Reverend Gary Davis

“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.” -Allan Evans

Again we have an incredibly idiosyncratic guitarist and singer who was caught between sacred and secular music (and lifestyles). Reverend Gary Davis was one of the best and most unique guitar and banjo players of the 20th century. And, I’m not going to say anything really that would be better than what others have said, so once again I quote.

The Reverend Gary Davis

In his prime of life, which is to say the late ’20s, the Reverend Gary Davis was one of the two most renowned practitioners of the East Coast school of ragtime guitar; 35 years later, despite two decades spent playing on the streets of Harlem in New York, he was still one of the giants in his field, playing before thousands of people at a time, and an inspiration to dozens of modern guitarist/singers including Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, and Donovan, and Jorma Kaukonen, David Bromberg, and Ry Cooder, who studied with Davis.

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.

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.

He was self-taught on the guitar, beginning at age six, and by the time he was in his 20s he had one of the most advanced guitar techniques of anyone in blues — his only peers among ragtime-based players were Blind Arthur Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Blind Willie Johnson. Davis himself was a major influence on Blind Boy Fuller. Davis’s influences included gospel, marches, ragtime, jazz, and minstrel hokum, and he integrated them into a style that was his own. In 1911, when Davis was a still teenager, the family moved to Greenville, SC, and he fell under the influence of such local guitar virtuosi as Willie Walker, Sam Brooks and Baby Brooks. Davis moved to Durham in the mid-’20s, by which time he was a full-time street musician, and celebrated not only for the diversity of styles that his playing embraced, but also for his skills with the guitar, which were already virtually unmatched in the blues field.

“He was the most fantastic guitarist I’d ever seen.” -Dave Van Ronk

Davis went into the recording studio for the first time in the ’30s with the backing of a local businessman. Davis cut a mixture of blues and spirituals for the American Record Company label, but there was never an equitable agreement about payment for the recordings, and following these sessions, it was 19 years before he entered the studio again. During that period, he went through many changes. Like many other street buskers, Davis always interspersed gospel songs amid his blues and ragtime numbers, to make it harder for the police to interrupt him. He began taking the gospel material more seriously, and in 1937 he became an ordained minister. After that, he usually refused to perform any blues. Davis moved to New York in the early ’40s and began preaching and playing on streetcorners in Harlem. He recorded again at the end of the 1940s, with a pair of gospel songs, but it wasn’t until the mid-’50s that a real following for his work began developing anew. His music, all of it now of a spiritual nature, began showing up on labels such as Stinson, Folkways, and Riverside, where he recorded seven songs in early 1956.

Davis was “rediscovered” by the folk revival movement, and after some initial reticence, he agreed to perform as part of the budding folk music revival, appearing at the Newport Folk Festival, where his raspy voiced sung sermons, most notably his transcendent “Samson and Delilah (If I Had My Way)” — a song most closely associated with Blind Willie Johnson — and “Twelve Gates to the City,” were highlights of the procedings for several years. He also recorded a live album for the Vanguard label at one such concert, as well as appearing on several Newport live anthology collections. He was also the subject of two television documentaries, one in 1967 and one in 1970. Davis became one of the most popular players on the folk revival and blues revival scenes, playing before laDavis was “rediscovered” by the folk revival movement, and after some initial reticence, he agreed to perform as part of the budding folk music revival, appearing at the Newport Folkrge and enthusiastic audiences — most of the songs that he performed were spirituals, but they weren’t that far removed from the blues that he’d recorded in the 1930s, and his guitar technique was intact. Davis’s skills as a player, on the jumbo Gibson acoustic models that he favored, were undiminished, and he was a startling figure to hear, picking and strumming complicated rhythms and countermelodies. Davis became a teacher during this period, and his students included some very prominent White guitar players, including David Bromberg and the Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen (who later recorded Davis’s “I’ll Be Alright” on his acclaimed solo album Quah!).

“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)

The Reverend Gary Davis left behind a fairly large body of modern (i.e. post-World War II) recordings, well into the 1960s, taking the revival of his career in his stride as a way of carrying the message of the gospel to a new generation. He even recorded anew some of his blues and ragtime standards in the studio, for the benefit of his students.

“Gary Davis took you out of playing baby guitar and made you play it like a grown man.” -Taj Mahal

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.

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.

~ Bruce Eder, All-Music Guide &
Paul Andersen, Contemporary Musicians, April 1997

Here are a few albums that highlight the gospel side of his work:

Reverend Gary Davis – At the Sign of the Sun 1962
Year: 1990
Label: Heritage
get it here.
mp3 >192kbps vbr | w/ scans | 94mb

Live and very raw. The rev mostly plays six- and ten-stringed guitar, but plays six-string banjo on two tracks and harmonica on one.
Sister Annie Davis, 95 years old at the time, accompanies hime on I’ll Be Alright Someday and When the Saints Go Marching In

Reverend Gary Davis – I Am A True Vine
Year: 1991
Label: Heritage
get it here.
mp3 192kbps | w/ cover | 94mb

These selections comprises the cream of many recordings of this superlative musician by his close asociate, Stefan Grossman, chosen for their guitar-picking skills, rarity of perfomance or sheer emotion.
All recorded in New York City, 1962-1963, by Stefan Grossman.

i forget where i got this one, but thanks probably go to stagolee

Reverend Gary Davis – O, Glory: The Apostolic Studio Sessions
Year: 1969 (recorded); 1996 (reissue)
Label: Genes
get it here.
mp3 >192kbps vbr | w/o cover | 79mb

Recorded in 1969, O, Glory: The Apostolic Studio Sessions is the Rev. Gary Davis’ final studio LP, but he went out in style, working under the most state-of-the-art studio conditions of his career. The result is perhaps the best-sounding record in his catalog, even if the performances don’t quite capture all the fire of his peak period; equally interesting is another break in tradition — rarely recorded with other artists (outside of a few early-’50s sides cut with Sonny Terry), here Davis is backed by vocalist Sister Annie Davis, harpist Larry Johnson and the Apostolic Family Chorus. Also worth noting is that Davis performs on a pair of instruments he’d never before recorded with, the piano and the five-string banjo. The cumulative result makes O Glory a must for historians, but casual fans will undoubtedly be better served by his earlier material.

and you can get Rev. Gary Davis – Say No to the Devil & The Sun of Our Life at Broke Down Engine
and don’t miss Josse’s many fine Gary Davis & related album posts at Merlin In Rags

also check out ReverendGaryDavis.com, with discography, bio, stories, quotes, & related links

and read an interview of Rev. Gary Davis by Stefan Grossman

This entry was posted in Blues, Gospel, Guitar, ragtime, Roots. Bookmark the permalink.

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