by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Late in 1998 or early in ’99—during the winter that straddled the two—I spent a night on and off the telephone with a person named John Fahey. I was a junior editor at the Oxford American magazine, which at that time had its offices in Oxford, Mississippi; Fahey, then almost sixty and living in Room 5 of a welfare motel outside Portland, Oregon, was himself, whatever that was: a channeler of some kind, certainly; a “pioneer” (as he once described his great hero, Charley Patton) “in the externalization through music of strange, weird, even ghastly emotional states.” He composed instrumental guitar collages from snatches of other, older songs. At their finest they could become harmonic chambers in which different dead styles spoke to one another. My father had told me stories of seeing him in Memphis in ’69. Fahey trotted out his “Blind Joe Death” routine at the fabled blues festival that summer, appearing to inhabit, as he approached the stage in dark glasses, the form of an aged sharecropper, hobbling and being led by the arm. He meant it as a postmodern prank at the expense of the all-white, authenticity-obsessed, country-blues cognoscenti, and was at the time uniquely qualified to pull it. Five years earlier he’d helped lead one of the little bands of enthusiasts, a special-ops branch of the folk revival, that staged barnstorming road trips through the South in search of surviving notables from the prewar country-blues or “folk blues” recording period (roughly 1925–1939).