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EXCLUSIVE: Steve Lowenthal Talks New Book 'Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey'

By Ian Holubiak i.holubiak@classicalite.com on Aug 24, 2014 12:38 PM EDT

"This is not rock 'n' roll. It's not pop music. It's not folk music; it's this sort of transcendental guitar music," Steve Lowenthal emphatically tells me over the phone. And, indeed, his new book, Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, details the style (and story) of perhaps this country's most influential "American primitive" guitarist.

In it, Lowenthal (whom you've no doubt read online at Swingset Magazine) chronicles the life of a legend through word-of-mouth accounts of the people closest to Fahey, himself. Of course, few hang as high as Fahey on the six-string scale.

Not that it was ever easy for the master. Fahey's success came late in his career, cultivating a legacy in the most unlikely of places.

A small-town kid who grew up in the shadows of Washington, D.C. (Takoma Park, Maryland, specifically), Fahey forever found himself outside the norm. And as a tall, leather jacket-clad teen, he found no fault with venturing to the most obscure corners of the South to find records for his growing collection. At a time when that area was suffering from severe racial turmoil, no, it was not advised for a skinny white kid to tread the lower income sections of a segregated black neighborhood.

Not unlike Dylan finding Guthrie, or Alan Lomax seeking out Muddy Waters, Fahey and friends started their own Takoma Records label--signing the likes of Bukka White and even paying the medical bills of a most ungrateful Skip James for a lesson in playing.

Those tokens, though, went unappreciated for a long time--a fact duly noted in the recently Kickstarted Fahey doc, In Search of Blind Joe Death.

A semi-tragic life wherein Fahey had thought he'd lost all credibility, later on, thankfully, he did find redemption among peers and budding steel-stringed pickers. However, he was never the folk artist he was often labeled (calling out Pete Seeger at a Newport workshop claiming he was bastardizing the genre, which was met with great disdain by those in earshot).

"He felt very vindicated by that towards the end of his life," says Lowenthal over the crackle of an iPhone. "And when he was embraced by a more radical, experimental '90s sect, that's when he got very excited. He always felt his music was radical and rebellious."

Be it Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth or Scientology's own Beck Hansen, Fahey did get a late embrace from fin de siecle alternative culture. It was great praise from a different world--music that was changing before his eyes and ears--and he proved both understanding and grateful.

As it turns out, the young Fahey can be considered part alt, too.

Lowenthal reminds me: "He was a smart and imaginative kid, and when he heard Shostakovich and Prokofiev--when I'm talking about Prokofiev, I'm talking about his War Sonatas, or things like [Stravinsky's] Rite of Spring--he found them angry and rebellious."

"And to Fahey, before there was angry, rebellious teenage music, this was the soundtrack to his rebellion. Most people don't think of classical music in these terms, but to him it was like punk rock," he continues.

Fahey's understanding of and attraction to latter-day classical not only inspired his compositions in a way that most guitarists of his time didn't understand, much less think to assimilate, they spoke to him personally.

Classical sounds, to John Fahey, led his anti-folk rebellion.

Steve Lowenthal's book is out now from Chicago Review Press, both traditional retail outlets and digi-stores. And since he's such a nice guy, he's allowed Classicalite to post the introduction to Dance of Death--care of famed Rolling Stone scribe David Fricke--below.

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TagsDance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Primitive, Takoma Records, Alan Lomax, Bob Dylan, Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Steve Lowenthal, Swingset Magazine, EXCLUSIVE