Obituary: Billy Faier

(Photo by Luc Novovitch)

(Photo by Luc Novovitch)

The music I write…I don’t feel I write it, it flows through me, things that grow within me. It doesn’t come from me, it comes through me. I’m a practical and scientific person, an agnostic, but this is spiritual. There are things that happen in life that are mystical and spiritual…”

So said Billy Faier back in 2010 before what might have been his last Woodstock performance. The banjoist who was in and out of town since the mid-1940s died at the age of 85 on January 29 at the Big Bend Regional Medical Center in Alpine, Texas.

Every two or three years since he moved to Texas in 1995, Faier would show up back in Woodstock, hang out on the street, playing his long-neck Vega banjo outdoors on Mill Hill Road in front of what was then Just Alan.

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He could be a cantankerous sort, with both good and bad opinions of Woodstock, its denizens and its music. He first moved here with his family in 1945.

“When I bought land in Mink Hollow from Earl Watson, I bought 16 acres, and later another ten and it was three acres for a thousand dollars…$333.33 per acre,” he said in the 2010 interview. “We wrote out the contract by hand…it may have been the last transaction in Ulster County without lawyers, on a handwritten contract. I built my house and lived there from 1964 to 1995. It was a good life in Woodstock. The 60s were amazing…I had my light box gallery, and I booked all the folksingers into the Expresso until Bernard (Paturel) learned to do it.”

The website, Bluegrass Today, noted that he was “a contemporary of Seeger, Jack Kerouac, and Woody Guthrie…Billy was active in the music scene in New York’s Washington Square in Greenwich Village during the late ’40s, noted for its left wing politics and the burgeoning acoustic folk scene.” And it characterized his unique music thusly: “Faier had recorded a number of influential banjo albums starting in the late 1950s, running through to 1987. His earliest records would probably be categorized today as folk music, while his specifically banjo LPs in the 1970s were at the forefront of what we now describe as progressive banjo music. He was fluent in many styles of playing, including clawhammer and 3-finger picking, as well as the folk style Pete Seeger popularized in the ’60s. Later in life he came to favor using a long neck banjo tuned to E.”

In the 1990s, Billy moved to west Texas, living in Terlingua and then for the last eleven years, in Marathon. “Texas music, I like to play it…the sentiments are invariably sick and sentimental, but the music is great fun to play. It took a long time to get used to Texas. The first year I told myself, keep your mouth shut…then it was OK after that.”

He met Wendy Wright 15 years ago, and they struck up a friendship. “We were good pals. I promised him I’d be there at the end, and by god I was.” She accompanied him to St. Louis last June for one of his last performances, and it’s preserved on YouTube, labeled Billy Faier 1 and 2. “He knew something was up at the end of May. But we drove to St. Louis and he had the most amazing concert, told stories, and it’s lovely. He was riddled with cancer, but he just fed off the audience and was great that night. He didn’t get to play that much after.”

Billy has a son, Nico Wand and daughter-in-law Phyllis and a grandson Christopher, in California.

Wendy said she is planning a celebration of life, a musical memorial for Billy, maybe the first week in March in Texas. She said Billy went quietly and peacefully. “The only thing he was mad about was that he didn’t live to a ripe old age of 102, like his mother did.”

There are 3 comments

  1. tad wise

    Billy was opinionated and at times downright cantankerous, but there were a few things he indeed mastered. His first banjo was given to him by neighbor David Ballantine, who lived to regret the gift in so far as Faier practiced all day and into the night for years on end. Billy’s importance as a player and innovator is well stated above, except for the fact Billy’s “raga” banjo remains unmentioned. In the later seventies he introduced Indian techniques including playing strings “behind” the nut, as well tapping and “dragging” the tuned sounding-board skin itself as a drum…yeah, these were incredible additions and very much ahead of their time. Also THE BEAST OF BILLY FAIER happens to be one of the best Woodstock records of its day, right up there with Dylan and Tim Hardin. I believe John Sebastian made his recording debut on that LP, introducing his astoundingly “voice-like” harmonica on an incredible tune called, “Willy Went To Washington.” Humility? Never was Billy’s strong suite. But since he was essentially ostracized by Woodstock folkies and his talents were indeed beyond “considerable”–maybe, Billy, your “a lack of humility” was totally appropriate afterall. Surprisingly — I miss you already.

  2. Gary Trieste

    I knew Billy for almost forever, from time I was a little kid growing up in Woodstock.
    When I got a hold of his album “The Beast of Billy Faier”, I played it over and over, and I never got tired of the tunes. At the time I did not understand of lot of the unspoken innuendo and references embedded in those songs, but I loved them all the same.
    I played many of them for my daughter Anya, and she was enthralled to know that the singer was someone from Woodstock. I told her about the story behind “Unpleasantness at the Nook”, and pointed out to her the place where the Espresso was.
    She so wanted to meet Billy and tell him she loved his music, but unfortunately circumstances had prevented that.
    I really loved Billy, and as cantankerous as he was, he was realist and an artist as well.
    I will miss him forever.

  3. Collette Hurley

    I was in my 20s when I lived in London (UK) in the 70s. I bought a 5-string banjo and began to learn to play it. I borrowed an LP from the library of a banjo player called Billy Faier. I especially liked a tune called ‘Spanish Fly’. I had never heard of Billy but among my heroes were Pete Seeger, Peggy Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, et al. I didn’t do well on the banjo and was better with a guitar eventually. Life’s circumstances found me living in Woodstock NY at the beginning of 1982. I heard banjo strains wafting across Woodstock Green and ran to find a tall, shaggy man singing and playing. I asked him if he could play ‘Spanish Fly’. His jaw dropped and he said ‘where did you hear that?’ I explained and he said ‘I’m Billy Faier’. It was inevitable that Billy and I became quite close for a while! I even took a room in his wonderful wooden house for a few months. I’m back in the UK but will never forget the amazing synchronicity that occurred in Woodstock all those years ago!

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