Film Review: Guitar Innovators: John Fahey & Nels Cline

Two short documentaries examine the life of pioneering folk guitarist John Fahey and show guitarist Nels Cline in action.

When John Fahey died in 2001, his legacy included albums of guitar instrumentals that changed the direction of folk music. Starting in 1959, Fahey released a series of remarkable recordings, at first on private labels. They seemed to arrive from a distant past of plantations and paddlewheelers.

Fahey resurrected rural blues styles from the Mississippi delta, acoustic jazz from Tin Pan Alley, eerie hymns from backwoods churches. He picked his way through the heart of American music, along the way mastering everything from waltzes to Hawaiian chants, finding common ground between Charles Ives and W.C. Handy, Jerome Kern and Son House.

Fahey essentially invented a new type of folk music, and then built a market for it, touring the country while releasing increasingly idiosyncratic albums that mixed found sound, aural collages, and tape manipulated in unexpected ways. The Dance of Death, The Voice of the Turtle, Of Rivers and Religions—no one made records like Fahey, and although he inspired a generation of guitarists, no one could play like him.

For years details about the guitarist's life were shrouded in mystery, due in part to Fahey's extravagant mythologizing. He grew up in Takoma, a Washington, DC, suburb, studied philosophy at American University, and then moved to the West Coast, where he joined a master's program in folklore at UCLA. His thesis was on rural musician Charley Patton, as much a role model as an influence.

In the early 1960s, Fahey helped rediscover blues musician Bukka White, searching him out in Aberdeen, Mississippi. White recorded for Fahey's Takoma record label, as did musicians like Leo Kottke and George Winston. Fahey continued to turn out solo records and also recorded with jazz and Dixieland musicians.

By all accounts Fahey was a complicated, difficult man, and his personal life was a ruin. He married and divorced several times, drank excessively, institutionalized himself more than once, and by the 1990s was destitute. After a career resurgence brought about in part by a new generation of fans, Fahey died in 2001 during heart surgery.

For this short documentary, director James Cullingham has assembled a trove of archival material in the form of interviews, performances, home movies, and observations and reminiscences from musicians and friends like Pete Townshend, Stefan Grossman and Barry Hansen. He includes generous samples of Fahey's music, from his earliest recordings with 78 rpm record collector Joe Bussard to what Fahey described as his "Gothic industrial ambience" recordings.

Like its subject, In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey can fascinate and irritate at the same time. Footage chosen to accompany Fahey's recordings can seem either obvious or mystifying. Cullingham spends a bit too much time on Fahey's less rewarding works, and seems reluctant to tackle the personal problems that haunted the guitarist throughout his life.

But In Search of Blind Joe Death (one of Fahey's many pseudonyms) is still an excellent introduction to one of the key musicians of his time. Newcomers and fans alike will find a lot to treasure here.

In Search of Blind Joe Death is being released theatrically with Approximately Nels Cline, a straightforward account of a West Coast recording session with the guitarist and other musicians. A veteran of over 100 albums, Cline generally plays free-form jazz, with excursions into avant-garde, punk-rock and novelty pop tunes. Shot in a recording studio, the short includes versions of the folk songs "The Cuckoo" and "Black Is the Color," as well as performances with drummer Scott Amendola and pianist and vocalist Yuka Honda, Cline's wife.