"More than three decades after his death, the influence of Reverend Gary Davis can still be felt. As each new generation is introduced to blues, folk, and other forms of traditional American music,
Davis' signature guitar stylings and heartfelt vocals continue to move, entertain, and educate."
- Paul Andersen
"He was the most fantastic guitarist I'd ever seen."
-Dave Van Ronk
"Rev. Davis taught me, by example, to completely throw out my preconceptions of what can or can't be done on the guitar."
-Bob Weir (of the Grateful Dead)
"Gary Davis took you out of playing baby guitar and made you play it like a grown man."
"In Davis we encounter a complete musician, a composer aware of all musical details, exploring new possibilities. Davis has not been acclaimed as Robert Johnson, yet he alone brought many traditions to culmination through an artistry which surpassed nearly all others during his lifetime."
Reverend Gary Davis, also Blind Gary Davis, (April 30, 1896 – May 5, 1972), son of John and Evelina Davis; married Annie Bell Wright, 1937, was an American blues and gospel singer and guitarist, who was also proficient on the banjo and harmonica. His finger-picking guitar style influenced many other artists and his students in New York included Stefan Grossman, David Bromberg, Roy Book Binder, Larry Johnson, Woody Mann, Nick Katzman, Dave Van Ronk, Tom Winslow, Rory Block, and Ernie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead, Jackson Browne, Townes van Zandt, Wizz Jones, Jorma Kaukonen, Keb' Mo', Ollabelle, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, and Resurrection Band. Also John Sebastian of the Loving Spoonful.
Reverend Gary Davis was a towering figure in at least two realms. As a finger-style guitarist he developed a complex yet swinging approach to picking that has influenced generations of players, including Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, Dave Van Ronk, Jorma Kaukonen and Stefan Grossman. And as a composer of religious and secular music he created a substantial body of work that has been recorded by, among others, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Peter Paul & Mary and the Grateful Dead, Ry Cooder, not to mention Davis's own releases.
These musicians in turn delivered his bluesy gospel message to a world-wide audience. Songs like "Baby, Can I Follow You Down," "Candy Man," and "Samson and Delilah" define the common perception of American folk blues.
Photo by John Cohen of the Rev. in a grocery store in Bronx, NY, c. 1952-1954
According to guitarist and author Stefan Grossman, Davis said he was three weeks old when he became blind from chemicals put in his eyes. Despite this affliction, he showed musical talent immediately, making his first guitar from a pie pan and a stick before he was ten.
Started playing guitar at age six; became a street singer, playing ragtime, spirituals and dance music; moved to Durham, North Carolina, 1927; became an ordained Baptist minister, 1933; made first recordings with the American Record Company, 1935; moved to Mamaroneck, New York, then New York City, 1940; sang on the streets of Harlem and preached at the Missionary Baptist Connection Church; recorded on Stinson Records, Riverside, Prestige and Folkways; recorded Harlem Street Spirituals, Riverside Records, 1956; taught guitar to many aspiring musicians, such as Dave Van Ronk and the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir; toured Great Britain, 1964; appeared at Newport Folk Festival, 1968; appeared in movie Black Roots, 1970.
One of eight children, Gary was raised by his grandmother on a farm near Greenville, South Carolina after his father decided that his mother could not care for him properly. In the South of the early 1900s street bands provided entertainment, often traveling through the small towns on wagons. The music the young Davis picked up on was a lively combination of spirituals sung in black churches, square dance music, and marches by popular figures such as John Phillips Sousa. Davis's distinctive style can be seen as an attempt to translate these types of music to the guitar. In an interview with Sam Charters, Davis said of his chosen instrument: "The first time I ever heard a guitar, I thought it was a brass band coming through. I was a small kid and I asked my mother what it was and she said that was a guitar."
As a youth, Davis sang at the Center Raven Baptist Church in Gray Court, South Carolina. Later, he played in a string band in Greenville and learned to read Braille at the Cedar Springs School for Blind People in Spartanburg. After slipping on ice and breaking his wrist, the bones were set badly, and he was forced to play with an oddly cocked left hand. This may have become an advantage as it allowed him to finger the chords in a unique way. In 1931 Davis moved to Durham, North Carolina, where he met Blind Boy Fuller, another of many blind street musicians of the time. Music was often the only occupation available to these men and their ranks boasted such legendary figures as Blind Lemon Jefferson from Texas, Blind Eubie Blake, Georgia's Blind Willie McTell and Louisiana's Blind Willie Johnson. From the necessity of playing on the street came a style that was forceful and clear, with crowd-pleasing melodies around which the singer invented showy guitar riffs.
From the perspective of his one hundredth birthday (April 30, 1896 in Laurens, South Carolina -- he died on May 5, 1972 in Hammonton, New Jersey), the Davis legacy looms especially large. Early musical experiences at Center Raven Baptist Church in Gray Court, South Carolina, were at the core of strong religious convictions that helped him cope with blindness, and in 1933 he was ordained as minister of the Free Baptist Connection Church in Washington, North Carolina. For years he toured as a singing gospel preacher and also sang on the streets, mostly in Durham. During this period he crossed paths and eventually recorded with Blind Boy Fuller and other "Piedmont style" musicians, including Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry.
By 1940 Reverend Davis had found his way to New York City, where he was ordained minister of Missionary Baptist Connection Church. Here his recording career began in earnest, first for Asch and Folkways Records (now available on Smithsonian/Folkways), and later for Prestige (now available on Fantasy).
Starting in the late 1950's, as folk music became popular on campuses and in coffee houses, Davis was "discovered" by a largely educated, middle-class audience that, at least at first, was more interested in his hot guitar licks and blues-holler style of singing than in his specific religious message. While the Reverend was not above responding to this more secular audience (for whom temporal songs like "Cocaine" and "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" were as exciting as gospel compositions like "Samson and Delilah" and "Death Don't Have No Mercy"), he always considered his work to be essentially religious in nature.
When students like Dave Van Ronk journeyed uptown to learn the intricacies of "Soldiers Drill" (an instrumental reworking of a couple of Sousa marches, probably remembered from childhood), Reverend Davis would extend the lesson with preaching, food and companionship. In this way he became an important mentor to the folk music revival, and eventually performed at many festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival and others. Eventually he toured in Britain, as well, where critic Robert Tilling, writing in Jazz Journal, called him "One of the finest gospel, blues, ragtime guitarists and singers.
By the 1960's Davis was represented by Folkore Productions, which also published his songs under the imprint of Chandos Music (ASCAP). Chandos and Folklore continue to administer on behalf the Reverend Gary Davis Estate, whose main beneficiary, the widow Annie Davis, dwelled for many years in the Reverend's proudest legacy, a brick house in Queens, New York.
While in Durham, Davis met and married his first wife, but left her after discovering she had been unfaithful. He then moved to Washington, North Carolina and became an ordained minister of the Free Baptist Connection Church in 1933. Davis and Blind Boy Fuller journeyed to New York City in 1935 to record for the American Record Company. Although Fuller and another blues singer, Bull City Red, were the more famous participants in these sessions, Davis was able to lay down 15 tracks, among them "I Saw the Light," "I Am the Light of the World," and "You Got to Go Down." Other musicians who recorded this brand of music, which came to be known as the "Piedmont style," included guitarist Brownie McGhee and his partner, harmonica player Sonny Terry.
In 1937 Davis married his second wife, Annie Wright, and together they moved to Mamaroneck, New York, where she found work as a housekeeper. The city's location on the Long Island Sound was close enough to New York City to put Davis in touch with the thriving music business there. He began to record again, making records for producer Moses Asch, and then for the record labels Folkways and Prestige. In 1940 Davis and his wife moved to Harlem to a house on 169th Street where they stayed for the next 18 years. There, Davis became a minister at New York's Missionary Baptist Connection Church and also taught guitar.
In 1974, Davis described his teaching style for Blues Guitar: "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. That's the greatest help! You see, one hand can't do without the other." This finger- picking style was capable of maintaining a melodic line while inserting complex harmonies. "Soldiers Drill," for example, was an instrumental reworking of some Sousa marches. Davis used a large six-string guitar, which he affectionately called "Miss Gibson" after the guitar's manufacturer.
Reverend Gary usually tuned the guitar to a relatively difficult E-B-G-D-A-E configuration rather than the "open" tuning favored by most of his fellow street musicians (who could make chords by simply barring across a fret). This provided him with a more complex set of chord possibilities. He alternated major chords and sevenths to give his music the dissonance characteristic of the blues, while picking a melody and variations of the melody. In the liner notes to Davis' album Say No to the Devil, critic Larry Cohn compared his instrumental virtuosity in this regard to that of classical guitarist Andres Segovia and banjo player Earl Scruggs.
Folk music experienced a popular revival in the late 1950s and early 1960s with a growing audience on college campuses and among hipsters in places like lower Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Peter, Paul and Mary recorded a successful version of Davis's "Samson and Delilah," also known as "If I Had My Own Way," originally a song by Blind Willie Johnson. Other young musicians eager to hear the genuine down-home blues flocked to Davis as well. David Bromberg, Taj Mahal, and Dave Van Ronk are among the many guitar players to absorb the Reverend Gary's phrases and intonations first-hand. Davis's guitar lessons at his house were often accompanied by food and drink; invariably, they contained pungent advice on many different subjects, especially religion. Davis was in his late fifties by this time, and played mostly gospel and traditional folk songs, having given up the lascivious saloon ditties of his youth.
The resurgence of American roots music and its practitioners found Davis performing at folk festivals around the country, including the Newport Folk Festival and the Philadelphia Folk Festival. His fame ultimately increased to the point that he was asked to tour Europe. Hearing him in 1962, English music critic Robert Tilling of Jazz Journal called him "one of the finest gospel, blues, ragtime guitarists and singers." In 1968 Davis bought a house in the New York City borough of Jamaica, Queens, and continued to teach and perform in the area, always accessible to scholars and the new generation of country blues guitarists. On May 5, 1972, he suffered a heart attack while on the way to a performance in Newtonville, New Jersey. He died at William Kessler Memorial Hospital and is buried in Rockville Cemetery in Lynbrook, New York.
More than two decades after his death, the influence of Reverend Gary Davis can still be felt. As each new generation is introduced to blues, folk, and other forms of traditional American music, Davis's signature guitar stylings and heartfelt vocals continue to move, entertain, and educate.
Davis reported that his father was killed in Birmingham, Alabama, when Davis was ten, and Davis later said that he had been told that his father had been shot by the Birmingham High Sheriff. He recalled being poorly treated by his mother and that before his death his father had given him into the care of his paternal grandmother.
photo by Dick Waterman
He took to the guitar and assumed a unique multi-voice style produced solely with his thumb and index finger, playing not only ragtime and blues tunes, but also traditional and original tunes in four-part harmony.
In the mid-1920s, Davis migrated to Durham, North Carolina, a major center for black culture at the time. There he collaborated with a number of other artists in the Piedmont blues scene including Blind Boy Fuller and Bull City Red. In 1935, J. B. Long, a store manager with a reputation for supporting local artists, introduced Davis, Fuller and Red to the American Record Company.
The subsequent recording sessions marked the real beginning of Davis' career. During his time in Durham, Davis converted to Christianity; in 1937 he would be ordained as a Baptist minister. Following his conversion and especially his ordination, Davis began to express a preference for inspirational gospel music.
Manchester, UK 1964, photograph by Brian Smith
In the 1940s, the blues scene in Durham began to decline and Davis migrated to New York. In 1951, well before his 'rediscovery', Davis's oral history was recorded by Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold (the wife of Alan Lomax) who transcribed their conversations into a 300+-page typescript.
The folk revival of the 1960s re-invigorated Davis' career, culminating in a performance at the Newport Folk Festival and the recording by Peter, Paul and Mary of "Samson and Delilah", also known as "If I Had My Way", originally a Blind Willie Johnson recording that Davis had popularized. Blues Hall of Fame singer and harmonica player Darrell Mansfield has also recorded several of Rev. Davis song's.
Davis died in May 1972, from a heart attack in Hammonton, New Jersey. He is buried in plot 68 of Rockville Cemetery in Lynbrook, Long Island, New York.
Life and Times. Stefan Grossman Interview
Q: When and where were you born?
A: I was born on the last day of April, which is the thirtieth, in 1896. I was raised in Laurens County, South Carolina, on a farm, way down in the sticks, too. Way down in the country, so far you couldn’t hear a train whistle blow unless it was on a cloudy day.
Q: Who raised you?
A: My grandmother mostly raised me. You see, my father gave me to my grandmother when I was a child because he knowed that there was no confidence to be put into my mother. She was always from one place to another, going from different towns and dances. Things like that. So my father gave me to my grandmother. I had one brother. He was a good guitar player. I taught him. He used to keep me up all night long to teach him how to play the guitar. He got killed in 1930. The woman he was going with killed him. (1)
My mother had only two children that lived. She had eight children. All the others died when they were babes.
Q: Did your grandparents play instruments?
A: I didn’t know anything about my grandfather on my mother’s side. All I knew was them to play the harp. I had an Uncle who played guitar.
Q: Did he play well?
A: Long about them days what they called playing well wasn’t what I could call playing well today.
Q: Did your Uncle ever show you how to play?
A: No, he never showed me nothing. Nobody ever showed me anything. I worked it out myself.
Q: Were you born blind?
A: Yes. My grandmother said I taken blind when I was three weeks old. The doctor had something put in my eyes that was too strong and that was what caused me to go blind.
Q: I thought you could see out of one eye?
A: I could tell the look of a person but to tell who it is, I’m not able to do that.
Q: What was the relationship between black and white folk down South when you were growing up?
A: You see, in those days white and colored didn’t associate like the people here in the Northern states. I had too much experience about white folk then ‘cause my grandmother always raised me up from white people. They always told me that it wasn’t so good to dwell around white people’s children. They loved to play with me but my grandmother didn’t like me to take up too much time playing with white children.
I used to play for dances for white folks all right. When I was in the country I used to play for white folk’s picnics. Every time they’d have a picnic they’d come and get me.
Q: Tell me about the dances.
A: Sometimes people get drunk and get fightin’ and shootin’. All like that happened. I would stop playing and find somewhere to go when that happened because you know me and bullets don’t set horses.
Q: What type of tunes would you play?
A: I played everything I thought of. No religious songs though. Around then I was keen in my "young ways".
Q: Were you more interested in the lyrics or type of dance step that the people could do to your music?
A: Well it depended on what type of dance they had. You see ever since I started travelling cities, I found out things are different in the cities than it is in the country. In the country they had these old stomp down dances, you understand. Played on sets. They used to have fiddle players.
Q: Did you play different tunes at a white dance than at a black dance.
A: You see, around then I played for most all of them. They were separate. I didn’t make no exceptions unless it was something someone called for. There might be some slow song that the white people like to hear me play such like "love trots."
Q: Did you go to school?
A: Yeah, I was about 18 years old when I started going to school -- Cedar Springs for Blind People.
Q: Did you go to school to learn how to read Braille?
A: I went to Spartanburg, South Carolina. The Blind Institution. I was grown then, about 19 years old. My grandmother was still alive then.
Q: How was it for a blind musician?
A: Those that were experienced of music was alright. I never knew anyone but myself who practiced guitar, a blind person.
Q: How did the people take to a blind person?
A: I can only tell you what happened to me. The white people would always come around -- and a nickel was something -- and give me a nickel to play a song.
Q: How did the black people treat you?
A: Well, some of them promised like they do now!
Q: When did you write "There Was A Time When I Went Blind"?
A: Oh, that was a long time ago, in 1911. It’s a gospel statement. It’s speaking about what happened in my life. How people put me aside.
Q: You thought that was because you were blind?
A: When I was coming up, it was so.
Q: What did you do as a kid, beside playing the guitar?
A: I raised chickens and things like that. When the chickens seen me coming, you understand, they’d light up off the ground, light up on top of me. They didn’t know what it was all about, but I did.
Q: When did you leave Laurens County?
A: After I married. Me and my first wife started travelling. I was playing from town to town. Anywhere! Playing on the streets then. I would get run off by the police more times than I can remember. But I played a long time before that laws been originated in the South. After I started travelling, thinking over my back life, my past life and the beginning of my life, I brought them all up together, all that mattered about my life. I had me some time to wonder. A man, good health, young, I couldn’t admit who would want me for anything. That used to worry me. But as I started to travel I soon got out of that. You could tell when everybody would see me walking down the street with a woman that they wouldn’t bite their tongues at all. They asked, "can’t you do no better." You understand, they thought it was a disgrace for a woman to be walking with a blind man. They thought it a shame for a woman to take up time with a blind man.
1. In another interview Rev. Davis stated that his mother "would go to town and cook for the white folks and my father stayed in trouble all the time. That’s why he gave me to my grandmother because he was in trouble all the time." And in yet another interview Rev. Davis said that his father died before "he could realize him too much."