Book Reviews

Ian Zack InterviewInterviewSay No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis
Rev. Gary Davis Lord I Wish I Could See Rev. Blind Gary Davis 1935-1949
Rev. Gary Davis CocaineBlues & Ragtime
Rev. Gary Davis Samson and Delilah Harlem Street Singer
Rev. Gary Davis O, Glory Apostolic Studio Sessions
Rev. Gary Davis CrucifixionA Little More Faith
Rev. Gary Davis The Boy Was Kissing The Girl The Guitar And Banjo Of Reverend Gary Davis
Rev. Gary Davis Candy ManThe Blues & Salvation
Rev. Gary Davis Death Don't Have No Mercy Harlem Street Singer
Rev. Gary Davis Out On The Ocean Sailing Apostolic Studio Sessions
Rev. Gary Davis You Got To Go Down Rev. Blind Gary Davis 1935-1949
Rev. Gary Davis Lord, I Looked Down The Road Say No To The Devil
Rev. Gary Davis Goin' To Sit Down On The Banks of the River Harlem Street Singer
Rev. Gary Davis Get Right Church American Street Songs
Rev. Gary Davis Hesitation Blues Blues & Ragtime
Rev. Gary Davis I Belong To The BandHarlem Street Singer
Rev. Gary Davis I Heard The Angels Singing Demons & Angels
Rev. Gary Davis Fast Fox Trot aka Buck Rag The Guitar And Banjo Of Reverend Gary Davis
Rev. Gary Davis You Can Go HomeRev. Blind Gary Davis 1935-1949

Show Notes:

ISay No To The Devil Bookn Ian Zack's new book, Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis, Zack calls Davis "arguably the greatest of all the blues-based guitarists to record before World War II" and the "…remained, up until the last years of his life, one of the world’s greatest, if not the greatest, of all traditional blues and ragtime guitarists." Davis ran with legendary bluesmen such as Willie Walker and Blind Boy Fuller down South, making his debut with fifteen sides cut in 1935 for the ARC label. In the 1940's he moved to New York where he recorded prolifically in the post-war years starting with a few scattered sides in the 1940's, more in the 1950's before really picking up steam in the 1960's. While he was never a star on the folk scene or blues revival, he attracted a flock of devoted mostly white followers who learned directly from him and many in turn became well known musicians in their own right ensuring that Davis' legacy was carried on. "Davis", Zack writes, "would come to regard many of his top students as his children, and he wanted them to carry on both his name and his music." Recent years have seen numerous posthumous releases, musical tributes, books and a movie. Say No to the Devil is a thoroughly researched and well written account of Davis' life and one of the better musical biographies in recent years.

I haven't played Davis all that much over the years on the show despite having many of his records. Reading the biography inspired me to dip back into those albums and rediscover many songs I'd half forgotten. Today we interview the author, Ian Zack, as well as playing a diverse selection of Davis' music spanning the 1930's through the 70's.

Davis was an accomplished guitar player at an early age, supposedly playing in a string band at the age of fourteen in Greenville with legendary guitarist Willie Walker (Walker recorded one 78 for Columbia in 1930, "Dupree Blue b/w South Carolina Rag"). By the late 20's Davis had moved to Durham. "For Davis", Zack writes, "the tension between the sacred and the secular world would reach a peak during his time in Durham, just when he might have been on the cusp of major success as a musician." During this period Davis described himself as a "blues cat."

In 1935 storekeeper and talent scout J. B. Long, the manager of Blind Boy Fuller "discovered" Davis. "Oh, [Gary] could play the guitar up and down, any way in the world," he later recalled (from Bruce Bastin's Red River Blues). Davis exerted a considerable influence on Fuller. Davis and Fuller were among a group of Durham musicians Long escorted to New York City to record for ARC, the race music subsidiary of Columbia Records. Between July 23 and July 26 Davis recorded 15 sides (1 unissued): ten religious songs, and two blues numbers. Sometime in the early thirties Davis had a religious awakening and by the end of the decade was an ordained minister. Long tried to get him to record again in 1939 but he declined likely because he refused to play blues. It was ten years before Davis made another record.

Rev. Gary Davis with the daughter of Alice
Ochs and Phil Ochs. Photo by Alice Ochs

In 1937 Davis married Annie Bell Wright, a woman as deeply spiritual as himself, and she looked after him devotedly until his death. In 1943 she moved to New York with Davis following in 1944. They soon moved to 169th Street in Harlem, where they lived for the next 18 years and where Davis preached in various storefront churches. During this time Davis also busked and preached on the streets: "dressed in a suit and tie, with a tin cup pinned to his overcoat or fastened to his guitar, and wearing dark aviator sunglasses over his eyes, he performed both spirituals and instrumental dance tunes-but no blues, unless he was asked to teach a song."

It didn't take Davis long to get involved with the fledgling New York folk scene. "Although folk music wouldn't hit the mainstream for more than a decade, New York already had an established folk music underground that included performers, record producers, and club owners." Davis eventually toured Europe and played at numerous folk festivals including the Cambridge and Newport Folk Festivals (1959, 1965, and 1968).

It didn't take him long to resume his recording career either. He made his first post-war sides in 1945, cut sides for Continental in 1949, recorded in 1950 with tracks appearing on the Folkways album Music in the Streets, in 1954 for the Stinson label and 1956 for Riverside. During this period the following albums were issued: The Singing Reverend w/ Sonny Terry and American Street Songs with songs split between Davis and Pink Anderson. Davis recorded in 1957 but these recordings were not released until 1963 when they were issued by the British 77 label as Pure Religion and Bad Company. His finest recordings during this period were the four he did for the Prestige label: Harlem Street Singer, Say No to the Devil, A Little More Faith and The Guitar and Banjo of Reverend Gary Davis.

A pleasant surprise in recent years are a number of unreleased Davis recordings that have surfaced. Among the notable ones include: If I Had My Way: Early Home Recordings, Demons and Angels: The Ultimate Collection (3 CD), Sun of Our Life: Solos, Songs, A Sermon, 1955-1957, Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964, Live at Gerde's Folk City (3 CD) and At Home and Church (3 CD), the latter two released by Davis ' student Stephan Grossman.

The Angel's Message To Me 78
Originally issued on ARC in 1935
then on the dime store label Melotone in 1936

Among folk revival guitar players of the 1950's and early '60s Reverend Gary Davis's finger picking style was legendary. One of the first to adopt it was Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who recorded "Cocaine Blues" and "Candyman." Dave Van Ronk studied with Davis and also covered many of his songs. Other aspiring folk guitarists and blues players swarmed to take lessons from him including Bob Weir, Stefan Grossman, Ernie Hawkins, Dion, Steve Katz, Janis Ian, Dave Bromberg, Ry Cooder, Roy Bookbinder, Larry Johnson, Jorma Kaukonen among others. As one of Davis' admirers, Terri Thal, recalled: "We worshiped him, musically. Because of Gary's musicianship-not his fame, he wasn't that famous-people were awestruck."

He "…never became an American cultural icon like Armstrong or Muddy Waters. Four decades after his death, his genius has gone largely unrecognized in the popular culture, even though he exerted a considerable influence on the folk scene of the sixties and on the early rock scene of the seventies." Undoubtedly his fame would have been greater had he chosen to focus on blues. "The business of saving souls", Zack writes, "is what occupied him, and fame didn't seem to motivate him. … It could be said that Davis turned Robert Johnson's legend on its head: he didn't sell his soul to the devil, as Johnson was rumored to have done, to acquire superhuman blues guitar chops. Rather, Davis renounced blues music in his prime and devoted his life to God as a preacher. When recording blues material might have opened doors or record producers wallets-and stamped an express ticket out of poverty-Davis refused again and again."

Ian Zack Interview [edited] (MP3, 37 min.)

Lonnie JohnsonBlue Ghost BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonMr. Johnson's SwingLonnie Johnson Vol. 1 1937-1940
Lonnie JohnsonRoamin' Rambler BluesLonnie Johnson Vol. 2 1926-1927
--=Dean Alger Interview=--
Lonnie JohnsonAway Down in the Alley BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonUncle Ned, Don't Use Your HeadUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonHave to Change Keys to Play These BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonMidnight Call BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonBackwater BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonTomorrow NightUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
ElvisTomorrow NightUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Red Nelson w/ Lonnie JohnsonHome Last NightRed Nelson 1935-1947
Lonnie JohnsonNew Orleans BluesUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Otis Spann w/ Lonnie JohnsonTrouble In Mind Ultimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonDon’t Ever LoveUltimate Best Of Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie JohnsonFalling Rain BluesThe Original Guitar Wizard
Lonnie JohnsonCan't Sleep AnymoreThe Original Guitar Wizard
Louis ArmstrongI'm Not RoughThe Original Guitar Wizard
Lonnie Johnson & Clara SmithYou're Getting Old on Your JobYou're Getting Old on Your Job
Lonnie Johnson Lines In My FaceLosing Game
Lonnie JohnsonLonnie's Traveling LightSpivey's Blues Parade

Show Notes:

Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie Johnson (left) in 1941. Photo by Russell Lee (Library of Congress).

Dear old New Orleans, they call it the land of dreams

Yes, dear old New Orleans, it’s known for the land of dreams
It’s my old hometown, it’s dear old New Orleans

I first spoke with Dean Alger back in 2009 when his biography of Lonnie Johnson was very much a work in progress. Back then the book was tentatively titled The Second Most Important Musician of the Twentieth Century. Dean sent me some rough chapters back then and I was impressed with what I saw but I was bit skeptical as I knew that writing a biography on someone like Lonnie, who was always reticent to give details of his life plus the sheer length of his career, would make this a daunting job. I'm happy to say that Dean has done a fine job tackling the task and the now published and retitled The Original Guitar Hero and The Power of Music, is not only well researched look at Lonnie's life and music but also goes to great lengths to place Lonnie's music in a cultural context.

Lonnie has always been one of my favorites and I've probably devoted more shows to him than anyone else. Despite his huge influence and impressive output I don't think Lonnie ever gets the respect he deserves. It's an odd thing among blues collectors that many worship the obscure and rare, the rough and unpolished, and dismiss those artists who were more polished and those that had a high degree of popularity like Lonnie. Dean clearly understands Lonnie's influence as he writes "…Lonnie Johnson was the leading original force in moving the guitar to be the dominant instrument of the second half of the twentieth century to today. …Further Lonnie's singing influenced major singers in twentieth century music…" This combination, Dean notes, made Lonnie "the first musician to present the smoother, more sophisticated 'urban blues' (in contrast to the old Country Blues) which were a prime force leading to Rhythm & Blues and then Rock & Roll."

Lonnie Johnson was a true musical innovator who's remarkable recording career spanned from the 1920's through the 1960's. During that time his musical diversity was amazing: he played piano, guitar, violin, he recorded solo, he accompanied down home country blues singers like Texas Alexander, he played with Louis Armtrong's Hot Fives, recorded with Duke Ellington, duetted with Victoria Spivey and cut a series of instrumental duets with the white jazzman Eddie Lang that set a standard of musicianship that remains unsurpassed by blues guitarists. In Johnson's single-string style lie the basic precedents of such jazz greats as Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, while being a prime influence on bluesman as diverse as Robert Johnson, Tampa Red and B.B. King. Thus Johnson enjoys the rare distinction of having influenced musicians in both the jazz and blues fields. While his guitar skills have been justly celebrated less has been said about his bittersweet vocals, tinged with a world weary sadness and capable of a rare subtly and nuance. It was a perfect match for his well crafted and imaginative songs filled with dark imagery, longing and an unflinchingly misogynist view of woman and love.

Lonnie Johnson BookOn today’s program we cover a wide swath of Johnson’s career, spinning tracks spanning from 1927 to 1963. The bulk of the tracks from were selected by Dean. Most of those tracks come from a CD he calls the Ultimate "Best Of" Lonnie Johnson, a 23 track selection that is a companion to he book and available through Dean's website. Below is background on some of the songs played today.

Either the 1927 version "Roamin’ Rambler Blues" or the 1942 was a favorite recording of B.B. King. As Dean notes: "Lonnie's singing on his 1927 recording is particularly resonant, with a mellow feel. My ears tell me that Lonnie was the influenced one here, since he seems to have drawn on the resonant, mellow, soulful Texas Alexander offered on sides on which Lonnie accompanied him that same day. The song had quintessential Lonnie J guitar work; and he embellished each vocal line at the end with elegantly finger-picked descending lines, with a harmonic jump up the scale at the end, employing his exquisite touch and tone."

On February 21, 1928 Lonnie cut four remarkable instrumentals: "Away Down in the Alley Blues", "Playing With The Strings", "Stompin' 'em Along Slow" and "Blues in G." As Dean writes: "Playing With The Strings" received more attention, but "Away Down in the Alley Blues" was an even better composition and display of unequaled guitar virtuosity. …Of special importance is the masterful thematic  coherence. In the midst of all that, he also keeps an underlying propulsive beat going, and regularly adds exquisite harmonic touches. He guitar work on these recordings exemplifies how Lonnie enlarged the language of the guitar for jazz and blues."

"The Lonnie Johnson-Eddie Lang duets have been celebrated ever since as among the great guitar achievements of the century in popular music. But amazingly, in December 1931, Lonnie may have exceeded even those duets  in what is one of the most stunning virtuoso guitar performances on record. The recording in question is "Uncle Ned" (full title: "Uncle Ned, Don't Lose Your Head"). …Lonnie takes this old Negro folk song and turns it into a vehicle for the most dazzling, blaze-fingered, virtuoso guitar work."

"The ten guitar duets Lonnie and Eddie Lang recorded were landmarks in guitar history. As British blues and popular music writer Tony Russell has written: "It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this handful of discs." They were also sociological landmarks as the first full partner interracial recordings." From these sessions we play "Midnight Call Blues" and "Have to Change Keys to Play These Blues."

"Backwater Blues" was recorded by Bessie Smith February 17, 1927 and covered by Lonnie  a month later and again in 1948. Today we feature the later version. Dean comments that "…many have missed the artistic value of this "Backwater Blues" because they have too narrow a notion of great guitar playing as being only about fast finger-work and razzle-dazzle. Musical art is much more than that, which Lonnie demonstrated with this recording. He tops it off with truly masterful singing. From the first notes, Lonnie employs rich, resonant vocal tone, among his best ever, great dynamics and nuance, and with his vocal lines and inflections he compellingly conveys the meaning of the lyrics and the feeling of people experiencing  this natural disaster. In short with this recording, Lonnie Johnson refuter demonstrated he'd reached the level of greatness as a singer."

Lonnie recorded the biggest hit of his career, “Tomorrow Night,” for King Records in Cincinnati, released in 1948.That song resonated with musicians who became legendary: B.B. King, Buddy Guy & Robert Lockwood, Jr., all told me they were moved by it. BB covered it on his 2008 CD, One Kind Favor. Bob Dylan covered it, using Lonnie’s phrasing, on his 1992 CD, Good As I Been To You. (Dylan and Lonnie connected at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village in 1961, and cd-lonnie-bedbugLonnie gave Bob some tips on guitar.) The other most notable musician influenced by “Tomorrow Night” was Elvis Presley.  As Peter Gurlanick reported in his major Elvis biography: "In 1953 to 1954, 'Tomorrow Night" was a song Elvis sang all the time.”

"Home Last Night" finds Lonnie playing lead electric guitar on a son sung by Red Nelson. "This recordings has a driving Rhythm & Blues feel, rockin' rhythm and style on the guitar by Lonnie, and what, seven to ten years later, became the essence of the early electric guitar and overall sound of the recordings that established the new musical genre of Rock & Roll."

"Don't Ever Love" comes from Lonnie's 1960 comeback for Prestige/Bluesville titled Blues By Lonnie Johnson. "Most striking on "Don't Ever Love" is Lonnie's vocal artistry. The man who was an ultimate virtuoso guitarist  in popular music  sings with such power, nuance, dynamics, expressiveness, timing, and meaningful phrasing on this recording that shows, even more compellingly, how he had achieved the level of greatness in his singing, as well."

In 1963 Lonnie toured Europe as part of the American Folk Blues Festival. During that tour he recorded a wonderful session with pianist Otis Spann in Copenhagen for the Storyville label. From that session we feature "Trouble In Mind."

"New Orleans Blues" is one of my favorite Lonnie songs issued on the album Blues, Ballads, and Jumpin' Jazz, Vol. 2 which also features Elmer Snowden. Elmer asks Lonnie to sing one from his old hometown and Lonnie responded with this beautifully, dreamy nostalgic number. As Dean writes: "He sings the lyrics with an extraordinary depth of feeling, with excellent timing and phrasing,with knowing strategic use of syncopation , and with verve, yet in a smooth lyrical manner." Along with "Backwater Blues" and "Don't Ever Love", Dean lists this as one of Lonnie's finest vocal performances.

Like "Backwater Blues", "Broken Levee Blues", recorded the same year is another response to the great flood of 1927. In addition to the fine singing and playing, Dean notes that the song has a "deeper dimension. …The song's lyrics express striking protest about the means by which the levees along Mississippi were maintained, a system which a few years later was called a new from of 'Mississippi Slavery' by Roy Wilkins of the NAACP." As David Evanes notes: "In many places Black men who tried to leave the area, even those who were simply passing through, were arrested by White police and National Guard troops and forced to work on the levees"

Related Listening:

Dean Alger Interview/Feature (95 min., MP3)



Kennedy's Blues

Kennedy's Blues is the third volume in Guido Van Rijn's groundbreaking series of books focusing on topical blues and gospel songs. The critically praised Roosevelt Blues kicked off the series in 1997, an examination of all the blues and gospel songs during Roosevelt's administration that contained political commentary and doing the same with 2004's The Truman And Eisenhower Blues. In Kennedy's Blues Rijn turns his attention on the Kennedy years (1961-1963) once again exhaustively analyzing seemingly every blues and gospel song with political content and providing an invaluable and previously untapped source on how Kennedy was viewed in the African American community.

Roosevelt was considered the "poor man's friend" and the lyrical evidence suggests he was viewed "as a benevolent and powerful patron or 'bossman'" while Truman was seen as much more fallible and "unresponsive to the economic plight of black people as well as their growing demands for equal rights." Kennedy's reputation, particularly in the early years, was rather ambivalent but his death, as the lyrical evidence makes clear, "virtually eradicated any criticism of his international or political policies and left him an unadulterated hero."

In his perceptive foreword, Brian Ward notes that "Kennedy's Blues can be said to feature a series of musical 'editorials' on the state of black America and it's collective investment in the promise of the Kennedy administration during the early 1960's." In addition, of course, are the large cache of memorial songs Rijn examines in the wake of Kennedy's tragic murder. Particularly valuable is Rijn's examination of recorded sermons and the records by black comedians like Slappy White and Dick Gregory. As Rijn notes, this book, like the previous volumes, attempts to "restore the silenced voices" and "lost consciousness" of African Americans. The difference is that overt political commentary was rare in recorded blues and gospel prior to the 1960's but became increasingly more common afterwards; 95 percent of the songs in the book were issued while in Roosevelt's era it was 22 percent and 20 percent in the Truman and Eisenhower eras. In all 131 songs are mentioned (89 studied in full) with chapters dealing with the Kennedy myth, cold war, space race, economy, civil rights and the assassination.

While overt criticism against Kennedy, like FDR, was virtually nonexistent there was, as in previous eras, many songs concerned about war and the economy. The draft (300,000 were called up in the winter of 1961) and the Bay of Pigs were primary concerns in the chapter JFK Says I've Got To Go: songs documented include Wilbert Harrison's "Drafted", Lightnin' Hopkins' "War Is Starting Again", Bo Diddley's "Mr. Krushchev", J.D. Short's harrowing "Fighting For Dear Old Uncle Sam" among others. Unemployment and poverty cast a shadow over the Kennedy era as documented in the chapter named after the Freddy King song, The Welfare Turns Its Back On You: songs examined include Jimmy Lee Robinson's "Times Is Hard", Chuck Brown "Hard Times At My Door" and Emmanuel Laskey's "Welfare Cheese" to cite a few.

The lengthiest chapters, March On, Dr. Martin Luther King and The Day The World Stood Still, deal with the increasingly turbulent civil rights movement and the assassination of Kennedy. Rijn tackled the movement's beginnings in The Truman And Eisenhower Blues in the chapters "The Freedom Choo Choo" dealing with the mid to late 40's and in "Alabama Bus" when the mass civil rights movement began to coalesce in the 50's. As Champion Jack Dupree explained: "I don't know anything about politics and that thing but I have seen the mess they have done out of people's life. I've seen these things, so when I sing I can really sing what's going on. If I stand on a box and tell people of all the wrong in the world, people wouldn't listen. But if I sing it on records all around the world everybody will know. That's the way we have to get our message out in the world to the people. …We couldn't stand up like the white men and speak. If we did, we would be killed or put in jail."

Not surprisingly Kennedy's assassination provoked an outpouring of memorial songs where "the deceased president emerges as a near-saint. As Rijn notes, "the blues and gospel singers' president was in heaven now. Like Christ he had died for our sins." Indeed Kennedy's death is often compared to the crucification of Christ a theme hammered home in gospel songs and sermons like Rev. Omie L. Holliday's "The Assassination of President Kennedy and the Crucification of Christ." The popularity of recorded sermons in the 1920's and 1930's was revived in the 1960's (now benefiting from the LP where sermons could be recorded in full) and Rijn goes at length to examine several of these which provide a rich vein of social commentary.

"Kennedy's Blues", like previous volumes, is an invaluable and illuminating look at the forgotten voices and opinions of African Americans "at a crucial, transitional moment in the black experience, just as a new era of mass activism and protest began." Through prodigious research and examining sources long ignored, Rijn has skillfully brought this era into sharper focus. I also have it on good authority that Rijn plans further sequels which is certainly good news.

As with previous books there is a companion CD featuring 28 of the songs discussed in the book. To order the CD visit: