IN SEARCH OF BLIND JOE DEATH: THE SAGA OF JOHN FAHEY (2012)

In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey is a biographical documentary that visually evokes the vision of a great artist. It employs beautifully textured, non-linear, cinematic and thoroughly entertaining means that launch a wide audience into the universe constructed and inhabited by John Fahey. The film relies first and foremost on the music of John Fahey. With the active support and cooperation of both The John Fahey Trust and Dean Blackwood of Revenant Records, the second of Fahey’s own recording companies, the film presents a rich and otherwise inaccessible Fahey archive of musical recordings, moving images, photographs, prose and paintings. The visual archive of Fahey performing is very rich. The collection of photographs is equally extensive. This live action archive is further augmented by short animated sequences that evoke Fahey’s artistic, imagined universe.

In narrative terms, viewers hear most frequently from Fahey himself, both in video and audio recordings made during his lifetime and in voice-over from his outstanding prose. The film narrative relies on a small handful of informants with intimate and highly nuanced appreciations of John Fahey’s life and times. These informants include his former wife, the visual artist Melody Fahey, guitarists Terry Robb and Pete Townshend; Fahey’s partner in Revenant Records and friend Dean Blackwood; Grammy Award winning musicologist Rob Bowman; and the writer and author Li Robbins.

Inventive and highly cinematic video recordings from the film locations evoke the natural and urban environments that inspired Fahey’s work. The documentary was filmed in the area of Washington, DC where Fahey grew up; in the Mississippi Delta, where he pursued a quest to understand the origins of blues music; and in Salem, Oregon and the rain forest of the Columbia River gorge which nurtured the extraordinary, sometimes troubling, artistic output of the last 15 years of Fahey’s career and life.

PRESS

Canadian Film Review
The Washington Post
The Quietus 
The Globe and Mail

Willamette Week
Inlander
Obsédé de Guitare
MusicFilmWeb 
Cullingham on The Leonard Lopate Show
James Cullingham on Miniature Minotaurs
KMUZ Radio

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THE MAN
JOHN ALOYSIUS FAHEY
(1939 - 2001)

Born in Washington, DC in 1939 and raised in Takoma Park, Maryland, Fahey liked to say that he bought his first cheap guitar at Sears & Roebuck at 13 years old to pick up girls. In his formative years, Fahey was a disciplined and voracious student of musical forms. Classical, bluegrass, blues, doo-wop and jazz percolated in his head as he developed his inimitable, soulful style. 

Fahey often played blues inflected solo guitar, but his enormous catalogue of recordings reveals a complex musical tapestry with Brazilian, classical, New Orleans jazz, orchestration featuring numerous stringed instruments as well as Fahey’s ferocious and utterly compelling experimental tape collages of ambient sound and guitar in the musique concrète style of modern Europe.

Finally, in the last years of his life, Fahey proved to be an inventive sonic voyageur of electric guitar, garnering new audiences and collaborative admirers, including members of the hugely influential New York band Sonic Youth. 

Fahey was a respected folklorist and musicologist who garnered his Master’s Degree from the University of California at Los Angeles where he penned an essential study of the American blues genius Charley Patton. 

Fahey was also an entrepreneur who pioneered DIY recording and distribution with his Takoma Records label. Late in life, with Revenant Records, the second recording company of which Fahey was a principal, John Fahey was awarded a Grammy Award for a sumptuous release of Patton’s recordings.

John Fahey died in Salem, Oregon in 2001. A great musician, raconteur, trickster and a wonderful writer, John Fahey was a twentieth-century renaissance man. In Search of Blind Joe Death - The Saga of John Fahey touches people around the world as a portrait of an artist of creative genius, unfathomable energy, wondrous humour and indomitable will.

THE MUSIC 

American Primitive Guitar, a term Fahey often mocked, has been defined as untutored guitar playing, similar to the term used for primitive painters. Fahey himself learned how to play by listening to finger picking blues artists of the 1920s and 30s, imitating their technique and then inventing his own style.

Fahey’s work has profoundly touched and influenced many great musicians. The members of Caleixco, Ry Cooder, Leo Kottke, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Robert Plant and Pete Townshend are but a few of the musicians who pay tribute to Fahey. As a record producer, Fahey revived the careers of southern American blues greats such as Skip James and Bukka White. 

As a musicologist and folklorist, Fahey's groundbreaking study of Charley Patton, first submitted as a Master's Thesis at UCLA in 1966, remains an influential study of an American Musical original. 

A complex man playing simple roots music with an extraordinary gift, John Fahey was able to take elements from the past and transport them into the future. When all is said and done, it is John Fahey’s guitar playing that endures. To appreciate his melodies, his sense of dynamics, the emotional power and range of his playing is an experience that listeners around the world continue to treasure.

As music writer Li Robbins has noted, John Fahey made the guitar sound like an orchestra. John Fahey was an artist capable of accessing and expressing his subconscious in forms of great beauty. Renowned musicians predict that Fahey’s recordings and compositions will endure far, far into the future. In Search of Blind Joe Death - The Saga of John Fahey considers John Fahey’s outstanding, singular musical contribution in the form of a feature documentary film.

THE MYTH

John Fahey was a student of mythology and a master trickster throughout his life. At the outset of his recording career, Fahey shape-shifted into the legendary Blind Joe Death. His first album for his Takoma Records label is co-credited to said Blind Joe Death and John Fahey. 

Fahey fabricated that mythic persona from the rich tapestry of lives lived by blues musicians he admired…including the real life Blind Willie Johnson and Blind Blake. Fahey’s use of the Blind Joe Death persona was part gag and part tribute – Fahey never shied from the irony of his own biography. He was, after all, a white suburbanite who was widely considered a master of the blues and inventor of “American primitive guitar”.

Fahey was fascinated and profoundly moved, but irreverent, about the mythical, folkloric ‘weird old America’ - to use Greil Marcus’ term - of the American south, particularly, the Mississippi Delta where some of his earliest musical heroes first recorded in the 1920s and 30s. 

As a graduate student at UCLA and emerging guitarist based in southern California, Fahey travelled through the south in search of old 78rpm records and elderly musicians. Fahey’s encounter with the legendary Skip James is brilliantly re-counted in his chronicle of that quest in How Bluegrass Destroyed My Life.

At every occasion Fahey paid tribute to the awesome power of some of the earliest blues recordings. In 1983, Fahey recalled that his first hearing of Blind Willie Johnson’s Praise God I’m Satisfied was tantamount to a conversion experience.

Fahey used his liner notes and essays to develop a rich mythical universe. He even constructed a theological hierarchy topped by the Great Koonaklaster, a being Fahey said emerged while he knocked about with his suburban buddies as a schoolboy.

A great lover of nature, Fahey was always concerned with turtles. Turtles, animals that appear in spiritual systems throughout human history, were repeatedly invoked by Fahey in song titles, album graphics and his essays. Similarly, railways, forests, rivers and skulls permeate and reverberate in Fahey’s work. In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey will do visual and artistic justice to the rich panorama of Americana and the universe encompassed in John Fahey’s mind. 


CREDITS

Directed & Written By 
James Cullingham

Producers
James Cullingham
Monica Szenteszky
Tina Witham

Supervising Editor
Caroline Christie

Director of Photography 
Igal Hecht
Editors
Caroline Christie
Jessica Anne Cullingham

Executive Producers
James Cullingham
JoAnn McCaig
Doug Whyte

Animators
Bianca De Guzman
Alice Ho
Min Zhou
Under the supervision of  
Professors Ben McEvoy
Barnabas Wornoff

Produced by 
Tamarack Productions, Toronto
with the Creative participation of the 
School of Creative Arts & Animation, 
Seneca College, Toronto

Produced with the participation of
Oregon Public Television (OPB)

Produced in association with
GlassBOX Media Inc.

Produced with the support of
The John Fahey Trust