HOW DO WE critique without canceling, hold a person accountable for both his genius and his faults? George Henderson provides a valiant example in Blind Joe Death’s America, his monograph of the folk and blues guitarist John Fahey.
Were Fahey a musician alone, Henderson could sing his merits and move on. Certainly there’s enough to write about: Fahey blended blues, classical, and Eastern stylings, making the acoustic guitar a concert instrument when many believed it was an amateur’s tool. But he was also a brutal critic of American culture. His primary target: The American folk music revival and its white, middle-class adherents. In other words, himself. Depending on how you read him, either Fahey ridiculed racists by satirizing their ignorance, or he failed to rid himself of the prejudice prevalent in his childhood home. It’s hard to tell where Fahey’s strawmen end and his own views begin. He dissected white fascination with the blues — an African and African American musical tradition — and did so in a biting voice.
Henderson’s book takes its title from one of Fahey’s several alter egos, Blind Joe Death. Fahey credited one side of his debut LP to himself and the other to Blind Joe. (The album was one of the first independent 33s ever issued.) This invented persona allowed Fahey to explore the racist projections of white blues fans that he observed in the folk revival. For many white listeners, blues music gathered authenticity in proportion to the dereliction of its African American performers. The fetishized bluesman par excellence toiled during his youth in cotton fields, developed a penchant for hard liquor, and lived a life of crime. Blind Joe Death exhibited all of this — and then some.
Fahey began mouthing off when he was growing up in suburban Washington, DC. He wrote an essay titled “My Dear Old Alma Mater” in his final year of high school, 1956. “Schools are factories,” wrote Fahey, that “produce […] neurotic gregariousness, fear and hatred of the unknown, mass hysteria, hypocrisy, general mild insanity, and above all, conformity in the mind of their product, their students.” He never shed this broad disdain for mainstream American society.
Leaning on the work of psychologist Erik Erikson, Henderson highlights the focus on individuality perpetuated in US schools, which he argues helped create the countercultural generation; Erikson popularized the term “identity crisis” to describe a trend among adolescents to create themselves through rebellion. Kids are told to be themselves, to find themselves, but only within the confines of middle-class prescriptions. Fahey needed to express himself, and yet he also needed to fit in. This ambivalence, Henderson argues, led to his violent forms of creativity.
In his early teens, Fahey heard bluegrass, and then the blues, for the first time — and his life changed forever. He began to question the racism espoused by his father. After a brief stint studying philosophy at UC Berkeley, Fahey entered UCLA’s folklore program in the midst of a folk music revival. He treated blues with scholarly rigor at a time when most musicologists waved a patronizing hand at the genre. His master’s thesis on Delta bluesman Charley Patton remains a foundational text today.
His political interpretations of the music did not often overlap with the beliefs of the Civil Rights movement. Critics then and now chastised Fahey for his nonpolitical readings of the blues, which Henderson addresses at length. He believed blues lyrics served the music’s emotive force but not necessarily a narratological function. According to Fahey,
The presupposition that all songs must have coherent stanzas […] represents an attempt to apply an external standard, probably derived from familiarity with popular (composed) songs of Western Europe and America, to a genre to which this standard is perhaps completely inapplicable.
Others shared this view, including Ralph Ellison, who wrote that the blues transcended politics.
Henderson picks out the problematic strain: Fahey wanted to celebrate Patton’s artistic merits, and this impulse led him to ignore the discrimination central to that artistry, as well as the narrow band of opportunity for a musician of his race in that era. Fahey “trips over a longstanding stumbling block encountered by White America, namely that it historically has struggled to value African American history and humanity to the same extent as African American culture.”
As Henderson continues digging into Fahey’s personal prejudice, his broader thesis becomes clear: Fahey loved the blues and sought to identify with his favorite musicians. Doing so meant ignoring his own complicity in the violence that first created the blues, even when he knew better. As a suburban, middle-class white kid, Fahey could feel the music and feel for the struggle, but he couldn’t relate to racialized oppression.
Others have attempted to capture Fahey’s contribution but have never done it so deftly. Steve Lowenthal’s biography, Dance of Death, highlights the important events of Fahey’s life but lacks incisive commentary. Claudio Guerrieri’s two-volume John Fahey Handbook is an astonishing feat of research, nearly 1,000 pages in all, but privileges musical minutiae over narrative. The self-published and out-of-print work fetches wild sums of money online, but anyone except the most fanatical Faheyites would find the book a waste. Henderson’s book balances crucial biography with scholarly analysis of 1950s and ’60s American culture, not just explaining Fahey but situating him in a web of hitherto invisible artistic relationships. In Blind Joe Death’s America, you meet Fahey’s influences and decide for yourself how to react.
At times, Henderson takes his contextualization past the point of usefulness. He dives into Stanley Milgram and Denise Jodelet’s concept of the “psychological map” and Kevin Lynch’s notion of “the edge” to inform a reading of Fahey’s autobiographical writing, but he allows his research to stray too far from his primary subject. His writing on Fahey’s actual music, segregated into three “listening sessions,” feels disjointed. That said, writing about instrumental music for an audience of nonmusicians is a challenge, and I commend Henderson for balancing technical terminology with descriptions of what it’s actually like to listen to Fahey.
Henderson allows the reader to appreciate Fahey’s knack for identifying the hypocrisies of his cultural community. The revival relied on affectations — put-on accents, political superficiality, and a fetishization of suffering. But Fahey preferred to raise questions and highlight problems rather than propose solutions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the liner notes he wrote for his 1967 album Days Have Gone By. In it, he describes with great geographical specificity the layout of Texas towns, the prevalence of “the other side of the tracks,” and all-Black neighborhoods. He sets himself up for a thoughtful conclusion on redlining, on how segregation slips into speech. But it doesn’t come. Fahey tells a crude blues joke about going to the ghetto for some “jelly roll.” “The writing refuses to acknowledge the consequences of what it noticed about racial segregation and racism, and therefore it appears that the situation is of no real concern to its author,” Henderson writes. But like his subject, he leaves open an alternative possibility. Perhaps the liner notes offered Fahey “a way to publicly acknowledge the seriousness of racism while clearing a path toward thinking about it on his terms.”
In this sense, Henderson allows form to follow content. Fahey chose multivalence, so why shouldn’t he? “[T]oo often he anointed himself the only critical voice in the room, understated his own forms of complicity with what he says he abhorred, and downgraded the search for new values on the part of others who also felt disaffected,” writes Henderson. True. But through his life’s work, Fahey created a persona that “wants to shrink the distance and decrease the inequities between Black and white worlds even as it could only deploy aspects of that distance and those inequities in order to do so.” You be the judge.