In 1965, John Fahey released “The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death,” an album of guitar solos. “Blind Joe Death” was a sardonic pseudonym that Fahey sometimes utilized; today, his transfiguration, and canonization, continues apace.
Fahey’s fusion of blues and country finger-picking with Eastern and classical influences served as a model for a generation of guitarists; several of the most notable of them — Robbie Basho, Peter Lang, Leo Kottke — recorded for Takoma Records, Fahey’s own label.
Near the end of his life, after a long battle with alcoholism, chronic fatigue syndrome and impoverishment, a renewed Fahey lit a fire under another generation of musicians. Some of these disciples pay homage on “I Am the Resurrection: A Tribute to John Fahey,” to be issued Feb. 14 by Vanguard, eight days short of the fifth anniversary of Fahey’s death.
The album’s co-executive producer, Vanguard manager of marketing and A&R development Stephen Brower, recalls the puissant impact of Fahey’s music. “I came to John Fahey late in the game,” Brower says. “I was completely disarmed and undone by it — I didn’t really know what to make of it.”
Brower thought that Vanguard, which released two of Fahey’s finest late-’60s albums, would be the ideal label to mount a tribute. He first discussed the idea with guitarist Jim O’Rourke in 2003, but nothing came of it.
He returned to the concept this year with Vanguard president Kevin Welk. “He said, ‘See what’s out there,”‘ Brower says. “I sent out blind e-mails to people like [guitarists] Devendra Banhart, M. Ward and Glenn Jones, and 90% of the people quickly got back. M. Ward said, ‘I want to be involved, but not just as a musician.'”
Ward ultimately executive produced the album with Brower and penned liner notes to the reissue of the Vanguard album “The Yellow Princess,” due the same day as the tribute. He writes of that 1968 record, “I felt it was opening a new chapter in my understanding of the instrument and its possibilities — curious thing is that every other instrumentalist who has taken the time to listen to Fahey seems to feel the same way.”
The fan club is out in force on “I Am the Resurrection.” Only one player, Peter Case, contributes a solo acoustic performance in the Fahey manner. Many of the tracks are full-band, electric interpretations of Fahey’s compositions. Such acts as Ward, Banhart, Sufjan Stevens, Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, Howe Gelb of Giant Sand and Pelt (which includes guitarist Jack Rose, possibly Fahey’s most gifted admirer) plumb the guitarist’s repertoire.
The Fahey renaissance goes on. The last year has seen two splendid vintage live recordings: Water Music’s “The Great Santa Barbara Oil Slick,” recorded at the Matrix in San Francisco in 1968-69, and “On Air,” a 1978 Radio Bremen concert issued in Germany by Tradition & Moderne. New York label Near Mint recently released “Imaginational Anthem,” a stellar collection of instrumentals by Fahey, his Takoma colleagues and contemporary acolytes like Rose and Kaki King.
What’s the source of Fahey’s abiding appeal? “There’s a visceral, emotional something in the music,” Brower says. “People return to it over and over again.”