Rev Gary Davis: From Blues To Gospel


Summary

Format: CD

Genre:  Blues/ragtime

Tracks:  13

Playing time:  50 minutes

Availability (out of 3):  3

Related website(s):  http://reverenddavis.org/

My rating: 10/10

I like…  The impassioned singing, the energy and variations of the guitar playing

I’m less keen on…  Nothing – this is authentic blues – allowance needs to be made for the lack of polish! 

__________

I first encountered Rev Gary Davis’ name in guitar tuition books in the early 1980s. I bought a vinyl album containing some of his 1960s recordings (some of which feature on this CD) and, although I wasn’t keen on some of them, others blew me away. I have a number of CDs of his recordings from this period, but I think that this one makes an excellent starting point for his music, especially given the album’s price.

Who?

Although blind from early childhood, by the age of eight or nine, Rev Davis had learned to play guitar, banjo and harmonica. He played and sang on sidewalks to make a living, and mentored Blind Boy Fuller, even claiming that Fuller owed him everything he knew, which seems a little exaggerated. He also made some recordings in the 1930s, but remained aggrieved for the rest of his days about the lack of remuneration he received. This affected his attitude to making recordings in later life. He died in 1972.

As with a number of other black bluesmen who had recorded in the 1920s and 1930s he was rediscovered in the American folk revival of the 1960s.

Rev Davis and Gibson SJ200 guitar

He was, however – and remains – very much a guitarist’s guitarist. Partly this was due to the large proportion of gospel material that he performed in later life, which did not strike an immediate chord with his hearers (he was ordained to the Christian ministry in 1937).

Also by the 1960s, his voice was gruff, coarsened by years of singing and preaching on street corners, and also no doubt by years of cigar smoking. His singing was often indistinct and punctuated by grunts and sniffs. His guitar playing was similarly unrefined and unpolished, punctuated at times by buzzes and the duff note.

Why bother?

On the other hand, he was able to finger some clever chords, his playing had a raw energy to it, driven by striking bass lines, syncopations, improvisations and dazzling bursts of single-string notes that punctuated the bass/treble string backbone accompaniment.

He played very emphatically, using only the thumb and first finger of his right hand to strike the notes, and usually wore a metal fingerpick to enhance and magnify the sound, and to lend drive. These picks are a kind of ring with an extended section to substitute for the fingertip/fingernail.

 

No doubt he had needed to develop a loud and arresting playing style for playing on busy street corners. In a recording the sound comes across as big, brash and, when playing ragtimey tunes, swaggering. The “big” sound was aided by the big-bodied acoustic guitars he played: a 12-string Bozo or a Gibson SJ200 jumbo guitar.

 

With Bozo 12-string guitar

It’s hardly surprising that numerous budding guitar players made their way to his home for lessons. Some, like Stefan Grossman and Woody Mann, became adept performers and teachers in their own right (and continue to do so) Some were driven to distraction: having almost learned a piece one week, he would play it quite differently the following week. Rather than allow students to learn a piece by heart, he wanted them to develop a feel for it and the ability to play the same tune with variations.

On one of the tracks on this album – I’m not saying which! – we have the Reverend hammering notes out with his left hand while clicking the fingers of his right hand or tapping them on the top of the guitar!

In addition, whatever your opinion of his singing in general and of his gospel songs in particular, there is no denying that the ageing gent in the 1960s sang his gospel pieces with genuine power and conviction.

The CD

comes in a jewel case and the sleeve consists of an eight-page booklet of biographical information. The cover is a rather insipid greenish tone, but there is nothing insipid about the music!  About forty percent of the songs are secular (and start the album) and the remaining sixty percent are gospel songs. One of the secular tracks is a guitar instrumental, and another is a blues-harmonica piece.

It plays for about 50 minutes and contains 13 tracks.

It should perhaps be mentioned that Rev Davis was seventy-six years old when these recordings were made!

 The tracks

Talk On The Corner; Sally Where’d You Get Your Whiskey

These two songs were on my vinyl years ago and I loved them as soon as I heard them. “Whiskey” is a misprint in the title and should read “liquor”.

“Talk” is a great start, and depicts a man in the street bragging to his mates about the good woman he has found. I have a Rev Davis banjo version of this song on another album, but I much prefer this one on guitar.

 

“Sally” starts with a spoken introduction: “Now this gal… she met a man by the name of Peter. Now it was known that Peter could break every woman he got hold of, but this was one woman he got hold of that he couldn’t do a thing with, y’understand? And when he died she had this condolence set over him…”

 

Both these tunes have a swagger and ragtime bounce to them with some great riffs and improvisations. Guitar players in particular, but anyone else who listens carefully will find a lot going on in the playing of both these.

 Crow Jane

is a medium tempo blues instrumental and, again, it repays careful listening as there’s some fine playing on it.

Eagle Rocking Blues

proves that Rev Davis could play slower pieces with equal skill. As often, he half-speaks and half-sings the words.

Cocaine Blues (aka “Coco Blues”)

is one of my favourite Rev Davis songs, with a more gentle and lilting feel than he usually adopted. It uses what he slightly disparagingly called “old-fashioned” picking with the thumb playing a fairly straightforward “alternating bass style” so typical of much country blues. I’ve described the technique in some of my other posts.

Cocaine was sold legitimately in American drug stores in the 1920s and 1930s and was often affectionately and euphemistically termed “coffee”. It was pretty low-calibre stuff by modern standards but in the refrain of the song “Cocaine… got all around my brain…”

 

What really sets this apart to me, though, is the gorgeous and scintillating guitar break that the Rev plays. I had an instructional guide to this on a Stefan Grossman VHS. He tells how the solo blew him away when he first heard it in Rev Davis’ sitting room, too.

Samson And Delilah (aka “If I Had My Way”)

No need to describe the verve of the singing or the ragtime drive on this gospel song – have a listen!

I Heard The Angels Singing

The contemporary blues singer Eric Bibb has a version of this, it’s certainly more polished than the version here that inspired him, but what it has gained in finesse it has lost in conviction and energy.

One repeated riff holds this together pretty much throughout. To me it has something of a mesmerising effect and makes the song more intense. It’s an oft-repeated “crossroads” theme in old gospel songs where a person finds himself seeking redemption only to be told by the devil it’s too late.

There are some fine guitar breaks in addition to the main riff, too.

Lord I Wish I Could See

is a bluesy song with some ragtimey guitar syncopations, which, to me, is quite moving, given the Reverend’s own blindness.

Down By The River

A more upbeat song with appropriately more ragtimey playing here, it’s a strong inclusion on the album.

I’ll Do My Last Singing

As mentioned, not everyone will warm to the Reverend’s gospel material, but this is a worthy inclusion on the album. As with “Down By The River” I find it quite moving to hear an old man singing about the next life. This one has a slower tempo and again has some great guitar on it. I particularly like the introduction to this song.

 

Overall comments

The Rev Gary Davis was, frankly, an acoustic guitar blues and ragtime genius whose material has often been covered by others but whose adeptness has never really been captured, and I feel that anyone with a liking for blues or ragtime guitar should give this a try.

 

Although his gruff vocals and, at times, slightly rough guitar playing may put off some potential listeners, this is blues and blues-related music and really isn’t intended to be delivered in a silken voice and accompanied by gentle guitar playing.

 

In addition, although this album represents the Rev Davis’ work in the 1960s/early 1970s, what you have here is most definitely authentic acoustic blues and ragtime, from a performer who had performed this and similar material when blues records were in their infancy.

I’ve read in a blues CD book that this isn’t the best introduction to Rev Davis, but I beg to differ. Although I think that overall “Blues And Ragtime” is a slightly better starting point, this album is at least as good an introduction to the Reverend as that one.

My rating has to be 10/10!

__________

Although this is a non-profit-making blog, I am anxious to credit illustrations:

“Rev Davis and Gibson SJ200 guitar”: https://media2.wnyc.org/i/1200/627/l/80/1/92640758.jpg

“With Bozo 12-string guitar”: http://soozebluesjazz.weebly.com/uploads/6/9/2/4/6924732/2322340_orig.jpg

 

 

 

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Author: mostlyacousticsteve

My musical interests are mainly (but not exclusively) “folk” and acoustic blues music. I aim to publish a post about every two weeks. Although I'm in my 50s I'm new to blogging - please bear with me. My other interests are playing acoustic guitar, photography and wildlife.

1 thought on “Rev Gary Davis: From Blues To Gospel”

  1. I hadn’t heard of coke being referred to as “coffee”, that’s certainly a less obvious way of asking for some if you were so inclined.
    It’s good to see you back, Steve!
    Caz 🙂

    Like

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