‘In Search of Blind Joe Death’: Documentary spotlights legendary area guitarist John Fahey


John Fahey, who grew up in Takoma Park and became an exponent of “American primitive” guitar, died in 2001. (First Run Features)
October 24, 2013

Takoma Park has a reputation as Washington’s most eccentric suburb, dating to the days of one of its most eccentric residents, John Fahey. The “American primitive” guitarist moved to the West Coast in the 1960s and died in Oregon in 2001. But he makes a return to Montgomery County this weekend with Saturday and Sunday screenings of “In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey” at the AFI Silver.

Fahey was born in the District in 1939 and moved to Takoma Park with his family in 1945. He left the area after graduating from American University, taking with him the record label he founded, named Takoma. He also took his memories of childhood explorations of Sligo Creek and its environs, later unpacked in such writings as “How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life.”

“He created a new language,” says one of Fahey’s more prominent fans, the Who’s Pete Townshend, in the documentary. Although the man from Takoma Park was initially inspired by old-timey country and blues recordings — preferably on 78-rpm discs — his rhythms were “very rock-and-roll,” Townshend says.

Townshend was a crucial go-between, not once but twice, in the making of “In Search of Blind Joe Death,” which is named for one of Fahey’s pseudonyms. The documentary’s director, James Cullingham, was a high school student in Toronto in the late 1960s when he read a Rolling Stone interview with ­Townshend. “He mentioned this guitar player that I had never heard of, John Fahey, who he said was one of the people who had influenced him most,” Cullingham recalls.

When he decided to make the documentary decades later, the filmmaker notes, one of the first people he contacted was Townshend. “He responded in six hours.”

“He was very keen to do it, and he also recommended that we do it as soon as possible. He knew that if we put on our Kickstarter page a little demo with a clip from him, it would help us with the fundraising. And indeed it did.”

Cullingham had some other useful connections. He had done a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. radio documentary on Fahey in the 1980s, during which he met Melody Fahey, the guitarist’s ex-wife, who is one of his musical executors. The director was warned that she might not give permission for the film, but that turned out not to be a problem.

“She remembered me,” Cullingham says, “and she particularly remembered fondly a spaghetti dinner I had made for her and John at our house in Toronto in the ’80s.”

Also, the director’s wife — music journalist Li Robbins, who appears in the film — spent her early years in Silver Spring and Bethesda. Her father and uncle lived in Takoma Park as kids, and the latter went to junior high school with Fahey. He’s the source of the yearbook, signed by the future cult guitarist, shown in the movie.

Among the film’s motifs are turtles, real and animated. “Fahey was fascinated by turtles,” Cullingham explains. “Growing up in Takoma Park, he collected turtles. It’s part of the myth of John Fahey that he perpetuated, and so have we, as a visual icon in the film.”

“He didn’t try to explain his attachment,” the filmmaker continues. “I think he was satisfied with just letting people know that he liked turtles. He made a joking biblical reference: ‘The voice of the turtle is heard in our land.’ That’s from the ‘Song of Solomon,’ but the original is almost certainly not a turtle, but a turtle dove.”

Cullingham filmed in Takoma Park and Frederick, Md., where he interviewed Joe Bussard, a record collector who recorded some of Fahey’s earliest sessions. But the movie doesn’t include any local turtles.

“The turtles in the film are all from southern Ontario and Mississippi,” the filmmaker concedes. That includes the animated ones, created by students at Toronto’s Seneca College, where Cullingham is a journalism professor.

Fahey recorded mostly on acoustic instruments, but he wasn’t a folk purist. He was influenced by Bartok, Stravinsky and musique concrete, and in his final years he turned to electric guitar, encouraged by such punk-rocker fans as Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.

“In Search of Blind Joe Death” has been shown widely in Europe and elsewhere, which has given Cullingham a chance to meet, and hear, Fahey’s newer acolytes. Often, screenings are accompanied by performances. Among the guitarists who have played at such events are Alisdair Roberts, Norberto Lobo and Chuck Johnson. “These are all fine players who are too young to have seen Fahey play,” Cullingham notes.

Cullingham and his collaborators also want to reach, of course, viewers who are as ignorant of Fahey as the director was before he read that Pete Townshend interview.

“Obviously, we’re fans of John Fahey, but you’ve got to make a film for people who’ve never heard of him as well. As I’ve traveled with the film to various festivals, many people have come up to me and said, ‘I didn’t know anything about him, but I’m totally intrigued. I’m going to buy some CDs.’

“I like that reaction.”

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

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