John Fahey – On the Sunny Side of the Ocean

Since he passed away 15 years ago today, it seemed fitting to devote today’s track of the day to John Fahey. As I touched on in my post about Robbie Basho, Fahey was a foundational figure in American Primitive Guitar. He was born near Washington D.C. in 1939, but it was after his family moved to Takoma Park, Maryland that he first became interested in guitar, buying his first from the Sears catalogue for $17. His first album was self-released in 1964, and he recorded it while studying philosophy and religion at American University. He then moved out west to study Musicology at UCLA, where he completed a master’s thesis centered around the blues music of Charlie Patton.

He was a longtime admirer of delta blues musicians such as Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, and Bukka White. In many ways Fahey’s career ran parallel to some of these blues greats, though Fahey was able to record and release music to varying degrees of success for most of his life. Starting in the 1970s he struggled with alcoholism and other health conditions, and while he recorded throughout that time his career appeared all but over by the 1990s. He was destitute, living in cheap motels, and pawning guitars or records to make up sagging income from performances. Similar to the blues legends he helped to revitalize in the 1960s, admiration from popular musicians like Sonic Youth and Jim O’Rourke, led to renewed interest in his work that has remained constant, particularly in experimental music circles, from then on.

Even this post feels a bit lacking, but I’d encourage you to listen to as much Fahey as you can find. He was not only an incredibly talented guitarist, but unlike some virtuosos he was not showy unless the occasion called for it, although just to be clear he apparently wrote Sunny Side of the Ocean when he was 14. Rather, he honed his talent and created some of the most beautiful, complex, and timeless music I’ve heard. I only wish I hadn’t discovered him after his passing.

For those interested, there’s a concert from 1978 on Youtube that shows the man in action. I’m particularly fond of the rendition of Poor Boys Long Way from Home.

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