|Ian Zack Interview||Interview||Say 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||Cocaine||Blues & Ragtime|
|Rev. Gary Davis||Samson and Delilah||Harlem Street Singer|
|Rev. Gary Davis||O, Glory||Apostolic Studio Sessions|
|Rev. Gary Davis||Crucifixion||A Little More Faith|
|Rev. Gary Davis||The Boy Was Kissing The Girl||The Guitar And Banjo Of Reverend Gary Davis|
|Rev. Gary Davis||Candy Man||The 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 Band||Harlem 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 Home||Rev. Blind Gary Davis 1935-1949|
In 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.
|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.)
–Ian Zack Interview [edited] (MP3, 37 min.)