Here comes another DC-related DVD review for y’all! But while its subject shares a hometown with the punk stars of our last review, that’s about it. In Search of Blind Joe Death follows the life of the enigmatic, eccentric and iconoclastic guitarist John Fahey. Fahey, who invented a style of richly harmonic, fingerpicked folk guitar dubbed “American primitive” in its day, reinvented the sound of American acoustic guitar in a transcendent way.
In Search is a documentary on Fahey’s life, from childhood to his death in 2001. Fahey was born in D.C. and grew up in the neighborhood of Takoma Park. As a child, he was inspired by the verdant, sylvan forests that surrounded his home. His search for musical expression began in the District, inspired by the sounds of the old Delta Blues of the American South. Fahey, who began playing guitar at a young age, quickly formed his own musical vocabulary, equally informed by these old bluesmen and the harmonic compositions of Stravinsky and Bartok. He began to release recordings on a label he founded, named Takoma Records after his hometown.
After graduating from American University (once an Eagle, you know the rest), Fahey moved to California, where he continued recording as well as finding new (old) artists to release on Takoma. The documentary describes his unique sleuthing process of tracking down old Delta Blues artists and recording new material with them for Takoma.
Once he was done with school, Fahey began touring and his eccentricities began to bubble up to the surface. He would disappear for long periods of time, turning up after a point in a random location (such as Tasmania). He began uncalled-for, one-sided rivalries with other musicians, and his alcoholism became a problem. After a time, a doctor prescribed him sleeping medication, which he began to abuse in alcohol’s stead (along with heavy Coca-Cola drinking).
As he aged (rather quickly thanks to his various indulgences) he became more and more eccentric, as did his music. He ditched the acoustic guitar for the electric, creating strange, experimental music influenced by the noise-rock of the ’80s. He also took up painting. Meanwhile, he had relocated to a motel room in the middle of nowhere, Oregon, where he spent the remainder of his days selling thrift shop records to collectors. He died at 61. His music lived on, its echoes audible everywhere from Nick Drake to Sonic Youth to Led Zeppelin to Beck. Essentially, any artist wrenching more than simple open chords out of an acoustic guitar can thank Fahey for the idea.
This DVD does a great job of revealing the many sides of John Fahey, with the guitar master’s hauntingly beautiful music providing the perfect soundtrack. It includes interviews with many who knew him well, and many acolytes, from deranged Maryland record collector Joe Bussard to rock superstar Pete Townshend. It also features several performances of his works, as well as the type that influenced him, by a parade of musicians such as Bussard (playing with a screwdriver!) and George Winston, as well as members of the Decemberists and Calexico and good-natured rival Stefan Grossman. There are also a couple of rare performance and interview videos with Fahey himself from the late ’90s.
I’d recommend In Search of Blind Joe Death to any Fahey fan, as well as any fan of folk music and the guitar. It’s a close look at somebody who redefined the language of the instrument, drawing from a deeply ingrained musical culture but emerging with something 100% original. There is also rich inspiration to be found in the life of Fahey itself, in his virtues and vices the embodiment of a truly American musician. And if you like it, check out some choice Fahey CDs from us, your loyal Music Library!