The Life And Musical Genius Of Rev. Gary Davis
The folk music boom that started in the 1950s, before peaking in the following decade, not only brought fame to artists like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Bob Dylan. It also lead to the rediscovery of many legendary acoustic blues musicians who seemed to step out of the mists of time to play music that had been only been heard by a small contingent of avid record collectors. Artists like Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and Mississippi Fred McDowell were considered real folk music performers who moved from from obscure rural lives to international acclaim.
Rev. Gary Davis never really needed to be rediscovered. He “hiding in plain sight” in New York City, moving there in 1944 with his wife, Annie, so she could be closer to her daughters. Born in South Carolina, Davis lost his sight a few weeks after his birth due to chemicals used to treat an ailment. Raised by his grandmother, a religious woman, Davis sang in the church choir. He also learned to play the harmonica at a young age, imitating the sounds of the animals raised on their hard-scrabble farm.
Once he heard the sounds created be an itinerant musician, the aspiring musician found one of his life’s callings. Likening what he heard to the sound of the brass band, Davis pleaded with his mother for a guitar of his own. In the meantime, he made his own from boards and baling wire. Finally, his mother spent $2.50 to get her son an instrument with “a fine tone”. It became his constant companion, to the chagrin of his grandmother. Davis was schooled on the guitar by other local players, with Willie Walker being a prominent teacher. Walker passed away at a young age, leaving four sides cut for Columbia Records to serve as his legacy.
At twenty- one years of age, Davis left the farm and began traveling the countryside, stopping to play on street corners in towns along the way to finance his travels. By now he had developed a style of playing the guitar that was second to none, allowing him to standout in any situation. His rapid-fire single note runs and complex chording allowed him to standout amongst the other musicians vying for the attention of passersby. Davis was playing the blues while coping with the issues of being blind and alone while traveling through unfamiliar locales.
The passing of his mother in 1934 caused a spiritual awakening that stuck with Davis the rest o his life. He recorded fifteen sides in 1935 for ARC Records, mostly spirituals, including classics like “Twelve Gates To The City” and “The Great Change in Me”. Two years later he was ordained as a minister in a Baptist church. Rev. Davis took his calling seriously, going out on the streets to evangelize in the name of the Lord, using his deep, booming voice and magnificent guitar playing to get people to stop and listen to his message of salvation. Once he and Annie were settled in New York, Davis made the rounds of a network of storefront churches throughout the city dressed in his trademark suit and tie.
Through extensive and well-documented research, author Ian Zack recounts the impact Rev. Davis had on several generations of guitar players, many of whom were fortunate enough to take lessons from him. Davis only charged $5, no matter how long the lesson lasted – sometimes for hours if the teacher and student really connected. Dave Van Ronk, Larry Johnson, Jorma Kaukonen, Roy Book Binder, Ry Cooder, Stefan Grossman, and Bob Weir all fell under the spell of Davis’s intricate guitar work.
Throughout the 60s decade, Davis played gigs in folk and blues clubs across the country plus tours of the United Kingdom. Once he returned home, it was back to preaching, saving souls and teaching others his guitar techniques. In the final years of his life, after resisting numerous requests, Rev. Davis finally started adding some of the blues material to his setlists, but only when his wife wasn’t around. He also found it hard to stay away from alcohol and women, who were enamored by a highlight of his live show where he would play amazing guitar with one hand while the other arm was wrapped tightly around a female from the audience sitting on his lap.
When Davis died from a heart attack at the age of seventy-six, he left behind a recorded legacy that attests to his amazing guitar and vocal skills. His influence lives on in the music created by all of his students and the generations who have learned from them. Thanks to Ian Zack, we now have a biography that serves as a testament to Rev. Gary Davis and his spiritual strength that allowed him to carve a permanent place in blues history.