Monday morning, kids—you know what that means: time for the Monday Morning Blues on Robert Frost’s Banjo.
Today is our monthly visit to the song “Poor Boy Blues” in its many incarnations, & our feature today is unique in a few respects. First, it’s the only scheduled post in the series that doesn’t feature a vocal version of the song; second, there are two quite different versions of “Poor Boy” here, both played by the masterful John Fahey. The first video, a live recording from the late 1970s, features Fahey’s more or less original “Poor Boy Long Way From Home,” while the second video features Fahey’s instrumental take on Booker White’s “Poor Boy,” a version we explored in this post.
With this post, which marks chronologically Fahey’s 1958 recording of “Poor Boy” for the amateur Fonotone label under the pseudonym of Blind Thomas. The song was later re-issued on Fahey’s own Takoma label on his 1965 masterpiece, The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death—Blind Joe Death being another of his musical alter egos.
Fahey’s appearance on our timeline marks an important point in blues history, since by the late 1950s blues was very much attracting the attention of white musicians & record collectors (sometimes, as in the case of Fahey, these two categories existed in the same person.) This was the time of the folk revival—Dave Van Ronk, like Fahey, a white musician who very much internalized much African-American music, also released his first Folkways album in 1959, & of course Bob Dylan’s first Columbia album—which included covers of old blues tunes such as Booker White’s “Fixin’ to Die”—was only a few years away.
Some things changed as the blues became subsumed by the folk revival—in all its permutations, which should be stressed, because Fahey was never a coffeehouse guitar picker in the stereotypical mode: he was arch, sophisticated & an adamant outsider right from the first. In addition to the music now being performed by people of European-American descent as well as African-American descent, two other big changes should be noted: first, at least prior to the British Invasion & Dylan going electric, the white musicians focused on an acoustic sound—they focused on it in their own playing & they also expected it in the playing of African American blues musicians. Elijah Wald in Escaping the Delta documents numerous stories about performers such as Brownie McGhee & Big Bill Broonzy who essentially led parallel performing lives during the revival: they played acoustic for the white folkie college crowd & electric when playing in African American communities.
The second change is that the blues came to be thought of more as primarily “guitar music” & thus less as primarily “vocal” music. To this day the work of people like Fahey, Stefan Grossman & others almost gives the impression that the old blues musicians were guitarists first & vocalists only incidentally. For instance, while I admire Grossman as a player, composer & teacher, if one looks at some of his instruction books it looks as if he’s teaching instrumental pieces, whereas the guitar parts played on recordings by the old “country blues” players were accompaniments, however sophisticated they might be.
Fahey is a bit of a special case here, because in addition to being an extraordinarily talented guitarist, he was also a formidable composer who essentially brought together elements of old country blues playing with elements of modern classical music. His compositions have been as innovative & inventive as the titles he gave them (“The Dance Of The Inhabitants Of The Invisible City Of Bladensburg” for example), using open tunings & ideas from far flung sources to put together a remarkable body of original work.
Fahey is not as well known to the general music listening public as he should be, not by any stretch. His career was marked with personal difficulties: alcoholism, Epstein-Barr Syndrome, even such extreme poverty at one point that he was forced to pawn his guitars. He died at age 61 in 2001, far too young. His music is still played tho—it’s a delight & a challenge to many of us guitarists!
Hope you enjoy the amazing John Fahey’s two versions of “Poor Boy”!