Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You: Duality in the Music of John Fahey by Brennan Keifer

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It’s hard to describe John Fahey’s music. Three times now, I’ve tried to write this introduction by recounting the first time I heard his song, “Indian-Pacific Railroad Blues.” How it was the summer of 2021, how the pandemic lockdown confined me to my bedroom, how it was almost midnight, and my room felt like the inside of an air fryer. I’d then go on to say how my dad sent me Fahey’s song via text, how it began playing quietly from my phone’s speakers, how the haunting piece enthralled me, how it stole some part of me I never knew I had and suspended it in a wide open dreamscape far from the pressure cooker that was my bedroom.

But I almost can’t describe that experience because John Fahey’s music defies definition and easy description. For the sake of categorization, you can try lumping him into a musical genre. Fahey, for instance, called his style “American Primitive.” But this categorization only denoted that Fahey was American and that he taught himself guitar without formal training. And sure, you could say he was a blues guitarist, but that would be to oversimplify his style and ignore his more eclectic influences. And Fahey was eclectic. He notably borrowed musical ideas from Brazilian style, Gregorian chant, Balinese gamelan, and god knows what else. But one thing his music most certainly isn’t is consonant. Fahey hated perfectly
harmonious songs. He lived for dissonance, for making his listeners squirm in their seats with grating notes before releasing them from their discomfort with ethereal melodies.

To give you an idea of how much Fahey despised consonance, here’s how he described Steve Goodman’s beloved 1971 classic, “The City of New Orleans.” He says, “it is aggressively bland and aggressively consonant. It is too perfect for my blood. There are no rough edges. It is a smoothie. A song that a person would write exactly the way some stupid book about writing songs said that you should write songs. Inoffensive. Safe.”
And talk about a rough edge; an impoverished alcoholic with poor health and a chronic coca-cola addiction that led to debilitating diabetes–there was nothing smooth about Fahey. But Fahey didn’t mind rough edges. Because he knew something that other musicians like Steve Goodman didn’t–that some songs can be too perfect. And that being perfect wasn’t akin to godliness; it was equivalent to falsehood. Fahey knew that there are always wasps amongst the rose petals.

And with this duality in mind, John Fahey wrote songs. Haunting, eerie, demonic songs; beautiful, transcendent, heartbreaking songs. And he wrote his songs, all of which are instrumental, on the strings of various beat-up acoustic guitars. Fahey’s discography is a continuous dualistic cycle of discord and concord. He utilizes dissonance as a means of propelling his music forward. Tension builds between dissonant notes
before bursting into harmonious melodies.

Cycles of tension and release, concord and discord, make Fahey’s music all the more engaging and evocative. To start, the listener never knows where the song is taking them. For example, his song “Dance of the Inhabitants of the Invisible City of Bladensburg” features three minutes of mostly the same rattling notes. Then, suddenly, the last forty-five seconds is a chunky, slide-guitar blues riff with some serious attitude. The two sections sound like they’re entirely different songs. And that’s part of the fun of listening to Fahey. Screw the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, and chorus formula of most popular music. Fahey was a drunk driver, a train off the tracks. He was, and his music still is, utterly unpredictable.
Aside from his music’s unpredictability, Fahey’s songs are evocative because they simultaneously elicit contradictory emotions in the listener. At once, you feel calmed and disquieted, at ease and uneasy, at home but lost in a foreign land. You can liken his music to the Taoist Yin and Yang symbol. Dissonance breeds consonance. They swirl together, complimenting each other, dissolving into one another, birthing one another. And the listener feels all of life’s joys and agonies simultaneously.

I almost can’t say I recommend John Fahey. He leaves you feeling so many different ways that listening to him can be an exhausting experience, though an utterly unique one.

But if you do listen to John Fahey [which I hope you do] you’re choosing to roughen up your edges and change your perspective. Because Fahey demands that we recognize the unity in contradiction. And more than anything, Fahey demands that we challenge anything too perfect or one-sided.

Brennan Keifer is an ex-woodworker turned freelance writer living on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He graduated from Washington College with a BA in English and a minor in music. If he isn’t reading, he’s wandering outside looking for bones, old beehives, cool rocks, neat sticks, and other natural knickknacks to fill his bedroom with. 

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