Blind Gary DAVIS 1960

Reverend Gary Davis was a towering figure in at least two realms. As a finger-style guitarist he developed a complex yet swinging approach to picking that has influenced generations of players, including Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, Dave Van Ronk, Jorma Kaukonen and Stefan Grossman. And as a composer of religious and secular music he created a substantial body of work that has been recorded by, among others, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Peter Paul & Mary and the Grateful Dead, not to mention Davis's own releases.

From the perspective of his one hundredth birthday (April 30, 1896 in Laurens, South Carolina -he died on May 5, 1972 in Hammonton, New Jersey), the Davis legacy looms especially large. Early musical experiences at Center Raven Baptist Church in Gray Court, South Carolina, were at the core of strong religious convictions that helped him cope with blindness, and in 1933 he was ordained as minister of the Free Baptist Connection Church in Washington, North Carolina. For years he toured as a singing gospel preacher and also sang on the streets, mostly in Durham. During this period he crossed paths and eventually recorded with Blind Boy Fuller and other "Piedmont style" musicians, including Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry.

By 1940 Reverend Davis had found his way to New York City, where he was ordained minister of Missionary Baptist Connection Church. Here his recording career began in earnest, first for Asch and Folkways Records, and later for Prestige.

Starting in the late 1950's, as folk music became popular on campuses and in coffee houses, Davis was "discovered" by a largely educated, middle-class audience that, at least at first, was more interested in his hot guitar licks and blues-holler style of singing than in his specific religious message. While the Reverend was not above responding to this more secular audience (for whom temporal songs like "Cocaine" and "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" were as exciting as gospel compositions like "Samson and Delilah" and "Death Don't Have No Mercy"), he always considered his work to be essentially religious in nature. When students like Dave Van Ronk journeyed uptown to learn the intricacies of "Soldiers Drill" (an instrumental reworking of a couple of Sousa marches, probably remembered from childhood), Reverend Davis would extend the lesson with preaching, food and companionship. In this way he became an important mentor to the folk music revival, and eventually performed at many festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival and others. Eventually he toured in Britain, as well, where critic Robert Tilling, writing in Jazz Journal, called him "One of the finest gospel, blues, ragtime guitarists and singers.

By the 1960's Davis was represented by Folkore Productions, which also published his songs under the imprint of Chandos Music (ASCAP). Chandos and Folklore continue to administer on behalf the Reverend Gary Davis Estate, whose main beneficiary, the widow Annie Davis, dwelled for many years in the Reverend's proudest legacy, a brick house in Queens, New York.
@ Folklore Prod.

In his prime of life, which is to say the late '20s, the Reverend Gary Davis was one of the two most renowned practitioners of the East Coast school of ragtime guitar; 35 years later, despite two decades spent playing on the streets of Harlem in New York, he was still one of the giants in his field, playing before thousands of people at a time, and an inspiration to dozens of modern guitarist/singers including Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, and Donovan, and Jorma Kaukonen, David Bromberg, and Ry Cooder, who studied with Davis.

Davis was partially blind at birth, and lost what little sight he had before he was an adult. He was self-taught on the guitar, beginning at age six, and by the time he was in his 20s he had one of the most advanced guitar techniques of anyone in blues -- his only peers among ragtime-based players were Blind Arthur Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Blind Willie Johnson. Davis himself was a major influence on Blind Boy Fuller. Davis's influences included gospel, marches, ragtime, jazz, and minstrel hokum, and he integrated them into a style that was his own. In 1911, when Davis was a still teenager, the family moved to Greenville, SC, and he fell under the influence of such local guitar virtuosi as Willie Walker, Sam Brooks and Baby Brooks. Davis moved to Durham in the mid-'20s, by which time he was a full-time street musician, and celebrated not only for the diversity of styles that his playing embraced, but also for his skills with the guitar, which were already virtually unmatched in the blues field.

Davis went into the recording studio for the first time in the '30s with the backing of a local businessman. Davis cut a mixture of blues and spirituals for the American Record Company label, but there was never an equitable agreement about payment for the recordings, and following these sessions, it was 19 years before he entered the studio again. During that period, he went through many changes. Like many other street buskers, Davis always interspersed gospel songs amid his blues and ragtime numbers, to make it harder for the police to interrupt him. He began taking the gospel material more seriously, and in 1937 he became an ordained minister. After that, he usually refused to perform any blues. Davis moved to New York in the early '40s and began preaching and playing on streetcorners in Harlem. He recorded again at the end of the 1940s, with a pair of gospel songs, but it wasn't until the mid-'50s that a real following for his work began developing anew. His music, all of it now of a spiritual nature, began showing up on labels such as Stinson, Folkways, and Riverside, where he recorded seven songs in early 1956.

Davis was "rediscovered" by the folk revival movement, and after some initial reticence, he agreed to perform as part of the budding folk music revival, appearing at the Newport Folk Festival, where his raspy voiced sung sermons, most notably his transcendent "Samson and Delilah (If I Had My Way)" -- a song most closely associated with Blind Willie Johnson -- and "Twelve Gates to the City," were highlights of the procedings for several years. He also recorded a live album for the Vanguard label at one such concert, as well as appearing on several Newport live anthology collections. He was also the subject of two television documentaries, one in 1967 and one in 1970. Davis became one of the most popular players on the folk revival and blues revival scenes, playing before large and enthusiastic audiences -- most of the songs that he performed were spirituals, but they weren't that far removed from the blues that he'd recorded in the 1930s, and his guitar technique was intact. Davis's skills as a player, on the jumbo Gibson acoustic models that he favored, were undiminished, and he was a startling figure to hear, picking and strumming complicated rhythms and countermelodies. Davis became a teacher during this period, and his students included some very prominent White guitar players, including David Bromberg and the Jefferson Airplane's Jorma Kaukonen (who later recorded Davis's "I'll Be Alright" on his acclaimed solo album Quah!).

The Reverend Gary Davis left behind a fairly large body of modern (i.e. post-World War II) recordings, well into the 1960s, taking the revival of his career in his stride as a way of carrying the message of the gospel to a new generation. He even recorded anew some of his blues and ragtime standards in the studio, for the benefit of his students.
@ Bruce Eder

No comments: