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When I was 17 a friend named Pat Wilch introduced me to the old country blues recordings, and to John Fahey's music, and I guess I went "berserk," to use a word Pat himself liked at the time. I'd started guitar at 12 and had known about Lead Belly almost my whole conscious life, but didn't know he'd been part of an entire world of American guitar music. I was in the process of making the shift to steel-string guitar, having begun on nylon, and when I heard country blues, and then what Fahey did with them, I felt I was hearing something that unknowingly I'd been wanting to hear all along but didn't know existed: a whole repertoire on steel-string guitar that wasn't bland strumming. It all happened fast then. In those days I could be home from school by 3:30, knock off some homework, and then stay up till 11 or 12:00 listening to records, learning songs, and practicing. I spent the last year or two of high school doing that. John Hurt and Fahey were among the first whose repertoires I ransacked, along with Broonzy, Rev. Davis and Blind Willie McTell. Add Lead Belly and you have my Big Six, with John Fahey as the node connecting the dead with the living. Right on their heels came Leo Kottke, the trio Koerner, Ray and Glover, and then the raft of players introduced by Stefan Grossman on Kicking Mule Records. Of the contemporary players it was the voice of Fahey's guitar that cut deepest for me then, and dwelled most thoroughly at the center.

Since then I've come across a few people who dislike Fahey's music for the same reasons I like it: the definiteness and angularity and driving repetitiveness. It won't let you go. To some it's not fluid enough and pretty enough. Too strong, maybe. There's nothing wrong with pretty, but Fahey never diluted any music. Distilled it, yes, making it more potent. Those early Takoma albums are towering landmarks for solo steel-string guitar, breaking the horizon with a stark, soulful, and fervent beauty that has rarely been matched. They stand as a gateway to a music that is as compelling as any we have, guitar music that is unadorned, honest, and somehow evocative of American landscapes and history.

Sunflower River Blues, When The Springtime Comes Again, Transcendental Waterfall, these are among the many seminal Fahey tunes for me, cloaked in the romance of my early listening days with Pat. An image in my head has us listening to Fahey at night in the little weekend cabin Pat's family had down by the Cedar River south of town. Outside it's dark and the river is surging in high flow, merging with the music and the Thomas Wolfe novel I was probably reading then. While Wolfe was wordy, Fahey was wordless, and somehow those tunes seemed to say it all.

John Fahey's music was part of what felt like the dawning of my own consciousness at age 17, and for almost 30 years it has never receded from that consciousness. The honesty and emotional directness of his playing, along with the sheer brilliance of it, made his impact outlast and outweigh that of almost everyone else who has picked up a steel-string guitar in the last three or four decades. It is real stuff, not a demonstration of someone else's real stuff. I can only imagine what life as a guitar player would be like if Fahey hadn't existed. The 1967 editions of those first two Takoma volumes--Blind Joe Death and Death Chants, Breakdowns, and Military Waltzes--have traveled with me everywhere since my late teens. Even through my twenties, when every year I packed all my belongings into a Bug and moved somewhere else, those albums were among the half-dozen records that came along. Today, in the days after his death, just looking at those song titles chokes me up. Listening to them still makes me happy. And still inspires. Thank you, John Fahey. Thank you.

Phil Heywood
late February, 2001



Copyright © 2001 Phil Heywood