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In Search of Blind Joe Death: Saga of John Fahey [DVD] [2013] [US Import]


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Amazon.com: 17 reviews
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
The core film is great; the DVD bonuses are superb! 3 Nov. 2013
By Steve Ramm - Published on Amazon.com
This terrific 57-minute film, written and directed by James Cullingham, and produced as a joint production by Canadian television and Oregon Public Broadcasting, tells the story of the guy who must be considered the father of “American primitive” music and the precursor of acoustic albums by Leo Kotke, Stefan Grossman and (on piano) George Winston. When Fahey wanted to record his first album in 1959, he couldn’t find a label. It was blues/country collector Joe Bussard who took the chance and recorded Fahey for his Fonotone label (sides available on a superb multi-disc set from Dust-to-Digital Records) and Fahey soon created his own label (Takoma) and issued the iconic The Voice of the Turtle Lp. He discovered (well, re-discovered) blues legends Booker White and Skip James and in the last years of his life (he died in 20002 at age 61) joined Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and went “electric”. He also became and avant-garde artist!
Using wonderful interview footage of Fahey interviews, from Laura Weber’s “Guitar Guitar” TV show in the 1960s to interviews he gave in the 80s, and comments from a wide range of people he interacted with (Barry Hansen, who was his classmate in the Masters program in folk music at UCLA, fellow acoustic guitarist Stefan Grossman and even the Who’s Pete Towshend) Cullingham presents a full picture of this “troubled” artist in less than an hour. If you only know Fahey from his iconic records, I encourage you to check out this DVD
The DVD comes with a LOT of bonuses, making this package even more of a “must own”. For starters there are the extra interviews. We hear from Chris Funk (the Decemberists) (6 minutes), Dean Blackwood (co-founder of Revenant Records) (14 minutes) and Pete Townshend (The Who, as if you didn’t know) whose interview runs 31 minutes! Next comes about 45 minutes of performances by Funk, George Winston (on piano and harmonica) Stefan Grossman, Fahey himself and four others. The bonuses finish with a four part interview with Fahey from 1999 (12 minutes).
The package even go so far as to include a Fahey Discography (just album title and year, though) and a two-item Bibliography.
This is a must for Fahey fan and anyone interested in acoustic guitar music.
I hope you found this review both informative and helpful.
Steve Ramm
“Anything Phonographic”
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
An Artistically Compelling yet Editorially Flawed Labor of Love 12 Feb. 2014
By Takoma - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
This review comes from the perspective of a long time Fahey fan. It pretty much does tell the story of the late John Fahey, the preeminent genius composer for acoustic guitar of the second half of the 20th Century, and presents and captures the vibe beautifully.

Artistically, this is a true labor of love. The art, sequencing and care are second to none. The visuals accurately get the importance and impact of slow moving water, trains, the Sligo River and various Takoma scenes upon John Fahey's psyche and muse. Turtles and animated line drawings of Fahey fading in and out of railroad tracks and Maryland wilderness sets the ambiance from the start and core fans will recognize and appreciate the sources. All of these scenes are set to the most appropriate contextual music imaginable... Fahey himself! This truly captures Fahey's vibe from those formative years and we grow to understand and feel how he could so easily make time stand still or radically shift tempos, all while drifting in and out of total dissonance... right under our noses, yet completely unnoticed by the casual listener. Who but Fahey could stand the Mississippi river still in its bed while the volk notice only the humidity? Kudos to the artistic direction... it all just flows and feels so right.

It is hard to say whether this appeals to a Fahey aficionado or a casual fan. Take simple things... such as the omnipresent turtles. There is really not enough background for a casual fan who is bound to wonder at all of this turtle imagery. For the deep Fahey fan, why not expound a little on the stories about Kottke and Fahey's work with these turtles. Likewise, dropping the "Koonaklastier" and the "big K" is only going to mystify a casual fan while a deep Fahey fan might like to hear a bit more, or perhaps even hear the term in context from a reading (with visual) from a relatively obscure out of print Fahey publication such as "The Best of John Fahey" book with its quirky and wonderfully rambling visual layout. Likewise with Blind Willie Johnson's "Praise God I'm Satisfied"... the imagery is great and the story is quickly told, but told out of order. Hence the primary point of it... its immediate physically sickening impact upon Fahey and his subsequent conversion is glossed over, if not lost completely.

There are some really nice touches that only a Fahey aficionado could possibly appreciate, such as the music selection for the Skip James segment. It includes the motif which Fahey so proudly lifted for part of the powerful intro to "Stomping Tonight on the Pennsylvania/Alabama Border", i.e. "The opening chords are from the last movement of Vaughan Williams' Sixth Symphony. It goes from there to a Skip James motif. Following that it moves to a Gregorian chant, Dies Irae. It's the most scary one in the Episcopal hymn books - it's all about the day of judgement. Then it returns to the Vaughan Williams chords, followed by a blues run of undetermined origin, then back to Skip James and so forth." Here again, the artistic treatment of these scenes simply cannot be praised enough.

As good as the creative direction is, the editorial choices on this effort are baffling at best. Any knowledgeable Fahey fan will be mystified by the inexplicably overwhelming presence of Pete Townshend throughout this documentary, while a casual fan might wrongly assume that he knows quite a bit about Fahey. In reality, Townshend cites 4 incorrect genres including "R&B" for Fahey, appears to be near completely unaware of his work and reveals that he has only heard one Fahey LP, "Vol 4 Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death". Indeed, their only connection appears to be an unfathomable letter which Fahey once sent to Townshend regarding a Who rock operas. Actually, that's typically inscrutable Fahey, really kind of cool and it does make for 2 or 3 interesting minutes. But that snippet is the beginning and the end of what should have been included from this interview. Instead, Townshend consumes perhaps 40% or more of the total video time including the extras. I've revised my review upon realizing that I made a similar mistake in letting Townshend consume a similar share of it. Suffice to say, the most bloviating rock star of my g g generation knows nothing about Fahey and admits as much if you pay attention. Indeed, Justin Bieber's thoughts on Fahey could be no less and no more meaningless.

So, despite the artistic quality of the DVD I have to give this a 3. Little room was left over for other interviews and outside of his wife Melody and a few others we generally have an over concentration of folks who came to know Fahey in his last decade. To get an idea of what is missing, you really need to read Steve Lowenthal's "Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist". There are dozens of fascinating individuals who are knowledgeable, accessible and willing to offer insights into Fahey from every point in his career. It is certainly hard work to track them down, but the editors could easily have shortened it or punted to their great creative team by allowing them to work their magic on some more imagery.

The startlingly obvious omission which immediately springs to mind is the vista for the mesmerizing "View East from the B & O Viaduct and the Riggs Road intersection" off of "The Yellow Princess". I have wanted to see this view for decades. Fahey wrote it down to remember it and reads it carefully in the Great Santa Barbara Oil Slick concert to make sure that people know where it is. While it can't be any Grand Canyon, people have been known to hunt down this view which inspired such a powerfully evocative composition for over 40 years. I shudder to think that this may have lost out to pointless pontificating in ill chosen interviews.

On a personal note, I appreciated the chance to discover George Winston's music on this DVD. I was a huge Michael Hedges fan but quite underwhelmed with everything else that I heard in the Windham Hill catalog. William Ackerman, the Windham Hill founder was a Fahey fan and as a result both Fahey and Kottke came to be mistakenly lumped in with these directionless and metronomic open tuned New Age noodling guitar styles. Life is not fair, and while Kottke shrugged it off in an interview and appreciated the greater sales levels that this 80's fad generated, I personally sympathized with Fahey and his vocal resentment and complete rejection of any association with these styles which were diametrically opposed to everything which he had ever composed. Unfortunately I gave up on Windham Hill before I made it to Mr. Winston. I am going to rectify that mistake now.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
The Vice of the Turkey 5 May 2014
By Tracy H - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
Thank you, 'ana banana', for saying it first. Fahey's contributions to western culture have become so meaningful and important to me over the last 15 years that I didn't want to say anything bad about this film. Watching brought feelings similar to the patient indulgence I feign during an inept mourner's tribute at a funeral: The interlocutor's relationship to the deceased was different from mine, and he meant well in his galumphing insensitive way. Smile and nod through the good moments, and curb the wincing through the rest in respect for the dead.

It was fun to get a glimpse of Joe Bussard. A few of the performers in the Bonus Features did some interesting things. But by and large the hipster douche bags clearly did not get it, and the decision by the director to include their blasé generalizations indicates that either he also does not get it, or assumes that his target audience does not. Dopey babbling about how awesome and influential someone is, and the illuminating observation that he "really changed everything" are appropriate for film biographies of many pop stars. John Fahey is not one of them (antecedent of your choice, there.) Where was Thurston Moore? I have no idea what his comments or the quality thereof might have been, but is absence is interesting.

I am far from a Pete Townshend hater. I like Pete. But I am tremendously fatigued by hearing the same five sentences that he shuffles around when providing commentary about any performer, cultural era, or musical subject. He manages to drag "X's rhythm-and-blues roots" into any topic, this commentary on Fahey being the most preposterous I've heard. I wonder why our director edited out the inevitable bit about "Naked Lunch." Pete's stock commentary in countless interviews possibly can be explained by the fact that Townshend has been an extremely busy man for many decades. While not laudable, it is understandable that he would settle on a group of statements that reflect well both on himself and on whomever the subject may be as progressive, fun, and intelligent artists, while not disclosing whether he actually knows anything about the subject. The hipster douche bags deserve no such slack, and I think they actually have a lot of time on their hands. Time which they misused trying to learn to play John Fahey's songs like John Fahey, a bad idea that provides further evidence that they do not get it.

The inclusion of the footage with Laura Weber (the original 'Peggy Hill' before Sarah Palin stole that character) gives us a little insight into the real man. Surely there are people living who could have illuminated the obtuse magic, the silent confoundary, the musical Godzilla born of post-Harry Smith mutating fallout.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Sad hipster drivel 24 May 2014
By bgandl - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
Fahey lived a long time and went through many phases. This doc obsesses on his last years, perhaps because of the documentarian's connections age-wise, and partly because it would have been easier to make. Very little new here, but its focus makes it an unbalanced, depressing watch for the most part.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Searching For Blind Joe Death: The Saga Of John Fahey 10 Jan. 2014
By Damian See - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
If you're part of the Fahey cult you'll have some fun with this film. But it's not really a definitive biographical movie of the great man. It seems the film maker is attempting to explain Fahey to the neophytes. And I think it's a great success on that level. Also it contains some great extras too: musical performances by some of the people who appear in the film and Fahey himself. All in all it's a great overveiw of his musical life and some of the philosophy that went on behind it.
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