No words can express

Music - Richard Cook on an infuriating genius

The cult of the individual is almost extinct in instrumental music. All through the last century, they were doing extraordinary, eccentric, unprecedented things in ways that have changed the destinies of countless listeners. Our musical lives would have been bland and bereft without these infuriating geniuses. They were not necessarily great players, in the way that we understand the monumental art of Louis Armstrong or Vladimir Horowitz to be great, but their outsize personality illuminated music more vividly than many a more pigeonholed titan: Leopold Godowsky, Ornette Coleman, Jacqueline du Pre, Glenn Gould, Jimmy Yancey. In a more knowing and more calculating age, their existence has in effect been ended. If any such musician emerges now, they're putting on an act, or they're moulding something out of fashionable irony. It was sad to learn, last year, of Keith Jarrett's serious illness: for all his ghastly affectation, he may be the last example of the cult that jazz has produced.

One survivor of this idiosyncratic breed did, however, make an exceedingly rare visit to perform in Britain in 1999. The American guitarist John Fahey, from Takoma Park, Maryland, played a handful of concerts which had even admirers shaking their heads in bewilderment. True to his irascible reputation, the great man did nothing expected of him. One concert consisted of no more than a couple of open-ended improvisations played on a worn-looking Telecaster, weird melodies wrung out of the instrument and interspersed with thunderous cathedral chords which boomed out of the speakers like apocalyptic non sequiturs. I missed the shows, but a friend who went counted one of them among his most bewildering experiences.

Fahey didn't set out to confound people. Originally he was an academic, spending much of his time as a young man in the fifties poring over transcripts and recordings of folk and country blues kept in the Library of Congress. His master's thesis was a fanatically detailed account of the work of Charley Patton, the Delta blues pioneer. Patton's recordings are difficult to absorb because they were produced by the notoriously low-fi Paramount label in the 1920s. Fahey listened past all the crackle and distortion and illuminated Patton's errant mastery. Having taken up the guitar himself, he recorded an album in 1958 called Blind Joe Death. Only 100 copies were pressed. Incredibly, it was still enough of a milestone to secure him an almost worldwide reputation.

Fahey's music was steady, stately, introspective. Like many instrumentalists, he loves the pure, naked sound of what he's playing, and some of his guitar reveries seem like hymns to the gorgeous timbre of strings ringing against a wooden soundbox. Just reissued on CD is The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favourites (Takoma), an album he recorded on a single day in August 1964, and it makes explicit his rapturous and timeless kind of musical Americana. Much of what he recorded gets credited as his own original themes, but they're so steeped in the blues and folk that nourished his style that they're indivisible from his inspirations: even the title track of The Dance of Death sounds the same as Jelly Roll Morton's "I Hate a Man Like You". The 10 minutes of "What the Sun Said" could easily have been extended to twice that length, and his subsequent records often feature solos that last 20 minutes or more. Old-time fans complain that he has left this rosewood strain behind him, but if anything his current methodology merely extends the implications of these early efforts.

The Fahey record I like best, suitably enough for the season just gone, is Christmas with John Fahey Volume Two (Takoma), where he renders chestnuts such as "White Christmas" and "Oh Holy Night" in a way that makes these exhausted melodies sound as if someone is playing them for the first time - slowly, carefully, savouring every note. Exasperating he may be, but there should be more like him.