Cover image for Dance of death : the life of John Fahey, American guitarist
Dance of death : the life of John Fahey, American guitarist
Lowenthal, Steve.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Chicago, Illinois : Chicago Review Press, [2014]
Physical Description:
xv, 221 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
ML419.F35 L69 2014 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



John Fahey is to the solo acoustic guitar what Jimi Hendrix was to the electric: the man whom all subsequent musicians had to listen to. Fahey made more than 40 albums between 1959 and his death in 2001, most of them featuring only his solo steel-string guitar. He fused elements of folk, blues, and experimental composition, taking familiar American sounds and recontextualizing them as something entirely new. Yet despite his stature as a groundbreaking visionary, Fahey's intentions--as a man and as an artist--remain largely unexamined. Journalist Steve Lowenthal has spent years researching Fahey's life and music, talking with his producers, his friends, his peers, his wives, his business partners, and many others. He describes Fahey's battles with stage fright, alcohol, and prescription pills; how he ended up homeless and mentally unbalanced; and how, despite his troubles, he managed to found a record label that won Grammys and remains critically revered. This portrait of a troubled and troubling man in a constant state of creative flux is not only a biography but also the compelling story of a great American outcast.

Author Notes

Steve Lowenthal started and ran the music magazine Swingset ; his writing has also been published in Fader , Spin , Vice , and the Village Voice . He ran the record label Plastic for five years and currently runs the VDSQ label, which specializes in solo instrumental acoustic guitar music. He lives in New York City. David Fricke is a senior editor at Rolling Stone magazine.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

John Fahey is hardly a household name, yet it is surprising that this is the first biography of the idiosyncratic acoustic guitarist. Fahey, who died in 2011, was a singular if peculiar figure in the music world, a cult figure, really. Even as a high-school student, Lowenthal notes, Fahey felt like an outsider, more miserable and alienated than the average teenager, and he sought refuge in music. Fahey recorded more than 40 albums, mostly folk and blues in the so-called American Primitive style he was a virtuoso finger-picker while releasing some experimental material later in his career. But he struggled with many inner demons, including a bad case of stage fright and addiction to alcohol and prescription pills. Prone to self-destructive behavior, he even ended up homeless at one point. The fact that Fahey was able to maintain a long career and establish his own record labels, Takoma and Revenant, is in itself remarkable. While not always engaging, journalist Lowenthal does offer a sympathetic portrait of a troubled yet undeniably talented man.--Sawyers, June Copyright 2010 Booklist

Library Journal Review

Aside from John Fahey's own semifictional memoir, How Bluegrass Destroyed My Life (2000), Dance of Death is the first book-length biography of Fahey, one of the great outsider musicians of American music. Born in 1939, he became an accomplished acoustic guitar player, achieving renown for his unique picking style sometimes termed American Primitivism, which combined avant-garde minimalism, blues, and folk and later incorporated wider musical styles from around the world. Although often lumped in with the folk revival of the 1960s, Fahey was not part of any collective style or movement and suffered from depression and alcoholism and remained largely an outsider in his personal as well as his professional life. This short but detailed and sensitive book chronicles his life and career, including his often difficult personality and health issues that let him into poverty and semiretirement in the 1980s and early 1990s before an artistic resurgence in his final years; Fahey died in 2001. This is the first book by Lowenthal (contributor, Spin, Fader, Village Voice), and it includes a foreword by music writer David Fricke (Rolling Stone). Verdict A fascinating read for fans of Fahey and American roots music.-Dave Valencia, Seattle (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

David Fricke
Forewordp. vii
Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Introductionp. xiii
1 When the Catfish Is in Bloomp. 1
2 Sunflower River Bluesp. 15
3 The Legend of Blind Joe Deathp. 25
4 On the Sunny Side of the Oceanp. 33
5 Poor Boy Long Way from Homep. 49
6 Voice of the Turtlep. 65
7 View East from the Top of the Riggs Road B&O Trestlep. 87
8 Old Fashioned Lovep. 105
9 Let Gop. 125
10 When the Springtime Comes Againp. 141
11 Dance of the Inhabitantsp. 155
12 Red Crossp. 171
Epilogue: I Remember Blind Joe Deathp. 185
Source Notesp. 189
Bibliographyp. 203
John Fahey Discographyp. 209
Indexp. 215