John Fahey - The Transfiguration Of Blind Joe Death (1965) - Album Review

By Sergio Ariza

Acoustic epiphany

John Fahey
was already a long-time music collector when a friend played him Blind Willie Johnson's Praise God I'm Satisfied … and he had an epiphany. Not that he stopped collecting old records - that passion became even more obsessive - nor that he forgot about bluegrass and became a blues fanatic; but Fahey decided that it was no longer enough for him to just listen … he needed to actually play the music that fascinated and consumed him.

The guy worked so hard, and had so much natural talent, that he became one of the most important references of acoustic guitar (when Guitars Exchange named
our 10 favorite acoustic guitarists, Fahey was one of the chosen ones), despite the fact that his work was always marginal and did not have any kind of commercial repercussion.


The album in question was the fourth of his career and the first that he did not release on his own small label, Takoma, but on Riverboat Records, another tiny independent label that only released a first edition of 50 copies. Despite that, its impact and influence on a whole legion of subsequent guitarists is enormous, not to mention its influence on other musicians like Thurston Moore or Beck.

The title and the notes inside were a joke at the expense of other obsessive collectors like him. Fahey had invented the character of Blind Joe Death, knowing the interest that old dead bluesmen aroused and how people liked to surround them with all kinds of myths and legends. With the help of his friend Alan Wilson, who would later form Canned Heat, Fahey invented many stories and even claimed that Blind Joe Death played on side A while Fahey played on the second; a proposition that was completely false.


The fact is that everything is the work of Fahey and his guitar, except for a couple of rare exceptions in which he is accompanied on banjo by L. Mayne Smith. Fahey’s guitar, whether it's a cheap 12-string or one played like a lap steel, can create a whole world of its own. It is incredible what a single person can conjure with a single instrument, but beyond his incredible technique what stands out here is his feeling and personality. Starting from foundational myths like Charley Patton and Mississippi John Hurt Fahey achieves something new and original.

On this album there is not as much influence from Bartok and other modernists as in later works, but you can see that it goes beyond mere copying his sources. Of course, while other white blues fanatics created a new language by electrifying their instruments, Fahey stays in the acoustic Delta, faithful to the epiphany he had with Blind Willie Johnson.


The best known, and also the most beautiful, song on the album is On The Sunny Side Of The Ocean, the first song he ever composed and one of the best of his career. It is a perfect example of his fingerpickin' mastery, melodic and dissonant, impressionistic and rural. But it is not the only great song on an album that also features Orinda Moraga, in which Fahey draws spectacular notes from his ramshackle guitar, or I Am The Resurrection, with a special tuning invented by Fahey himself and in which his slide sounds like ‘Martian blues’ with an oriental flavor. There are also two slide wonders such as How Green Was My Valley and The Death of the Clayton Peacock; a song capable of making the hair on the skin stand up.

This album feels like it has been recorded on an old farmhouse porch, with a dog sitting at the guitarist's feet (on Poor Boy you can hear one barking, causing Fahey to stop playing and shush the dog) in a John Ford movie sunset. But beyond the pretty postcard scene that it evokes, the music it contains is something else - intricate, intriguing and capable of continuing to resonate in our heads long after it's over.