19 July 2012

'Full Blast' G. Bruce Boyer & Rev. Gary Davis

Rev. Gary Davis, Birmingham, 1964

They simply don’t make ‘em like the Reverend any more. Born in South Carolina in 1896, Gary Davis was a self-taught itinerant guitarist-singer and touring Baptist preacher most of his life. It would have been a particularly difficult sojourn since he was born half-blind, and completely so by his mid-twenties.

But a musician preacher may have been what he was meant to be because he could sure play the hell out of his old Gibson guitar. And every ounce of pain and hope was there in his powerful voice. He was perhaps the last in a long line of religious street musicians. There are still plenty of street musicians, but no one told it like the Rev.

He recorded as early as 1935, mostly gospel songs, but blues – the Devil’s music -- as well. The recording history is as sporadic as his life. After the legendary 1933 recordings on the Perfect label, he recorded again in 1954 and 56, and a magnificent session of “holy blues” in 1960. His “Cocaine Blues” became something of an anthem when he was re-discovered by the 1960s generation of folk singers, the most famous version done by Kris Kristofferson.

And like other old blues singers from the 30s and 40s still alive and brought out of obscurity just short of the grave, he was invited to folk and blues festivals and university concerts from the 60s until his death in 1972. To that generation of hippies and flower-power children, some of whom he even deigned to teach a few licks, he was a living legend. He deserved it.

So much for the short account. But not even the most extensive biography can hope to give any indication of his searingly powerful voice and intricate playing style. His voice is like a scorching chainsaw that strips flesh from bone, and the guitar fingering deceptively stringent and simple, a two-fingered Carolina Piedmont style in which the instrument seems to speak directly for itself. Davis is said to have told a fan he only used thumb and forefinger to pluck because that’s all he needed. To hear “Great Change Since I Been Born”, or “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” is to understanding something of religion in the raw.

Like his near contemporaries Brownie McGee and Big Bill Broonzy, also street singers and guitarists, Davis deserves to be better known. He was one of the best guitarists ever to play Afro-American music, sacred or profane, and the immediate intensity in his voice reflects the hellfire and brimstone preachers of the day. His “I’ll do My Last Singing” is as movingly poignant a spiritual as you will ever hear.

There isn’t much delicacy about Davis’s playing and singing, but there’s wonderful nuance and unforgettable style. He could play and sing behind the beat or in front of it, run counter-point all over the place with such a seemingly focused abandonment he sounded as though he was making it all up on the spot.

When you think about that all-star band of blues musicians, better save a place for the Rev.

"One of these mornings and it won't be long,
You're gonna call me and I'll be gone,
I belong to the band, Hallelujah."

Discography of the Best:
Harlem Street Singer (Prestige/ Bluesville)
Rev Gary Davis at Home & Church (S. Grossman's Guitar Workshop)
Complete Early Recordings (Yazoo)
Live at Newport (Vanguard)
Pure Religion & Bad Company (Smithsonian Folkways)
Demons & Angels (Shanachie)

G. Bruce Boyer

The Trad:
How did you hear about Rev Davis?

G. Bruce Boyer:
When I was teaching in the 60s there was a big Folk Music Revival. Folk music never interested me (I remember the great jazz drummer Buddy Rich being asked if he was allergic to anything when they checked him in to the hospital for the last time: "Folk music", he said), but I got some of my some of my students interested in the Blues.

One day one of them came to me with an album I'd never seen, by a blues musician I'd never even heard of: the Rev. Gary Davis. I listened to it then and there, and was smitten: here was a guy whose guitar playing was as good as anything I'd ever heard, and he had a voice that would strip the rusted lug nuts off a 1965 Ford truck. I hate to use a feminine image, but I was vanquished. And that student unapologetically got an "A" from me.

Ever see him?

By the time I got to know of him, he was only playing big Folk festivals (as I remember), all rather far away from me. So I never got to see him in person. One of the tragedies in my life.

What is it about Davis that connects you:

I think what connects with me about Gary Davis is the same thing that connects with me about the great English writer Samuel Johnson: (1) the ability to overcome incredible hardship and produce beauty, and (2) the exquisite mastery of their craft. But, when it comes down to it, I'd be content to say that his music simply sears my heart.


How do you listen to Davis?

I like to listen to Davis in my car. I'll put on one of his albums, turn up the volume full blast, and drive around aimlessly. I know this is not environmentally correct, but it's the only way I can listen to him at full volume -- which is the way he should be heard -- and not bother anyone.


Anonymous said...

Far better:


tintin said...

Anon- I love Johnny Cash but couldn't you find a video that was less Wonder Bread?

randall said...

and here I was thinking it was going to be another post about Sgt. Nick Penis finger blasting the hand hurricanes...

I learned of the good Reverend the through the Dead; the same way I've basically learned about all the music I now listen to, Johnny Cash included.

@ Anon. I'm not really sure you can empirically say that Johnny Cash's take on that song is "far better"

Dallas said...

nothing wrong with wonder bread. great voices know not color.

see eddie hinton, steve marriott, rod stewart of faces/jeff beck group vintage.

Brohammas said...

Here I thought I was never going to be able to hang out here again.

Saying johnny Cash is better is like saying UB40 is better than Bob Marley.

tintin said...

randall- I like the rawness of Rev Davis while some people like it well done.

Dallas- For almost 30 yrs, my def of Wonder Bread was something cheesy. Like that home made video. Complete with Hallmark sunsets and unsubtle, bang-you-over-the-head, schmaltz. It can come from any race or religion.

randall said...

I can appreciate that. I actually like the harmony in the Carter Family's take better than either the Reverend or that Cash version. I've heard some Cash versions with June(see above)that kind of bring me around. Nevertheless, the Reverend does do one hell of a number on the guitar. I'm going to have to go home now and dust off my old Gary Davis CDs and go cruising a la GBB.

tintin said...

Bro- Whad I'd do that you can't hang out here? I ain't complained about Philadelphia in months.

randall- Yep. Time, place and occasion. And, there's nothing sexier than watching June Carter crack jokes at Folsom prison.

Dallas said...

tin - thanks for clarifying the wonder bread reference. thought it was color related.

Oyster Guy said...

While the Rev may not be as "polished" or "refined" as some, he sounds so real. What can it possibly mean to sound "incredibly" real?

I was glad to finally see the Nick Penis stuff. Sort of a mash up between Roy Lichtenstein and Abu Ghraib. Get it painted up on canvas and hang it in the boardrooms of defence (sorry, defense) contractors. Make a fortune!

Anonymous said...

June & Johnny:


TimL said...

Davis, of course, spent the last 20+ years of his life in NYC where his students included David Bromberg, Stefan Grossman, Dave Van Ronk, Roy Bookbinder and many others. The rest of that line-up in the "Caravan" isn't too shabby either.

tintin said...

Dallas- No problem.

Oyster Guy- Some of this is just outstanding (late '70s for 'awesome')art. Especially the wide panavision panels.

BenMN said...

What a great post! Thank you, thanks to the late Gary Davis, and to Stefan Grossman for transcribing his work so I can fumble my way through it. Do you like Jorma's versions? Quah was a fantastic album, in my opinion. Ever listen to Mississippi John Hurt?

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