.

Using an inheritance as seed money, Fahey funded the start of another indie imprint, Revenant Records. + was completed for the label months before Fahey’s death, but it was another year before Revenant co-founder Dean Blackwood could face the emotional task of preparing the disc for release. Fahey forgoes the sound collages and electric collaborations of recent years, and finally makes peace with his acoustic past. His picking is slower, starker, and more deliberate than it once was. Time itself made Fahey technically less proficient, but the mythic heart of his playing—that of a strangely detached romantic—remains eternal.

An eerie interpretation of the Gershwin brothers’ “Summertime” swings pensively, resonating with cold (but not indifferent) precision. Fahey dedicates the dissonant title track, “Red Cross, Disciple of Christ Today,” to Guitar Roberts, better known as Manhattan-based experimentalist Loren MazzaCane Connors. The droning “Ananaias” extends Fahey’s meta-guitar vocabulary, but it’s the traditional “Motherless Child” that’s the album’s centerpiece. He wields his piercing tone like a buck knife, carving concentric circles around the song’s melody. Repeating and reframing the eternal lament as a cosmic blues of epic proportions, Fahey puts the song, and his myth, to rest.