The Roots of John Fahey

So, about 9 months ago I started working on this compilation. Several months and nany hours of searching, listening, and sequencing later, I found out that someone had already done a more complete version of the same task. Until yesterday, however, I hadn’t seen a tracklist from the mysterious 10-cd set called the VrootzBox, so this is not a derivative work, however similar it may be.

The inception of the project came when I heard Frank Hutchinson playing K.C. Blues on the A Lighter Shade of Blue: White Country Blues (1926-1938) compilation. I read the booklet to Return of the Repressed, and found all these mentions about musicians he had copped licks from. I looked at The Fahey Files, the crowning achievement of the International Fahey Commission. Then I found Old Time Mountain Guitar on El Diablo Tun Tun, and that propelled me further. Some trips to the library for Béla Bartók and Charles Ives cds proved pretty revealing too.

Some time back someone left a comment on my post of Fahey’s God, Time & Causality saying something to the effect of “This version of I Am the Resurrection pales in comparison to the version on The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death”. Well, while that’s true, it’s also true that I Am the Resurrection pales in comparison to Jesse Fuller’s Hark from the Tomb, upon which it was based. In fact, a lot of these performances are more raw and idiosyncratic than Fahey’s versions, though Fahey, to his credit, adds a harmonic complexity absent from the originals. And if you think Fahey was a bizarre visionary living on the fringes when he released Blind Joe Death in 1959, consider that Harry Partch created his own scales, built his own instruments, and crafted totally unique, beautiful, complex, difficult-listening music in the ’40sm while living as a hobo. And, through a curious chain of personal connections, Fahey heard some of this music and was very inspired by it.

I should mention that not all of these songs are songs that he covered or copped licks from. Most of the music he has made mention to, though a few of the songs were recorded after his formative years and one or two he never would have heard. But they are presented to give an illustration of the styles he drew from (such as gamelan, which he grew up playing in his neighbor’s back yard).

Originally I was going to write something about each song on the compilation, but as it swelled to 5 cds and I prepared to leave the country, I just settled on the daunting task of finishing the damn thing and posting it. So what you hear is what you get, though additional info can be found at the Vrootz! info page.

Many of the artists on here can be found on other “roots of” compilations (Roots of Rock, Roots of Robert Johnson, Early Blues Roots of Led Zeppelin, etc), underscoring the fact that, as Willie Dixon said, “The Blues is the roots. Everything else is the fruits.” But as a record-collector, Fahey’s roots were deeper and more obscure than those of the blues-rockers who got rich ripping off Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters (both of whom ripped off Son House & others).

I thought about grouping the music into styles (hillbilly music, country blues, modern classical music, etc), but decided that in Fahey’s world and music, these genres were not so disparate and could in fact flow seamlessly into one another. Reading R. Anthony Lee (aka Flea)’s account of the early life of John Fahey confirms this, as even early on “he had developed his famous eclecticism, and would follow Sibelius’s Second symphony with the Stanley Brothers’ White doves will mourn in sorrow with no sense of disjunction.” Plus, this way I could highlight certain connections, such as beautiful modal dissonances found in the music of both Son House and Bartók, the shimmering just intonality of Southeast Asian gamelan ensembles and the homemade microtonal music of Harry Partch. Also I’ve grouped songs to show how Fahey would pull from several disparate sources to form a new song, so you’ll hear building block such as Walter “Buddy Boy” Hawkins’ A-Rag, Carl Perkins’ Matchbox and the flamenco of Sabicas, all of which can be heard in Fahey’s Lion. And, in true Fahey-fashion, I ended each album with a hymn of a sort.

I’ve been collecting music and making eclectic and themed mix-cds since high school, but this is the first time I’ve put extensive research into it. I guess my hope is that other aspiring musicians and inactivists will hear this music and enter a new realm of musical enchantment, irresponsible unproductivity, and hapless record-collecting.

There are a few artists and songs that ought to be on here but aren’t because I assume that everyone knows about them (e.g. Robert Johnson, Christmas music, California Dreamin’, and The Beatles’ Rain, Blueberry Hill, Hank Williams). Also, I didn’t really trace his latter-day influences such as Einsturzende Neubaten, as that’s not really my area of expertise (nor his, despite his self-aggrandizing claims). I didn’t include the version of Railroad Bill on Pete Seeger’s guitar-instruction album, which was the first song Fahey learned to play, though I do have it. I also left off songs that are only related by title (no copies of Charley Patton’s Some Summer Day had surfaced when Fahey took the title, and Fahey’s Wine and Roses and Night Train to Valhalla bear very little similarity to Henry Mancini’s Days of Wine and Roses or Roy Acuff’s Night Train to Memphis). Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Legend Of The Invisible City Of Kitezh was left off, though Stravinsky’s Dance of the Infernal Subjects of Kaschei was included.

If you like this music and are interested in delving further, check out some of the blogs listed here. El Diablo Tun Tun is where I got a lot of this stuff. For serious blues lovers, check out Merlin in Rags and The Blues Club forum (registration required). For classical stuff, see Le Roi S’Amuse, or check out your local library. The Ravi Shankar piece upon which Fahey based On the Banks of the Owchita can be found at Singer Saints. The gamelan vinyl came from A Closet of Curiosities. A bunch of Fahey-related stuff can be found at grown so ugly and the usenet group alt.binaries.sounds.mp3.acoustic is excellent. A lot of related music is also posted on this blog; if you search the archives, you’ll find some Harry Partch, some Jug Band music, some Son House, and others. Also check out the releases on Fahey’s Revenant Records, for a stunning mix of arcane rural musics and raw avant-garde improvisation.

There are 5 mix-cds in this set, plus a bonus disc which consists of Sibelius’ 7th Symphony and Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin and Music for Percussion, Strings, and Celeste, all of which deserve to be heard in their entirety. I thought about including works by musicians working on parallel lines (Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s fusion of Dvorak’s Going Home and Stephen Foster’s Old Folks at Home, or Brij Bhusan Kabra, the first musician to play ragas on a guitar). But these will have to come another time.

I also was going to type out the tracklist, but you’ll have to settle for snapshots of my itunes playlists. An advantage, of course, is that you can see which albums I got the tunes from, and search out the ones that inspire you.

The Roots of John Fahey

Disc 1 – Vampires in Valhalla

Disc 2 – The Chthonic Blues

Disc 3 – Duelling Kitheras

Disc 4 – Dance of the Subjects of the Great Koonaklaster

Disc 5 – The Turtle’s Waters

Disc 6 (bonus) – Requiem for Blind Joe

All have the bitrates at which I found them; those I converted from AAC and my cd rips are as always at >192vbr. No covers are included. What you hear is what you get.

for much of the information I used to build this compilation, see the Fahey Files.

for more fahey trivia, unreleased songs, record labels, etc, see the John Fahey blogspot

which includes R Anthony Lee “Flea”‘s piece The Wolves are Gone Now,” which recounts Fahey’s early life from the eyes of a friend, organicist, and fellow musical miscreant.

and see VROOTz! : FAHEY SOurCEs AND INFLUENCES tracklist and notes in the Wall of Fahey (word document) or see it in html here. thanks to Paul Bryant, Andrew Stranglen and Mitchell Wittenberg, for their contributions to the project.

oh, and the photo used above is by Dick Waterman, manager of Son House and many other great blues artists of the ’60s. Incidentally, it was largely his photos and stories, found within Between Midnight and Day: the Last Unpublished Blues Archive, which led me to artists like Son House and Skip James in the first place. the photo, like everything else here, used without permission.

and if you appreciate my endless unpaid toil, leave a comment!

This entry was posted in avant-garde, Blues, classical, Folk, hybrids, Jug Band, Roots, seeds. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to The Roots of John Fahey

  1. Ok, not the best version of Gottschalk’s “The Banjo Op 15” that’s out there (depends on how you like the rhythm of that one hammered out, though) but the breadth of material here is great, and important to consider if you’re diving into Fahey. I’ve always thought Fahey was one of those musicians whose work rewarded a deep knowledge of music, although the heritage isn’t always explicit in his playing. I find it ironic that out of such diverse, complex influences one could arrive at at a so called “primitive” style…almost as though everything was boiled down to the essentials for Fahey.Great post, and fantastic blog all around! I subscribed to your RSS…

  2. Anonymous says:

    Fantastic post, thanks for your effort, it is appreciated! I know Fahey for couple of years only and now it is great to delve into his ‘roots’. Thanks again!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thank you so much for putting together this wonderful package . . .

  4. Stephen says:

    Brilliant work; obviously I’ve linked here.

  5. true ’nuff, not the best version of Gottschalk’s Banjo. I used it because it was readily available from a smithsonian cd at the library. If you want to hear it done right, check out frank french, a brilliant pianist, composer, and gottschalk scholar. i didn’t have his cd on hand when i put the comp together, so it had to be Rigai’s version, unfortunately.check him out at http://www.frankfrench.nameor see a youtube video of him performing Gottschalk’s Bamboula < HREF="" REL="nofollow">here<>

  6. simone says:

    thank you for a great job!

  7. guy smiley says:

    FANTASTIC. thank youDepth of research is in real contrast to a lot of stuff out there.. use of different download servers is also much appreciated.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thanks so much for organizing this great music!

  9. Tom says:

    awesome idea for a compilation. there’s been a lot of things i’ve heard in faheys music and recognised elsewhere, but it should be fun spending a few hours on it. thanks!

  10. Lena says:

    Wonderful work that you did, thanks so much, this is a real gift … :=))

  11. Nice job! great blog – it’s nice to see the ‘v[olkisch]ROOTz’ live on, and be expanded by efforts such as yours. – < HREF="" REL="nofollow">Andrew Stranglen<> -thanks!

  12. gcbv says:

    Incredible work!

  13. matt says:

    Thank you very much, I really appreciate the amount of work and effort it must have took to get this up. You are an awesome person.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Thanks a million, great compilation!

  15. Anonymous says:

    sweet catskill tornado i love you

  16. Anonymous says:

    phenomenal – not only i this an outstanding and generous post, its comforting to find some one else with pastimes as deranged as my own.thanks for this – someone had to do it, but no one had the guts – til you!

  17. Cacu says:

    Magnífico trabajo! Absolutamente brillante todo el blog. Saludos desde España

  18. danuz says:

    This is great, thanks a bunch for your efforts. I enjoy(ed) this blog so much!

  19. todaessaagua says:

    nice work, thanks a lot!

  20. Blair says:

    Hi. I would love to download this compilation. Is the current problem with the shareonall website a permanent or temporary thing. If the former, is there anyone out there willing to make the downlaods available elsewhere? Please!!

  21. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for all the work (research and compiling) that went into this amazing compilation! Since shareonall seems to be gone with little explanation, and our congenial host is in Ireland, I’m going to post the direct megaupload links (found on a Japanese blog through a Google search for “Duelling Kitheras”). I hope this doesn’t violate some protocol …Disc 1 – Vampires in Valhalla 2 – The Chthonic Blues 3 – Duelling Kitheras 4 – Dance of the Subjects of the Great Koonaklaster 5 – The Turtle’s Waters 6 (bonus) – Requiem for Blind Joe

  22. inthealley says:

    I’m a huge fan of John Fahey and, of course, much of the music that inspired him …. so THANKS!! Unfortunately, much of this is down, i.e. all the shareonall links …. any chance of a re-post, please?

  23. inthealley says:

    When I made my post I didn’t see the reloads in the comments above mine, so both apologies and many thanks to one and all!!!

  24. Anonymous says:


  25. Matt says:

    This is genuinely remarkable stuff. Thanks so much.

  26. Ryan Shepard says:

    Any chance that these could be reposted?Thanks!

  27. the links should be working now.

  28. Anonymous says:

    i KNEW i heard gamelan in Fahey’s style, great post

  29. Anonymous says:

    you're amazing man. great catch on the buddy boy hawkins reinterpreted as 'lion' track. do you do a radio show. i'd tune in weekly.

  30. Tim says:

    What a great and strange compilation. Thanks for all you effort!

    I've problems however with the zip files however. On Vol. I, I can't unpack track no. 6 (marked as password protected?), on Vol. II it's the same issue with track no. 14.


  32. Tim says:

    Thanks for you swift response. I downloaded the archives again, but the issue remains. Oddly enough there is exactly ONE track in each archive (Vol. 1 to 4) that can't be extracted (the windows unzipper requests a password for that track, 7zip just shows an error message).

  33. Tim says:

    I've found the cause for my problem: the affected tracks have double quotes in the filename. This is invalid on Windows-systems, thus the error message on extraction. To solve this problem, you have to open the zip-file with 7zip and rename the affected tracks before you extract them. I think that'll be good to know for the other Windows users out there…

  34. Anonymous says:

    Thank you very much!Great post!

  35. Peter says:

    Any chance of a reupload? I am very, very bummed this is no longer here.

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