John Fahey, Curmudgeonly Again in Harpers Magazine


Local virtuoso writer Caleb Crain reprints a gem of an anecdote (otherwise hidden behind Harpers‘ subscriber walls) about the now-deceased virtuoso guitar player John Fahey. Fahey, American primitive par excellence, spent most of his life—from the early ’70s till his death, in 2001—in the beached whale/fat Elvis stage of his career, defiling hotel rooms and filling up on room service while scrounging for spare change, etc, until his rediscovery in the ’90s as a proto-folk genius.

The Harpers piece, written by sometime sports writer John Jeremiah Sullivan, involves Sullivan calling up Fahey—a fanatical devotee, collector, and repository of knowledge re: pre-war folk and blues—for help deciphering lyrics to the then-unanthologized Geechie Wiley/Elvie Thomas track “Motherless Child Blues.”

Fahey asked for fifteen minutes to get his “beatbox” hooked up and locate the tape with the song on it. I called him back at the appointed time.

“Man,” he said, “I can’t tell what she’s saying there. It’s definitely not ’boutonniere.'”

“No guesses?”


We switched to another mystery word, a couple of verses on: Wiley sings, “My mother told me, just before she died/Lord, [precious?] daughter, don’t you be so wild.”

“Shit, I don’t have any fucking idea,” Fahey said. “It doesn’t really matter, anyway. They always just said any old shit.

This comes, apparently, from an extremely promising book called Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums that Changed Their Lives, for which I can’t yet find a full contributor list. Still, more proof that this guy being gone remains a terrible loss…