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Madison Smartt Bell

Madison Smartt Bell

Posted: December 22, 2009 02:25 PM

How John Fahey Stole My Brain

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An unusual person came to a reading I gave not long ago in Jackson, Mississippi. I was presenting a novel about the Confederate cavalry general, Nathan Bedford Forrest, once well-known in that part of the world. The person brought in an unexploded artillery shell from the Civil War, which everyone there was excited to see. He seemed like he might be just a little crazy, but then lots of the people I know do. It turned out that both of us were martial artists and musicians--there are boatloads of people who do one or the other but not so many who do both. Within his store of unusual information was this nugget: John Fahey, whom both of us admired as a guitarist, had published a book, in the year 2000, called How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life.

John Fahey, thought during his lifetime to be possibly more than a little crazy, was the author of some thirty albums of gnomically introverted droning guitar instrumentals, which I listened to heavily in my teens and twenties; I even produced an hour or so of banjo music in an imitative John Fahey style. In the days of large format album covers he was known for his long and brilliantly puzzling liner notes, and for his quasi-autistic relationship with live audiences. I don't know what I exactly expected from a book written by a guy like that but the book exceeds whatever expectation I was able to form.

From the title one might look for some sort of conventional exposition of a musician's early influences, &c. Fahey instead has this to say:

"...bluegrass music gives you liberal ideas, perverse cravings, makes you horny, angry, antisocial, neurotic, criminal reptilian, sociopathic, lonely, unhappy, un-PC

EVIL....

"Mandolins and banjos are evil.

"Bluegrass music is the music of

PAN."[i]

Classed as fiction by the publisher, Fahey's book is an arresting fusion of personal memoir and fantastical allegory, drenched in myth and philosophy from the Upanishads to B.F. Skinner. There are musician's anecdotes seeded all through it: Fahey spent his youth canvassing slums for old blues records (less in the manner of Alan Lomax than of R. Crumb), and scouring the South for lost blues musicians (he found Bukka White and Skip James)--and he claims to have slugged Antonioni during a dispute over the soundtrack of Zabriskie Point. His evocation of the 1950s Washington suburbs where he grew is convincing, strangely, because of its shimmering surrealistic aura. I knew I was in for something different when I read Fahey's description of himself as a boy:

"The universe and all that is in it, including the people, including myself, still appears to me to be randomly placed, and the actions of any agent to be causeless and incoherent. I wander around in a nightmarishly cubist-expressionistic habitat. I am a savant."[ii]

No kidding. The rest of the book, you might say, is about such a person trying not so much to impose order on a chaotic universe as to compose himself harmoniously within the movement of chaos. That must be why I like it so much.

Fahey spent a good amount of time with black musicians whose sensibilities were formed in the pre-Civil Rights era, and one of them, pianist Roosevelt Sykes, revealed to him a profound secret of psychological survival, namely

"HONEY."


That is (Roosevelt Sykes explains)

"Once you learn to think about honey and think about it very deeply then whenever somebody comes around and says something unpleasant, what you do is you start thinking about
HONEY."[iii]

And then,

"...the whole time what you've got to do is imagine that you have a great big pot of
HONEY.

"And what you are really saying is, Here, have some

HONEY.

I've got lots of it. There's plenty to go around. And another thing is you make yourself feel like you're made out of honey. And so is the other guy. In fact, everything is made out of honey."[iv]


When I read this part I was on a train to Philadelphia and I laughed so loud everybody stared at me like maybe I was crazy, but as Fahey writes about Roosevelt Sykes, "I knew he wasn't crazy"[v] and I know I wasn't crazy either in spite of laughing out loud on the train--laughing not from amusement exactly, more from astonishment at the sheer unexpected rightness of it all.

________

[i] Fahey, 265

[ii] John Fahey, How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life (Chicago: Drag City Incorporated) p. 9.

[iii] Fahey 154.

[iv] Fahey 157

[v] Fahey 153