Rev. Gary Davis – See What The Lord Has Done For Me
Disc One – 8 songs – 65 minutes
Disc Two – 15 songs – 55 minutes
Disc Three – 12 songs – 66 minutes
Born in 1896 in South Carolina, Rev. Gary Davis lost most of his vision at a very young age. Growing up poor, raised mostly by his maternal grandmother, he was expected to contribute to working the family farm, becoming adept at many of the tasks assigned to him. He was interested in music, first learning harmonica before switching to guitar. He started singing in a Baptist church, where he learned about salvation and sin, themes that formed the basis for many of his songs.
Over the decades, Davis became a standout as a guitar player, spinning intricate lines over a steady rhythm, creating music that a first listen seems to be the work of several guitarists. His picking on “Great Change Since I Been Born” on Disc 1 finds his fingers dancing around the fretboard, accompanying his raw vocal with runs of bright, ringing notes without a hint of strain.
The recordings on these three discs were done by Ernie Hawkins, a fellow guitarist who took lessons from Davis in addition to being his friend. When Davis visited Pittsburgh, he would often stay with Hawkins, the two men staying up late many nights playing music for themselves. On two occasions in 1968 and 1970, Hawkins used a borrowed tape recorder to capture his friend and mentor in the relaxed setting of his living room. The end result is more than three hours of music that makes it clear that in the later stages of his career, Davis was still a captivating performer.
Other highlights from Disc One include his haunting rendition of “Don’t Move My Bed ‘Till The Holy Ghost Come,” a minor key blues full of sorrow and death. “I Belong To The Band” is a traditional hymn that was long a staple in the Davis repertoire, celebrating his place in a heavenly band for more than eleven minutes, fleshed out with plenty of fine picking. “Blow Gabriel” impresses with the forceful interplay between Davis’ voice and guitar.
Disc Two has several instrumentals that provide listeners with fine examples of the six string mastery that Davis was capable of. “Penitentiary Blues” has a surprisingly sprightly tone given the thought of life behind bars. Another song that dates back to the start of his career, “Florida Blues” gets a brief run-through, enough time for Davis to make a solid impression. Davis seems to explore some different musical approaches on the standard “St. James Infirmary.” His deep, booming vocal rings out on “God’s Gonna Separate,” a parable taken from Biblical scripture.
“Down Home Rag” gets Disc 3 off to a strong start with Davis picking up a storm, at times creating the illusion of several players, when it is just him on an acoustic guitar. The same is true of “Piece Without Words,” with Davis spinning a magnificent piece of improvisation. His most inspired work is found on “Crucifixion,” a 19 minute sermon on the the death of Jesus Christ, his voice and guitar intertwining, forming a formidable message of salvation that never falters at any point.
The disc also has a fine instrumental take on one of his best-known tunes, “Hesitation Blues,” covered by many bands including Hot Tuna. Another instrumental, “Cincinnati Flow Rag,” has a sprightly moderate tempo that undoubtedly was a hit with the dancers, especially those interested in getting up close and personal. The set finishes off with a second rendition of ‘St. James Infirmary,” recorded a day after the previous version, yet worlds apart in their approach. The second one retains only the basic melodic elements as Davis once again takes listeners on a vivid musical exploration.
An additional feature of the set is a PDF file contained on the first disc. Hawkins spends several pages relating details of his friendship with his mentor, then noted guitarist William E. Ellis takes over. The godson of bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, Ellis supplies 30 pages of notes, providing background on each song along with musical keys and lyrics where applicable. The notes bring more depth to the music in addition to giving listeners a truer sense of Davis, the man.
(To access the file, put the disc in your disc drive, open Windows Explorer, click on My PC, then right click on the Disc Drive icon & click on “open.”)
These sessions make it clear that even a few years before his passing, the Rev. Gary Davis was still a musical force to be reckoned with. Guitar players will find plenty of material worthy of study. For those who appreciate the finer points of acoustic blues, mixed with a liberal dose of the Gospel, this set has much to offer. While the Rev. Davis discography lists over 35 titles, including a number of live recordings, it is a safe bet that most of them do not showcase the more intimate nature of his artistry as clearly as this set, on full display with each and every note, often with stunning clarity. Kudos to Hawkins and Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop for making this set available!