Breaking Down Schisms With Blues Activism
Midway through our roving conversation, Guy Davis explains his first meeting with Robert Jr. Lockwood.
“In 1993, I went down to Memphis to accept the Keeping The Blues Alive Award which, at the time was called the W.C. Handy Awards. I received it for my portrayal of Robert Johnson in Trick the Devil. I go out on stage and Robert Cray hands me the award.
Out in the audience are Buddy Guy and the late Johnny Clyde Copeland. My mom is there. All the Blues luminaries are there including Robert Lockwood, Jr. Now Robert Jr. Lockwood, as he was called, learned a lot of his Blues directly from Robert Johnson
After the awards ceremony there was a jam session on Beale Street in an auditorium. You could actually walk from the aisle of the auditorium, right up some steps onto the stage. So I got a chance to play a short acoustic set. That did it!
As I was coming off the stage at the end of my set, I looked way up to the top of the aisle at the back of the auditorium. Robert Lockwood, Jr. was standing under an exit sign. He raised his hand to beckon me to come to him.
I’m thinking, damn man, if he accepts me, I’ll be part of the Blues Mafia and I’ll never have to explain again that the only cotton I’ve ever picked is my underwear off the floor. So I walked up that aisle and put the most humble expression on my face that I could find. I slowed down as I got to him and it was if I was bowing to him, like he was the Godfather. Robert Lockwood put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘Son, do you know where the bathroom is?’
It was like he saw right through me. I can say, I told him where to go. It was funny. I thought I was some hot shit and all he wanted was to know how to get to the shit house! And from that time on we were friends. That broke me down. Playing Robert Johnson in Trick The Devil brought me a lot of good stuff, both onstage and off.”
The stage is linked directly to the DNA of Guy Davis. It is his muse. Most baby-boomers familiar with African-American film and stage know that the Bluesman’s parents, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were groundbreaking, critically acclaimed thespians. Combined, they appeared in close to 300 film, television and stage productions. Ossie Davis also had director’s credit on five films.
Guy Davis’s own acting career stretches back at least as far as his 1984 lead role with Rae Dawn Chong in Beat Street. He had a steady television roll as Dr. Josh Hall for two seasons on the seminal soap opera One Life To Live. The aforementioned Trick The Devil, was an off-Broadway production. Before that, in 1991, he made it to the bright lights of Broadway in the Langston Hughes/Nora Neale Hurston Musical Mulebone. He created and wrote his own one man theater piece, In Bed With The Blues: The Adventures of Fishy Waters. Davis’s other theater and writing projects have been met with critical acclaim. Though his acting chops commingle with his musical endeavors, for the past twenty-plus years he has focused his artistic expression on acoustic Folk Blues. There was a time though, before he even picked up an instrument when the music of Leadbelly got to him.
“Before I heard his music, I saw people playing his music on12 string guitars, although I didn’t know it had to do with him. I couldn’t play any instrument at the time. All I could do was kinda dance around and fall over the furniture. That was because it got into me, got in my bones. Then people would talk about him. Sometimes they would substitute the character Lost John. Or, Long Gone Lost John, that character who was gettin’ away from the Captain and the hound dogs. He had a special pair of shoes, with a heel in the front and a heel in the back, so they couldn’t tell which way he was runnin’. And then, sometimes they would substitute Leadbelly for the Lost John. But yeah, I definitely have a soft spot for Leadbelly.”
Guy Davis’s soft spot also includes a deep reverence for the Blues and what it means to him.
“I believe the Blues is an endangered species. Much of the support you hear about coming to the Blues is provided by Caucasian folks. They go down there and say hey, this cat was a treasure.”
“Now with Black folks, so much of our time and effort is spent trying to get ahead, we don’t even think about that; the ones that came before. We don’t think about some of the older music because it was back there in the direction of slave times, minstrel times, shufflin’ with the banjo and things like that. I think it is time for us to stand up and take ownership of our music. We may never get it back financially cuz whatever money is being made from the Blues to a large part is not being made by the descendents of the people who invented the music. But we gotta take emotional ownership of it. We’ve got to stand up, learn it and know it. The Blues is a collection of stories connected to us, made up of our flesh.
In the Guy Davis archives, there is a radio interview that quotes his dad, Ossie Davis as saying, “There is not a Black man in America that has not sold his soul to the devil.”
Guy Davis clarified the quote for Blues Blast.
“Oh, that’s kind of both of us. What my dad said was, “Never sell more of yourself than you can afford to buy back before the sun goes down.” What I said was, “People out here lookin’ for Robert Johnson, this man who sold his soul to the devil and my thoughts are, you ain’t met a Black person in America who has not been down to the Crossroads and had to sell something, make a deal, talk it over, get it figured out, find out how much interest you gotta pay. Oh yeah, that includes the president of the United States. People talk about Obama’s attitude being churlish and whatnot when the Republicans challenge him on things and he doesn’t come right out and blurt out the truth.”
“Look at that great athlete Arthur Ashe, the tennis player. He was known for his cool. He never spontaneously spoke out about stuff. That is because Black people have known that if you want to survive, you do not run your mouth without thinkin’ it over really carefully first.”
“So, all of us Black skinned people are living in the country of those who kidnapped and enslaved our ancestors. The deal we make is that we gotta love them. We gotta love ourselves in order to survive. Do you think you’re gonna survive if you tell the White man exactly what you think?”
“What I’m taking right now, I’m not tryin’ to ferment some kinda discord, Black man rise up, go to the streets and get yourself shot and killed by drones. No, I’m not tryin’ to do that. I’m tryin’ to say that there is a deeper truth than what you see on the surface. The forces that invented this marvelous music called the Blues didn’t just come up outta nowhere. The real Blues is something that can leave you in tears. I’m glad I can approach it as an artist rather than man who has to live hand to mouth and struggle for every nickel he gets and be incredibly grateful for any cup of coffee or glass of water he gets.”
“Now, if you wanna get real, I make my living performing the Blues. That makes me somebody who for money, is taking the culture of the descendants of those who were enslaved and selling it to the descendants of the enslavers. That in a way is worse than giving it away. That makes me, I don’t know if you wanna say, Uncle Tom, traitor, mole. All these things go in it. You gotta understand that I approach it as an artist, somebody who loves it and knows that much more pain went into it, than I deserve to take out.”
“The men and women who created the Blues spent time in prisons, buried under the foot of this country. So, as much as I love the Blues, as much as I Love Black people, as much as I love this country, there are still things that just cannot be spoken. Ask the president about that. He’ll tell you by his silence.”
Guy Davis’s political stance is not by accident. His parents, besides being award winning actors, writers and directors, were potent activists. Blues Blast asked him what musicians came through the Davis home as he was growing up and his answer was not very many.
“It was primarily actors who would come to the house. I mean, musicians would show up but my parents were known as actors, writers and directors so I would see more people in those aspects of show business. Even in the early days before they had a lot of fancy furniture they’d be sittin’ on crates partyin’ and talkin’. Kids would be welcome up to a point, but we needed to be quiet. There would also be political activists at the house. I don’t know where I was, maybe summer camp, cuz I didn’t get to meet him, but Huey Newton slept in my bed in my absence. Paul Robeson came by the house. Malcolm X came by the house. He looked like the tallest man I ever met. These were the types of people that came in and out of our lives. I never met Paul Robeson either, but he is my Blues contemporary Eric Bibb’s godfather. Paul Robeson’s name was mentioned all the time around my house. I got to speak to Jimmy Baldwin; James Baldwin the writer. I spoke to Langston Hughes on the phone, you know, people like that.”
When asked what visitors impacted him the most coming through the Davis household, he gives the following examples:
“I can’t say that it would be anybody that you might know easily. I can think of several people. I can think of Sidney Poitier. We would call him Uncle Sidney. There was no, quote unquote, business relationship where I was a young acolyte studying to be an actor under him or something like that. I just knew his daughters and I was in love with them! I think my job was to walk one or two of them to school. Stuff like that.”
“I’m trying to think of someone else who had a deep impact on me. Again, I have to say it was nobody that had a name you would know. There were things that happened that I never will forget. I would actually have to sit and talk awhile to figure out my own answer to this. I remember my dad comin’ out of the house one time. I had called him to come out, cuz there was this man standin’ in front of the house. I had no idea who this man was. But if I had to give him a physical comparison, I’d say he looked something like Blind Willie McTell. I remember the white part of his eyes looked yellow. He stood there on the corner with his hands in his pockets, spitting on the ground from time to time and looking up and down the street, like he was expecting or waiting for someone. I told my dad and he came out and spoke to the guy for no more than a couple of minutes. My dad handed him a couple of bills and sent him on his way.”
“This isn’t exactly what you asked, but has to do more with people I met at that house I also remember one of our neighbors who was a volunteer fireman who also delivered milk in the morning, came by our house because their was a smoky fire in our house. I mention him because if I wasn’t a Bluesman, there are two other things I would thing about being. One would be a fireman, the other a carpenter.”
“I’ll give you one more. There were some people who lived down the hill from us; Lou and Helen Thomas. Across the way from them was a lady named Mom Baucher. I remember my older sister and I looking out of our back window one morning and Mom Baucher got up in her night gown and was running around our back yard like she was dancin’. Then somebody called the police or paramedics because Mom Baucher lay down with her arms open and died in our yard. My sister and I may not have known that she was dying, but we saw the men walking around her, doing whatever they thought they needed to do to keep her alive. They told us later that she died. I think those neighbors, just ordinary people had the biggest impact on me.”
The conversation turns to the spiritual power of the Blues when a NPR interview that Guy Davis did is mentioned. In that radio broadcast, Davis speaks of visiting the Stovall plantation in Clarksdale Mississippi and the very shack that Muddy Waters lived in and trying to remove a nail from the structure.
“As a matter of fact, it was during the rehearsals for Robert Johnson-Trick The Devil, that I went down to Clarksdale, Mississippi to the shack that Muddy Waters stayed in on Stovall’s plantation. What I was trying to say was that after it was over, I realized that removing that nail was as tough as the times that the people had to live under. The hardness of the wood pointed to the resilience of the people who lived there. This was an emotional, spiritual, perhaps mystical experience that cannot be adequately explained.”
“Looking at the place from across the field, I knew something was there and it turned out to be my personal crossroads. I was going to have to meet that which would make me the most vulnerable and/or the most powerful. And there it was in the middle of a field where shacks that used to stand that looked just like that shack. It was the after effect of slave times telling me that this is what the Blues came up out of.”
I don’t know if I referred to the Black Codes in that NPR interview, but, I’m not sure if they came about before or after the Civil War, but they definitely went into effect after slavery. When they no longer had slaves as a source of labor to build this country, you would find it in the prisons. So the objective became to fill the prisons with Black men so they could be sent out to work. And it would be not unlike slave times in a certain way; you had to feed ‘me, you had to do this, you had to do that, but you didn’t have to pay them as free men and women who needed to make a living wage. All that stuff was in that shack on the Stovall plantation for me. That’s my source as a mystic. That’s where the mystery of all that is and was that was in that shack and was the crossroads for me.”
Urged on, Davis spins more of his perceptions of the mystical experiences that have happened to him as a Blues artist.
“Well, I’mo tell you this as best I can. It was within a few months of when my dad died nine years ago. I’d made a deal with myself that uh, I was not gonna call out to my dad or his spirit for any help unless I really, really, really needed it. I mean, I loved my dad, he was gone. It took me a long time to cry for myself as a son without a father. I was able to cry as a member of my family for all of us, but it took me a while to cry for myself. So I made a deal with myself, that unless it was something very important, that dad was gonna rest where he was and I would think about him and love him from that distance.”
“Well, my son was having some problems. There was a crisis involving him and school and I remember it dug into me so deep that one night while he was here in my apartment, sleeping in his bed, I went into my room, laid on my bed with my arms open. I looked up at the ceiling and I prayed. I said, ‘Dad, if you’re listening, I need help with my son, your grandson.’
“At the time I had a rented car for a gig I was doing. Whenever I rented a car, I would drop my son off and pick him up from school if I could. So when I picked him up at school one day, there was a pair of shoes he had on that I think he was going to need the next day and he also had another pair with him. So I said, ‘Okay son, why don’t you leave your shoes in the car and put on the other pair. Just leave them in the front passenger compartment and put on the other ones.’
“So we did that. I parked the car on the street down the hill from the highrise where I live. We walked back to the apartment, he wearing his other pair of shoes with his bags, homework and whatnot. I went to retrieve the car the next morning to drive it up into the complex to the front of our building.”
“When I got in the car, I didn’t notice the shoes where I’d instructed my son to leave them in the front passenger compartment. I looked in the backseat area, the trunk of the car. I thought to myself, well maybe I just sorta went brain dead yesterday and went on automatic pilot, picked them up and walked them into the house with him. I went upstairs and asked my son if the shoes were there. He said that he had left them in the car like I’d asked him to. Okay, so I had him put on his other shoes and took him to school. I just couldn’t figure out what happened to the shoes.”
“The laundry machines in the complex were not working that day so I went home and picked up some clothes and drove to do a load of laundry. I remember looking at the car as I got out to do the laundry. There was nothing unusual about it. When I drove back with the laundry, this time I parked up the hill and across the street from the apartment complex.”
The only things beyond the car were a fence and some grass leading down to the highway. I walked across the street, went into my apartment and took a nap until it was time to go pick my son up from school. Still, in all this time I could not figure out what happened to those shoes.”
“When it was time to go pick him up, I got outta my bed and went outside the complex. I was just about to cross the street and there was a bus coming from my right. I could’ve made it to the car safely but the bus would’ve had to slow down and wait for me to open the door and get in the car, so I opted to run past the drivers side, all the way to the sidewalk on the passenger side and then wait for the bus to go by so I wouldn’t have to slow him down. As I’m standing on the sidewalk waiting for the bus to go by, outside the passenger front door of the car, I saw those shoes. They looked as if they’d been placed there as if by a parent tucking a child’s shoes under his bed at night, snugged up under it.”
“Now this was a completely different place from where I’d left the car with the shoes in it. That I believe, was my father’s way of saying that my son’s footsteps would be guided. I have no clue where those shoes were all day, how they got out of the car and back to the car, tucked as if under a bed. This was just after I said, ‘Dad I need your help.’ That broke me down. That was the most recent experience. That was a positive and beautiful experience.”
“There was a mystical experience I had once before. This was back in 1988 when I was driving a cab. I’d gotten married and my son was born and I needed the money. I was broke. I was an actor but I wasn’t getting enough work to pay the rent. I’d already had a job on the soap opera, One Live To Live, making plenty of bucks. But in that world, stuff does not always stay where you think it’s going to stay.”
I would have to do twelve hour shifts in that taxi, that’s what cab drivers do. I figured it in such a way that I was gonna try to drive as long as I could without stopping. So I generally did not eat or drink much water so several times, maybe five times I went into this weird place. It’s like the result of meditation. Now meditation is basically doing something boring for a long time until your mind shuts down and stops thinking. You move into a different consciousness. Well, in this state that I went into several times, my mind would stop thinking and I would become omniscient. I literally knew everything. I knew where all the money in the world came from. I knew stuff that you can’t hold onto when you come out of that state. I knew that I would make a lot of money on my shift that day. When I was in that state, my cab would go from customer to customer to customer. Ordinarily you’re driving down the street, you’re distracted, you’re thinking about whatever.”
“Say there’s three cabs parked side by side on the street and there’s a hand that goes up on the left side, well, the guy on the left should get that fare. If a hand goes up on the right side then the guy on the right should get that one. Sometimes the guy in the middle zooms ahead and cuts off the other guy, so he breaks the other guys thread. But in the process, he breaks his own thread to hijack that ride and then he will go without customers for a substantial amount of time. When I was in this state, it seemed like the cab was driving itself. I was behind the wheel but the cab went from customer to customer to customer. I didn’t have to worry about whether the light was red or green. It’s like the whole world is in slow motion and I was the only one in regular consciousness. I could see where everything was going to happen. I could see where to be. It wasn’t thinking about it. It was direct knowledge.”
“One Sunday I was driving and I was desperately hungry. My belly felt like a big cavity. It was a gnawing hunger. And then I went into that state and the hunger became pure energy. I felt as energized as I’ve ever felt and I heard a voice. And it wasn’t my mind thinking about something I heard. It wasn’t my mind repeating a voice. I heard a voice from the center of the universe or the center of my soul, whatever you wanna call it. That voice said, “Open up your live to the light of love.” The voice repeated, “Open up your live to the light of love.”
“While you’re in that state, it’s a state of bliss so you don’t care. It’s not an emotional state. I knew I’d make a lot of money in that state but I didn’t care. I didn’t have desire. It wasn’t until I came out of that state that I broke down crying. I wrote it in my notebook that I kept with me in the taxi. And then, at the end of the shift I was so tired and confused that I left the notebook in the taxi.”
“I never forgot the experience. Meditating is like knocking on a door that you’re trying to get in. And you’re banging and you’re banging and you’re banging. No answer. You shake the handle, it will not open. Then you give up. And it is just when you give up that the door opens and a hand reaches from inside that door grabs and yanks you into this room. It is in the act of surrendering to you own failure that you will find that power. So that was one of the deepest, most profound experiences that I’ve ever had. Driving’ that taxi.”
Shifting subjects again, Guy Davis’s voice lightens up when he speaks of his involvement with teaching schoolchildren about the Blues.
“They put me in classrooms all over the world. It’s just me and those kids. I whip out that harmonica and let them know what time it is! I play ’em some Blues. You’ve got to understand, it’s not just teachin’ kids about the Blues. Heck, I’m hopin’ those kids will be my audience in twenty years and I’m still workin’!”
As we finish our time with Guy Davis closes with a comparison of modern day Blues musicians to the first generation Bluesman who lived the live they sang about.
‘Um, I think it was Buddy Guy who once said he was a Blues Musician, not a Blues Man. Being a Blues man is a tough thing. If you live long enough, bad health is gonna get ya. Diabetes is one of the killers of not only Black People but Bluesmen to. The overuse of alcohol will break you down. It’s a luxury for us to be able to experience this music as musicians as opposed to the first generation that had to live this stuff. They had to sing their way out of heart sickness, from being under the thumb of Jim Crow. Such hard times. If I could get us all in a room, I would try to cut most of my drinkin’ in half, to get a lot more health food into us. I’m not necessarily saying end the smoking and drinking but get it under control. We need that kind of love and attention and care. There’s something so attractive about that stereotypical Blues Man with the cigarette and the hat. That’s all well and fine, but you gotta go home and rest after that. Get your sleep. Nourish your mind and heart. To all the Bluesmen I would say, let’s look after ourselves.
Visit Guy’s website at www.guydavis.com
Photos by Arnie Goodman © 2015 Blues Blast Magazine
Interviewer Tee Watts is music director at KPFZ 88.1 fm in Lakeport, CA and road manager for Sugar Pie DeSanto.