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Gary Davis

By The Gale Group – The Reverend Gary Davis was a self-taught street musician and Baptist preacher who became an icon of the mid-twentieth-century folk-music revival. Critics consider him to be one of the most innovative and influential blues guitarists of the century. His legacy as a teacher and performer can be heard in the work of some of popular music's biggest stars, including Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead.

Taught Himself Guitar

Gary D. Davis was born on April 30, 1896, in Laurens County, south of Spartanburg, in the Piedmont section of upstate South Carolina. His parents, John and Evelina Davis, had eight children, six of whom died as babies. Davis' only surviving brother was killed by a girlfriend in 1930. Davis variously claimed to have been born partially blind or to have been blinded by chemicals put in his eyes when he was a few weeks old.

Davis was raised by his grandmother, on a farm that, as he told his student Stefan Grossman (quoted on the Guitar Videos website), was "Way down in the country, so far you couldn't hear a train whistle blow unless it was on a cloudy day." Davis also told Grossman that his father gave him away because his mother was often out partying. However in other interviews, he claimed that his mother worked in town as a cook and his father was always in trouble and died before he really knew him. The blind boy raised chickens and taught himself music.

As a small child, Davis began playing the harmonica and his grandmother helped him make a guitar from a pie pan and a stick. After his mother gave him a real guitar, Davis practiced continuously. He also taught himself banjo. Davis' first musical exposure was to the spirituals sung in church, square-dance music, and popular marches such as those by John Philip Sousa. By the time Davis was ten, he was singing at the Center Raven Baptist Church in Gray Court, South Carolina, and playing guitar, banjo, and harmonica for segregated country dances, house parties, and picnics.

Rose to Fame as Street Performer

In 1910 or 1911 Davis joined a string band in Greenville, South Carolina, taking his place among the ranks of blind southern blacks for whom music was the only source of income. The band included the blind guitarist Willie Walker, who was to become a legend during the folk-music revival. Walker taught Davis the famous Piedmont guitar style. In 1911 Davis wrote one of his first songs, a gospel called "There Was a Time When I Went Blind." "Soldier's Drill," an instrumental based on Sousa marches that he wrote in 1918, became part of his standard repertoire.

According to Guitar Videos Online, Davis told Grossman that about 1910, "I first heard them from a fellow coming down the road picking a guitar and playing what you call ‘the blues.'" The first bluesman he heard was Porter Irving singing "Delia." In 1914 Davis entered the Cedar Springs School for Blind People in Spartanburg. There he taught music and learned to read Braille. Leaving after six months because he didn't like the food, Davis returned to Greenville and the string band.

In 1919 Davis married Mary Hendrix, a woman five years his senior. They traveled throughout the Carolinas and Tennessee. Davis played on the streets of each town until the police ran him off. By 1926 Davis was in Durham, North Carolina, having left his wife when he found that she already had a husband, and numerous lovers besides. Now completely sightless, Davis was playing spirituals, ragtime, blues, and dance music. Interspersing his blues and ragtime with gospel music held off the police who harassed the street musicians. By the late 1920s Gary Davis was considered one of the best ragtime guitarists on the east coast.

In 1933 Davis was ordained in the Free Baptist Connection Church in Washington, North Carolina. He became a singing preacher, playing lumber camps and traveling the revival circuit. When in Durham, he collected welfare. On the streets Davis always carried a weapon. According to legend he once repeatedly stabbed an acquaintance with a large pocket knife because the man, as a joke, had snatched away a dollar bill that a listener had given him.

Made His First Recordings

In Durham Davis played and sang with guitarists Blind Boy Fuller and Bull City Red. Although Fuller became one of the most-recorded blues players of the Depression era, it was Davis who taught Fuller much of his music. Fuller introduced Davis to J. B. Long, a scout for the American Record Company or Perfect Records, a "race label" that recorded black musicians for a black audience. In 1935 Long took the three musicians to New York City. Davis made his first recordings—two solo blues, "I'm Throwin' Up My Hand" and "Cross and Evil Woman Blues"—on July 23. A few days later he recorded 11 religious songs, ten of which were released. These included "I Saw the Light," "I Am the Light of the World," and "You Got to Go Down." Paid only $40 for the recordings, Davis decided that Long had cheated him. According to Grossman, Davis had a major disagreement with Long over the music: Davis wanted to record only gospel music, whereas Long insisted that the public wanted the blues. It would be another 19 years before Davis again entered the recording studio.

In 1937 Davis married Annie Bell Wright of Wake County, North Carolina. They moved to Mamaroneck, New York, in 1940, where Annie worked as a housekeeper. Within a year they moved to Harlem, to a house on 169th Street where they lived until 1958. Davis was ordained again, as a minister in the Missionary Baptist Connection Church of New York.

In Durham Davis had jammed with harmonica player Sonny Terry and guitarist Brownie McGhee. He joined up with them in New York in the 1940s and taught at McGhee's Home of the Blues Music School in Harlem. He spent the next 20 years as a singer and preacher on the streets of Harlem, avoiding the police and protecting his guitars from thieves.

Developed His Unique Style

Few if any country bluesmen shared Davis' musical range. His ragtime, blues, and jazz incorporated medicine show tunes, country instrumentals, military marches, white ballads, old hymns, revival meeting and gospel songs, popular tunes, and original compositions, into a sound that was all his own. His repertoire included more than 300 compositions, adaptations, and improvisations. Sometimes called the "holy blues," his songs combined religious lyrics with singing and guitar playing that were pure country blues. He was renowned for the speed and complexity of his guitar playing, as well as his powerful voice and perfect pitch. His harmonica style was both old-fashioned and unique.

Davis' guitar styles ranged from ragtime piano to Piedmont or Carolina blues. He picked with only his thumb and index finger, saying that he played the guitar like he played the piano. He told Grossman in an interview posted on the Guitar Videos website, "you've got three hands to play a guitar and only two for a piano. Well, your forefinger and your thumb—that's the striking hand, and your left hand is your leading hand. Your left hand tells your right hand what strings to touch, what changes to make."

In particular Davis was known for his chord positions, playing five chords where other guitarists managed only one. As a young musician he had slipped on ice and broken his wrist. The bones were poorly set and his strangely-cocked left hand enabled him to play unorthodox chords.

Davis played large six-string Gibson guitars and sometimes twelve-string Bozos. Instead of the open tuning used by most street musicians, Davis tuned his guitar to the comparatively difficult E-B-G-D-A-E configuration, giving himself more complex chord possibilities. His blues dissonance came from alternating major chords and sevenths while he picked variations of melodies. He also was one of the few blues guitarists to use minor keys.

Hailed by Folk Enthusiasts

The folk-music revivalists of the late 1950s "discovered" the Reverend Gary Davis and his career soared. To the folk musicians and audiences of the era, Davis was the authentic street musician. He recorded for producer Moses Asch on Stinson Records in 1954 and made Harlem Street Spirituals for Riverside in 1956. Davis' third album was recorded in New York in 1957 by Fred Gerlach and Tiny Robinson and issued as Pure Religion and Bad Company. Perhaps his most influential recording was Pure Religion! for Prestige Records in 1960.

By the early 1960s Davis was entertaining audiences in coffee houses, at folk festivals, and on college campuses. He appeared at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959 and again in 1965 and 1968. Davis' renditions of "Samson and Delilah" and "Twelve Gates to the City" were festival hits. "Samson and Delilah" had been a popular nineteenth-century a cappella spiritual. Davis first recorded his version, based on "If I Had My Way I'd Tear This Building Down" by Blind Willie Johnson, in 1956. It was featured on folk group Peter, Paul and Mary's successful 1962 debut album, as "If I Had My Own Way." By 1969 the royalty checks had enabled Davis to purchase a modest home in Jamaica, Queens. Among the many songs he taught to guitarist Bob Weir was his version of "Samson and Delilah" that became a Grateful Dead standard.

Folklore Productions' Manny Greenhill managed Davis and published his songs under Chandos Music. Davis toured Britain several times. The first time was in 1964 when he was featured in a short film. He also was featured in television documentaries in 1967 and 1970 and in the 1970 documentary film, Black Roots.

However, Davis never abandoned his preaching, continuing his relationships with various Baptist congregations and religious groups and serving as an assistant pastor at the True Heart Baptist Church in the Bronx. Once in the middle of a folk concert, Davis stopped playing and started preaching until he was forced from the stage.

Taught and Influenced Musicians From 1960s

Davis' complex, swinging finger picking influenced countless guitarists, including Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan. Many musicians whom he met over the years learned his songs and copied his guitar styles. The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane covered "Death Don't Have No Mercy." Jorma Kaukonen performed "I'll Be Alright" on his solo album Quah! and, with Hot Tuna, recorded many other Davis songs. Dave Van Ronk, Stefan Grossman, Jackson Browne, and Taj Mahal also recorded Davis' songs. "Lovin' Spoonful" inspired the band of the same name.

At the 1960 Indian Neck Folk Festival, Davis taught Eric Von Schmidt his version of "Cocaine" ("Coco Blues.") "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," on Dylan's first album, was Von Schmidt's version of Davis' "Baby, Let Me Lay It On You," sometimes attributed to Fuller. Davis also claimed to have taught Fuller "Step It Up and Go." Dylan probably first met Davis at the Indian Neck Festival in 1961. Over the years he built on several Davis songs, which he probably learned through Dave Van Ronk. "Samson and Delilah," "Candy Man," "Death Don't Have No Mercy," "Cocaine Blues," and "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning" became American folk blues standards.

Always as much a teacher as a performer, Davis' guitar lessons were legend. Even after he was famous, Davis charged five dollars for a lesson in his home that could last all day and all night, and included food prepared by Annie ("Mother Davis,") drink, and preaching. With the ever-present cigar dangling from his mouth, he taught guitar to Dave Van Ronk, Bob Weir, Jorma Kaukonen, David Bromberg, and Ry Cooder. Taj Mahal learned guitar phrasings and intonations from Davis.

Stories about Davis and his lechery abound. In the liner notes to the 2002 World Arbiter release, Allan Evans wrote: "he had an infallible ability to detect the most beautiful and sensual woman in any group." On the Reverend Gary Davis website, Barry Melton of Country Joe and the Fish recalled Davis staying at his house in Berkeley, California: "the picture of Reverend Gary Davis that sticks in my mind the most is early in the morning, half-awake and blind as a bat, with a .38 in his hand pointed in my general direction."

Musical Legacy Survived Death

Following a series of strokes, Davis died from a heart attack on May 5, 1972, in Hammonton, New Jersey, on his way to a concert. Annie Davis outlived her husband and three children from a previous marriage, dying just two months before her 103rd birthday.

Davis' music remains popular and many of his recordings have been reissued and included in anthologies. The 2001 collection, Demons and Angels, includes Columbia University recordings from 1958 and 1959, concert recordings from 1962 through 1966, and home recordings from 1964 through 1966. In November of 2002 World Arbiter Records released home recordings of Davis from a private archive, including part of one of his sermons. In February of 2003 Smithsonian Folkways released recordings of Davis made in his home by John Cohen in early 1953. Predating his major albums, this release includes ten songs never otherwise recorded, some of which Davis had forgotten in his later years. It also includes Davis singing with his wife and with another preacher. Davis' guitar techniques have been the subject of numerous instructional books, recordings, and videos.

At its 15th annual conference in February of 2003, the North American Folk Alliance awarded Davis its Lifetime Achievement Award. It was presented by his student Ernie Hawkins, who teaches his style and techniques, and Davis' protégé Andy Cohen, to Davis' longtime friend and manager, Leadbelly's niece, Tiny Robinson.

Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group.

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