At the beginning of my first year of college I bought Transfiguration online, listened to it a couple times and put it away. I couldn’t hear any tunes and I was routed by the prospect of fifteen instrumental tracks of acoustic blues, which I didn’t really enjoy at the time. When the school year ended I pulled it out again and found that I liked the first four or five pieces. “Orinda Moraga” was the first to open up, then “On the Sunny Side of the Ocean”; and I took a new pleasure in the convicted slide playing of “I Am the Resurrection.” From there I grew fond of the first side, refusing on principle to skip any tracks (even “Beautiful Linda Getchell,” which I now like) and dug slowly into side two.
My initial intense love (for awhile I called it my second-favorite album, after Tribute to Jack Johnson) for The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death has worn off by now, and I feel ready to evaluate it a little more critically. I dislike the proximity of “How Green Was My Valley” to the nearly identical “The Death of the Clayton Peacock,” although the former is the better song and the latter really does remind me of the peacocks that wandered around the RV park where I worked and listened to the CD last summer. (That high-pitched guitar squawk is nothing like the truck-horn call of a real peacock, but together with the soft rhythmic strut of the bass notes it makes for an apt and funny tone poem about them. I appreciate it.) If they were farther apart both would be more enjoyable. I also think the “Old Southern Medley” is too long, and its good parts might have been better as separate tracks. Other than that I find it hard to complain about The Transfiguration.
I must note two things. First, a lot of people seem to hear this as a “calm” album like the rest of John Fahey’s earliest recordings, which Bob Christgau dismissed as a “fantasy of sodden deliverance.” The Guardian too ascribes “an almost Buddhic meditativeness” (never mind the lame conversion of an adjective into a noun, and the fact that Fahey was a professed Christian who got briefly into Hinduism) to The Transfiguration and lumps him in, for some stupid reason, with the “new age” musicians of the Nineties. Maybe he did make that kind of music at some other point in his career; I wouldn’t know, I only own this and Of Rivers and Religion. But The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, on the whole, is not for meditating. Whenever I play it in the car I want to jump up and down to “I Am the Resurrection” and “101 Is a Hard Road to Travel” and “How Green Was My Valley,” and I yearn and reminisce to “Tell Her to Come Back Home” and “Poor Boy” and “St. Patrick’s Hymn” and “On the Sunny Side of the Ocean.” Sure, some of the compositions are “calming,” but they’re the boring ones — “Bicycle Built for Two” or “Clayton Peacock” or the six-minute medley, for example. If John Fahey is calm, it’s only for the same reason that Mississippi John Hurt could be called calm: because you, the listener, are not paying any fucking attention.
Which brings me to my second point: water never rises above its source, and the John Faheys of the world rarely surpass the bluesmen who influence them. If you don’t believe me, listen to Canned Heat or Kaleidoscope (the American band) or any other record-collector artist from the Sixties. John Fahey was one of them, trawling thrift shops for 78’s and stealing tunes and picking patterns and whole freakin’ songs, and he thought like one of them. But even though they loved the music those collector guys lived in a whole nother world not only from the blues people they copied, but also from the kids of their day, and whether or not they liked it they were in love with a tradition that had become totally irrelevant to the times. Yes, a lot of them recorded great rock covers of the old songs — I made a playlist of those for the 11/29/18 episode of my radio show. I love the rock and roll they made out of old blues, and maybe you do too. But do you have any acquaintances who do? (I mean, if you do I envy you.) The artists who “made it” in the Sixties either weren’t collector bands or they cleaved to/defined the loud, rhythmic, rootless new rock paradigm successfully. Beefheart, Hendrix and the Stones come to mind as dedicated blues fans who made the shift and made even better music than their heroes. John Fahey, fortunately or unfortunately (I, a metastasizing snob for Twenties blues, vote “fortunately”), didn’t go rock until the Nineties, after he was located by his fans in my own college town of Salem, OR.* Even in his life habits he was a creature of the blues, never of rock music, and he would never beat or even equal his friends John Hurt and Elizabeth Cotten at that game. His compositional habits were too…white. But we received at least one superlative record under his name.
*When I learned about the re-discovery of John Fahey in an Oregon homeless shelter, I laughed out loud for two minutes because it perfectly paralleled how he yanked Bukka White and Skip James out of retirement in the Sixties. Kinda mean of me but then again, he literally found James in a hospital bed and persuaded him to go on tour, which is inarguably much worse, so fuck him.