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In search of John Fahey: new doc highlights groundbreaking guitarist

Older bearded Fahey, photo by Paul Kelly, Newcastle circa 1999.

"Being a genius is tough, I guess." - From the Village Voice, in a a review of a performance by the eccentric guitarist John Fahey.

Greil Marcus's old, weird America had a second generation, one of its children being John Fahey, the "original American primitive," and an untutored, finger-style adventurer on the steel-stringed acoustic guitar. He could be brusque, soused and odd, or provocative, good-natured and wickedly humorous. Pete Townshend, guitarist and composer for the Who, saw him as a musical poet, "dividing time in some new way." He was a self-inventor, musicologist and essayist who liked turtles, thrift-store guitars and the composer Bartok. And from the late Fahey himself: "I've always really thought of myself as a spiritual detective and a psychological detective."

He is the subject of In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey, a new documentary by James Cullingham that gets its North American premiere Thursday at the Vancouver International Film Festival. (Blind Joe Death, by the way, was Fahey's bluesy persona – a smart-ass homage from a a young white suburbanite in the 1950s, to the pre-war sight-challenged heroes that so entranced him.)

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The documentary from Cullingham, a professor, documentary filmmaker and former CBC radio producer, is in the vein of films which attempt to demystify (or track down) idiosyncratic or on-the-fringe musicians. Included in the genre are this year's Searching for Sugar Man (on the lost-then-found Detroit folk artist Rodriguez) and 2005's The Devil and Daniel Johnston (on the psychologically unique Johnston).

While there's plenty of back-story to Fahey's left-field life, Cullingham, who knew the man, is most interested in the art. "My fascination is with the the guy's music," says the director, whose first national radio documentary with CBC was on Fahey. "His music has moved me for my entire life."

The film's most compelling champion is Townshend, who admired Fahey's Bukowski-like power and edge."He created a new language, modally speaking and harmonically speaking. And if that's not an iconoclast, I don't know what is, really."

The arc of Fahey's career is told in a fluid, reverential and easygoing manner, exploring the times of a man who as a youth went on record-buying sprees in Maryland, which triggered an obsession with African-American blues and gospel artists such as Blind Willie Johnson, whose intensity first made him sick and then left him in tears.

As a musicologist, Fahey tracked down folk-blues pioneers Bukka White and Skip James, and helped revive their careers during the great American folk-blues boom in the 1960s. His essays on those sojourns into the Mississippi Delta were thoroughly journalistic, if somewhat fanciful.

In 1964, as one of the inaugural graduates of the University of California's folklore curriculum, Fahey's master's thesis was on the great country-blues artist Charlie Patton. In his own (mostly instrumental) music, he took the forms of Patton and others and developed his own melodies while introducing resonant syncopation, Eastern meditativeness and, later, found sounds.

On the Takoma record label he created with friend Ed Denson, the outsider Fahey issued The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, a classic obscurity which, according to one reviewer, "balanced whimsy and dignity, melody and dissonance, in a wholly original and very bent manner." The wicked liner notes from Fahey were later described by Denson as a "paranoid vision of reality unrivalled since Kafka."

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What's fascinating about Fahey is that he himself became the same source of intrigue as his folk-blues heroes. After a successful career of recording and touring, he wound up homeless in the 1990s in the Pacific Northwest. "As a young man, he was in the Mississippi Delta looking for James and White," says Cullingham. "And then, later, people went to Oregon looking for him. And there he was."

One of seekers was Chris Funk, a multi-instrumentalist with the Decemberists. "You can't get any more American than John Fahey," he says in the film, "in the sense that he took something that existed in our lineage of Americans and American music and tripped out along the way."

Another devotee was Thurston Moore, of the soundscapists Sonic Youth. A Spin magazine feature in 1994 helped resurrect Fahey, who dedicated his revived career to ambient, gothic industrial music.

In the end, Fahey, who died in 2001 at age 61, seemed satisfied. He was touring and recording, and was making enough money to get by. He had troubles, but that wasn't what made him unique. "He had psychological problems and he created enduring art," says Cullingham, who sold the film this week to the BBC for a 2013 broadcast."And it's the enduring art that I'm most interested in."

In Search of Blind Joe Death screens Oct. 4, 8 p.m.; Oct. 5, 2 p.m.

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