"This is not rock 'n' roll. It's not pop music. It's not folk music; it's this sort of transcendental guitar music," Steve Lowenthal emphatically tells me over the phone. And, indeed, his new book, Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, details the style (and story) of perhaps this country's most influential "American primitive" guitarist.
In it, Lowenthal (whom you've no doubt read online at Swingset Magazine) chronicles the life of a legend through word-of-mouth accounts of the people closest to Fahey, himself. Of course, few hang as high as Fahey on the six-string scale.
Not that it was ever easy for the master. Fahey's success came late in his career, cultivating a legacy in the most unlikely of places.
A small-town kid who grew up in the shadows of Washington, D.C. (Takoma Park, Maryland, specifically), Fahey forever found himself outside the norm. And as a tall, leather jacket-clad teen, he found no fault with venturing to the most obscure corners of the South to find records for his growing collection. At a time when that area was suffering from severe racial turmoil, no, it was not advised for a skinny white kid to tread the lower income sections of a segregated black neighborhood.
Not unlike Dylan finding Guthrie, or Alan Lomax seeking out Muddy Waters, Fahey and friends started their own Takoma Records label--signing the likes of Bukka White and even paying the medical bills of a most ungrateful Skip James for a lesson in playing.