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John Fahey

Stefan Grossman: John when did you first pick up the guitar?

John Fahey: I was about thirteen and I saw some other guys, older than me, they were meeting girls in the park in the summer by taking guitars out and playing them and singing country western, so I bought a seventeen dollar Sears and Roebuck Silver charm, the action was about that high, and I got to know these guys and they helped me out with a few chords and stuff. But I didn’t meet any girls that way until about ten years later. On the other hand I did learn how to play the guitar.

S: What type of music were you listening to?

J: Well, lets see at that time I was listening at first just to country western and then the radio station we listened to to hear country western, in Washington D.C, changed it’s format and started playing nothing but Bluegrass. So then I got very interested in Bluegrass. Early Bluegrass is my favorite kind of music, not to many people know that. But I couldn’t learn to play it because you had to play so fast, you know? So I learnt a few country western songs, I bought a chord book, and right away I started writing my own stuff, which nobody else did that, I don’t know why. I had a big background in listening to classical music and I started trying to compose, like I was playing the guitar but I heard an orchestra in my head. So I was really composing for full orchestra and of course I didn’t know enough chords or harmonies yet but I came up with some interesting stuff.

S: What were some of the tunes in that period?

J: Oh you know the first song I wrote completely was that one I did on today’s lesson called "On the sunny side of the ocean". I think I was fourteen when I did that one. See my father knew a lot about music, he played the piano and he would do theory and stuff like that, but I didn’t learn anything from him, but I played that for him and he liked it a lot. Then the next song I wrote he didn’t like. But that was one of my earliest songs, as complex as it is.

S: When did you leave the Washington D.C. area?

J: Oh, 1962. The music scene was so bad that several of us decided to come out to Berkeley and take over the folk music scene here. And there were about forty of us actually who came out. This was something we planned at Parties; ED Denson was in on it, a lot of other people, and we came out gradually, but we made quite an impact here, which was impossible in Washington D.C.

S: The name Blind Joe Death, where did that originate from?

J: (Laughs) Well when I made my first record I thought it would be a good joke to have me on one side, have the lable say John Fahey on one side, and this guy Blind Joe Death on the other side. The reason it said "blind" is because a lot of the people I learned from were on old 78 RPM records and a lot of them were blind, and their names were Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Joe Taggart, on and on, a whole bunch of them were blind. So me and a guy named Greg Eldridge we were sitting around drinking a beer one night and I was trying to find a catchy name for the other guy and he was helping me and he finally said "Blind Joe Death", and I said "um, That’s it". Also I was thinking, when ever you print the word "Death" people look at it and I was thinking of record sales already even though I was only going to have a hundred copies pressed. (laughs).

S: Whose idea was it to do a record?

J: Oh, my idea. I thought I’d be wasting my time to go to commercial record companies and make demos for them, because don’t forget, I was doing what I was doing and nobody understood what I was doing. Even Sam Charters, I still have a letter from 1959, where I sent Charters a copy of my first record and he wrote me back to tell me how terrible I was and how Jack Elliot and so on and so forth were much better than me. He completely misunderstood what I was trying to do. But that was OK. I understood what I was trying to do.

S: What were you trying to do?

J: Well I was on the one hand, the more I played the guitar the more I began to really love the guitar and to love virtually any kind of music that anybody played well on guitar. In the music I was composing I was trying to express my emotions, my so called negative emotions, which were depression, anger and so forth. Like Stan Kenton did. He got away with it. I ‘ve always admired him for that. I listen to Stan Kenton a lot then and I still do. And I was trying to put together some distant music, I was thinking mainly of Bartok as a model, but played in this finger picking pattern, which I still use. So I was trying to put those things together into a coherent musical language which people would understand and it worked pretty good. Everybody else was just trying to copy folk musicians, I wasn’t trying to do that. I was using them as teachers for technique but I was never trying to be a folk. How can I be a folk? I’m from the suburbs you know.

S: Show me how other guitar players have influenced you, give me some examples.

J: Um. Well, lets see. I used to go record collecting with Dick Spotswood and I was just looking for bluegrass records but I found some Blind Blake records, and who else...Oh Sylvester Weaver, kind of an obscure character but they reissued some of his stuff on CD’s now , and Lonnie Johnson even respected Weaver a lot. So one of the first guys I heard was Sylvester Weaver on these old 78’s recorded probably around 1923-28.

S: Which guitar players influenced you? The old blues players or white guitar players? Give me some examples, show me.

J: Well, in my early record collecting days I was only looking for bluegrass but I found a lot of records like Blind Blake, but the guy who really influenced me made a lot of OK records, his name was Sylvester Weaver, and he wrote "Steel Guitar Rag" and Lonnie Johnson gave him a lot of credit for both being a good composer and a good guitarist, great guitarist, in fact as far as I know of all those old guys Lonnie was the only one to respect Sylvester Weaver at all. But anyway here’s one of Weaver’s pieces that I learnt off of one of his records, I don’t remember the name of it, this may be called "Buck Town Stomp" but I’m not sure. Very simple, kind of ragtime style, he played very slowly.  So I learned that song and a few others by Sylvester Weaver and I learned some by Blind Blake and what was interesting was that shortly after I learned a lot of these ragtime pieces I met Elizabeth Cotten, she lived in D.C at the time, and she had a version of the same song that Sylvester Weaver had recorded, and I didn’t realize then that she had learned a lot off of old records like I was, but she played it a lot faster and she left the first part out. So I used to take Elizabeth Cotten to parties and we would trade songs with each other and other people. I didn’t really learn too much from her in terms of technique or songs but on the other hand we had a lot of fun in any case. See by the time I met her I had already become a pretty good guitar player of ragtime style and blues. And of course she played backwards. Oh, the one thing she taught me was, I was trying to learn to play blues with steel in open G, in Spanish tuning. I mean this had been going on for years, it was driving me crazy, I had learned how to do it in D, everybody I met who could play guitar I ‘d ask people how to do that in this tuning, and she knew how, she couldn’t do it anymore but she showed me how, and that was to put the steel all the way across the strings. I’m not in that tuning anymore, but to use the steel all the way, instead of like what you do in open D where you do a lot of melodic work on just one string. And that will be in the forth coming lessons. But that was a very important thing to learn and she did teach me that.

S: The music of Charlie Patton?

J: Well, I didn’t get into these heavy blues figures until several years later, probably, 58-59. I was in North Carolina, fishing with my father and I went canvassing for old records in the black section and I found Charlie Patton’s record of high water everywhere, part 1 and part 2, and it was so scratched that it sounded to me like the guy was playing in a inner tube or something and I didn’t know what to make of it so I called up a collector friend and he had that record in mint condition and several others by Charlie Patton and pretty soon those guys from the Mississippi Delta really caught into me. I never really learned to play like Charlie Patton he used to flat pick and his fingers and stuff like that. I never got his right hand but I learned quite a bit from him of chords and harmony things, especially dissonances, he uses that a lot.

S: When did you become a record Mogul?

J: A mogul? Goodness it took years and years. And it just fell in my lap when I met Norman Pierce, who lived over in San Francisco. And that was after I moved to Berkeley in 1963, and I made a second record out here and I gave him as a present my record, I didn’t know he was a national distributor, and he said " hey I think I can sell these" and he wanted ten next week, and fifty the week after that, and I was a student at CAL and I didn’t have time for all that stuff so I asked him to take over the record company, I just wanted to make records. That’s how Tacoma records got started.

S: Your music has been called "American Primitive Guitar". Does that mean anything to you?

J: Well, I used that term and all that I meant is what you would call primitive painters, which just means untutored. I didn’t really mean much of anything, I was just trying to come up with a label. Other people took it to mean other things like noise or dissonance or things like that. Which I do but I didn’t actually mean it that way when I used that expression. But everybody started using it.

S: Do you feel that you’re the father of a guitar movement, meaning Leo Kotke, the Windham Hill school, do you feel as if you were the seed for that?

J: Yes to a very large extent but I don’t think ... well what I did was that I was the first one to just go out and just play steel guitar concerts and when I did it I didn’t just do it in the United States, I did it in England, and everybody kept on saying " What are you going to sing?" and I would say "I don’t sing I just play the guitar and so I was the person who made that possible so in that sense I made the steel string guitar concert respectable. As for being the father of these other guitar player in any other sense, especially new age music, I do not want that appellation.

S: John, tell me about your role in blues research. Bukka white, Skip James, tell me about what happened.

J: Oh well in the case of Skip James I’d heard his 1931 recorded 78’s and he played in, I couldn’t figure out in what tuning he was in or how he did what he did, I just couldn’t get it. So by that time, say 58/59 I led a lot of excursions into the deep south looking for old records, particularly by blues figures and also looking for Pete Lloyd, Skip James and Bukka White and so on. And eventually I did find Skip James and we did not get along very well, clashing personalities, but he did show me what tuning he was in, which was open D minor and he showed me basic chords and he showed me some stuff he’s never recorded that I play in concert a lot. Also I found Bukka White who was a really nice guy, we got along real well, had a lot of fun and adventures together. Both these people died a long time ago. And I wrote a theoretical book on the modes Charlie Patton sang in, the tunings he used on the guitar, and the rhythmic structure. That was my master’s thesis at UCLA and I wanted to find out what it was about Patton that was so exciting. Because to me he was the most exciting guitar player and blues singer ever heard. So in order to find out what he was doing I had to really analyze what he did. He’s left behind about 40 records. He died in 1934 but we have most of his records. What I found was that he, in an approximately 12 bar blues song he almost never played 12 bars exactly, I averaged them all and it came out to 13 and a half. So he was always doing unexpected things which didn’t draw you when he did them but nevertheless were executed so well, with such dexterity, that you noticed it, you felt it, he was hot like very few other people and that’s what I found the great thing about Charlie Patton was.

S: Where is your music going?

J: My music? Oh I’m getting more and more into Jazz and alternative stuff. I’ve started doing Tuva singing or throat singing, and ......A lot of the stuff I’ve been doing for the past two years including Tuva singing, and tuning all the strings of the guitar to the same note, and playing steel, I didn’t know what I was doing so I recorded a lot of it and took it around to various record stores and two or three people told me that what I was doing has already existed and it’s called Gothic Industrial ambiance and it’s a lot of fun because you get to scream and make noises. But I’m not giving up guitar playing per se.

S: How does it feel to get up on stage and play a tune that you wrote in 1959 /1960 and people still want to hear that?

J: Well I do feel a little dragged by that because I’d prefer to do what I’m doing at the time but I also realize that you have to keep a lot of those songs in your repertoire and up to practice. Any professional musician realizes that keeps them around. And keeps trying to get the audience to go forward with them, but they don’t always want to go, but that’s OK.

S: Lastly, what happened at the time of the Vietnamese war, finger picks, thumb picks, chains, talk about that, about how that affected your music.

J: Well I initially started using Dobro thumb picks, Japanese finger picks, here in Berkeley, I saw Perry Lederman do it, and I like to be heard, you know I’d go to parties and if I just used my hand and my fingernails nobody could hear me, so I started using those and they are louder and most of my records were cut with finger picks. But sometime back, the company that made large size Dobro thumb picks, changed the dyes and this new batch came out and I can’t use them. This also happened to you, we both had to change our styles of playing, and went back to just using what nature gave us. I personally am glad because I like the tone better. But I can’t play quite as fast or quite as noisy as I used to be able to.