John Fahey and the American Primitive Style (Part 1)

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John Fahey on Stage in Paris 1984

John Fahey was born John Aloysius Fahey on February 28th, 1939. He was the creator and foremost exponent of the American Primitive guitar style. This style uses traditional finger style and finger picking techniques borrowed from American Roots music such as the Blues, Bluegrass, Country and Folk traditions.

The term American Primitive is borrowed from the art term ‘Primitivism’ which is used to describe the self taught nature of the music.  John Fahey himself used the label American Primitive when he described himself and the music as ‘untutored‘. 

Fahey was an eccentric person who disliked the hippy scene of the early 1960’s and rejected the Pete Seeger inspired folk revivalists which were popular, or beginning to become popular, at the time.  His traditionally based finger picking techniques borrowed from a diverse mixture of American Roots music was far more eclectic than the simple folk songs of the time – although having said this, Fahey could produce plaintive and dreamy music when he saw fit (check out Sligo River Blues.)

Sligo Creek, Maryland USA. Inspiration for Fahey's Sligo River Blues

Blind Joe Death

Blind Joe Death was the title of the first album released by Fahey in 1959. It was released on Faheys own Takoma Records label, named after his home town Takoma Park in Maryland USA, with only 100 pressings available at the time.  The first side was credited to Faheys alter-ego Blind Joe Death and contained pretty much standard blues and traditional sounding material while the other side, which contained mostly original compositions, was credited to John Fahey himself.  The album was recorded on a reel-to-reel tape machine in an Episcopal church in Takoma Park.

The Blind Joe Death album was unique to 1959 and there had been nothing like that had come before. The late 1950’s were marked by Rhythm and Blues and Rock ‘n’ roll and Fahey wasn’t interested in this pathway at all – in fact the album wasn’t marketed and did not make an impression on the record buying public.

The albums’ popularity has grown over the years and its significance to solo steel string guitar playing has been huge. It is the birth of the American Primitive guitar style.

 
 
 

On April 6th, 2011 the album was added to the United States National Recording Registry after being called “culturally, historically or aesthetically important” by the Library of Congress

In an interview with Stefen Grossman from Guitar Workshop John Fahey said about his picking up the guitar:
“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 (maybe a SilverTone??), 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.”

Click below to hear 2 tunes by John Fahey from the Blind Joe Death album