Friday, November 28, 2014

The Triumph of Blind Joe Death

I don't know the language of music, so I always have to scramble around in my toolbox to find some kind of emotional or metaphoric terms to explain what's going on in my head when I listen to Bach or Ornette Coleman.

Or the great, late John Fahey, my latest obsession -- although I've always kind of been an appreciative fan. Years ago, I bought the vinyl of The Best of John Fahey, which is quite a stellar collection, but only lately have I been pursuing those great early records of his, where he established his so-called "American primitive" acoustic guitar sound -- although primitive is never the word that comes to mind. I think of him as, let's see, a ghostlymystical, and eerily transcendent artist, who can manipulate six taut strings to transport the listener to other worlds.

Maybe it's the mixture of his death-haunted titles and his alternately sunny and melancholy melodies. It's a rare tune of his that doesn't make me think of the deep past, of a world that no longer exists, of Southern haunts where long-deceased Civil War generals and maidens still walk the deserted grounds.

Or maybe it's the famous nom de plume that started his career in the late 1950s.

Growing up in the Era of Joe McCarthy and Ozzie and Harriet, Fahey did what very few white kids (except Robert Zimmerman and a few others) dreamed of doing: developed an abiding interest in the blues of Charley Patton and Skip James, and in 1959, when he was all of 20, even tried his hand at following in their footsteps.

The result was his first album, Blind Joe Death, which he presumably tried to pass off as the work a genuine late bluesman. No one bought the ruse or the record -- of which only about a hundred copies were pressed -- but anyone who heard it knew it was no joke.

It's a lonely record steeped in the traditions of a world where life was hard and brief and heaven was the only hope for the future. The titles of these old songs tell the tale: "I'm a Poor Boy A Long Ways From Home," "Uncloudy Day," "Desperate Man Blues," "Sun Gonna Shine in My Back Door Someday Blues," "On Doing An Evil Deed Blues." Maybe Heaven is the best you can hope for; Fahey's peerless rendition of "In Christ There is No East or West" certainly gives that impression. Even at it's most sprightly, it has a doleful undertone

After that, death was in Fahey's blood. Next came records like Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes from 1963. my favorite The Dance of Death & Other Plantation Favorites (1964), and then The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death (1965).

Somewhere in there, more assured of his technique, Fahey re-recorded his debut album twice, in 1964 and 1967, both of which can be heard on the CD The Legend of Blind Joe Death.

I've listened to nothing but these records for weeks on end. They add luster to the best days, carry you through the darkest times, fire the imagination during sleepless nights.

Here's "Sligo River Blues," one of the cuts from the first album that Fahey would re-record later. It's a Fahey original,  which means it's the work of a 20-year-old who had somehow imagined himself into the world-weary skin and fading eyesight of of a bluesman whose time is running out.

For my money, this first version really remains the best, maybe because you can feel the rawness, the unsureness that would later be gone. The more assured and confident versions don't have the same spontaneity and don't pierce the heart quite the same way.

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