The volume at which G. Bruce Boyer listens to Gary Davis’ heart-searing sound.
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.
Discography of the Best:
Harlem Street Singer (Prestige/ Bluesville)
Complete Early Recordings (Yazoo)
Live at Newport (Vanguard)
Pure Religion & Bad Company (Smithsonian Folkways)
Demons & Angels (Shanachie)
G. Bruce Boyer
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.
Image of poster advertising appearance of Rev. Gary Davis, Birmingham, 1964, courtesy of the author