Sussex has passed along this amazing set from Poke. It’s hot off the presses, only 47 years old… and definitely worth the wait. Through the three discs of this set, spanning several nights of live performance, replete with in-between-song banter, you begin to really get to know Rev. Gary Davis. It’s as though you’ve been coming to his living room and sitting around for a week. And the man behind the fingers comes alive.
What emerges is a totally singular presense. The only person you could really compare Rev. Gary Davis to is Joseph Spence. Both completely improvise their playing, full of idiosyncratic syncopated intricasies (shouting encouragement and cat-calls at his guitar), and do so at such a high level of skill and inventiveness that they are totally inimitable (those bass runs! AAh!). I mean, the Rev had ‘peers’ in his early days – people of the ‘Piedmont school’ like Blind Boy Fuller, or ragtime guitarists like Blind Blake. And he had students aplenty (among them many of the best blues players of the following generations – Van Ronk, Jorma, Grossman, Woody Mann, Ernie Hawkins, Roy Book Binder, etc…). But at the time of these recordings, he was peerless: unequalled as a guitar player in New York (or America?), and carrying with him one of the most diverse and distinctive collections of folk music which became standards in the repertoire largely because of Davis. And really, though students of his have long since eclipsed his technical abilities, none have become so great a musician as he, because they were always playing towards something, meeting a goal, getting A’s on their cleanlines. But with the Rev, he was never looking outside of himself (an advantage of blindness). The music came from within him, and it was different every time, based on how he was feeling that day. He could play Candyman for 24 hours straight and never repeat himself. And then he might play it on the banjo or harmonica too! And when he play Death Don’t Have No Mercy, well, that’s death singing to you from behind the good Rev.’s guitar. And when he sings Candyman, he’s, well, a lonely housewife from 1904… or something.
And sure, he’d call out ‘Praise the Lord’ in between tunes. But one gets the feeling it’s a New Orleansian sort of Lord he’s paying homage to, a Lord who works at a candy stand and chases foxes and tears the building down with his ferocious bass runs!
Even the amazonians approve:
Three discs 53,49,61 minutes each approximately. The sound is good-much better than hoped for when taken from an old reel-to-reel tape recorder almost fifty years ago. Both the vocals and the instruments are clearly defined. The overall sound is immediate and warm, as if you’re sitting near the front of the venue. The packaging is a tri-fold cardboard affair with the discs slipped into their respective holders. The notes are short – Grossman talks about the era and Davis.
These tracks were recorded by one of Davis’ students (and a guitar player of some repute) Stefan Grossman. Along with the songs, Davis talks once in a while to the audience between some of the tracks. This can be an irritant or will become an integral part of the concert setting,depending on your outlook. To my ears they give a better idea of sitting in that audience on those nights, enjoying a one-of-a-kind experience, from a highly individualistic (and blind since birth) man. Included here are sing-alongs on the last two tracks on disc one,the group “New World Singers” (Gil Turner, Bob Cohen, Happy Traum) accompany Davis. At one point Davis announces that he gives guitar lessons (that a number of better known guitarists took him up on) to the audience, humbly telling the people where his “hut” was located.
Included on these discs are songs he had not yet recorded along with more well known tracks that anyone familiar with Davis will recognize. His many albums (VINTAGE RECORDINGS 1935-1949, HARLEM STREET SINGER, SAY NO TO THE DEVIL, THE GUITAR AND BANJO OF REVEREND GARY DAVIS to name a few) are all filled with gems of both guitar and (sometimes) banjo tunes,along with his harmonica playing, and, of course, his weathered, lived in voice. This set is no different-his guitar is all over this set. This is a very relaxed Gary Davis,feeling at ease entertaining the audience,who listened appreciatively to his many songs,guitar style,and voice. Additionally Davis played the harmonica in his highly rhythmic style,which is a treat to hear.
For anyone who likes Davis (who played well up until his death in 1972) his style of playing (a style that many better known guitarists,including Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna to name just one,were enthralled with),or that era when older bluesmen were being rediscovered and recorded,for the “blues/folk boom” of the sixties-this is an excellent addition to your musical library. If you’re not familiar with Rev. Davis, (who was ordained a minister in 1937) this is a good place to start. For this is music made by an unpretentious, warm, old-fashioned man who loved to make music. It’s as simple as that.
This is not a cheesy repackaging of previous material or a desperate release of bootlegged tapes that should be left in someone’s drawer. Stefan Grossman’s tapes may be old, but they are golden. I’ve been a Gary Davis devotee for decades, and over the years have bought most everything available first on vinyl and then on disc, but this is still worth having. The sense of his playing for an attentive audience early on in the days of the Great American Folk Revival makes these three discs all the more special. And there is plenty of material we haven’t heard before. The playing and singing are spectacular as always, and the chatting up the audience is all the more fun. Packaging is minimal, and there is no encyclopedic booklet or pictures/posters, but you’ll still get your money’s worth.
3 CD Collection
Label: Shanachie: Guitar Artistry
It’s hard for me to believe. Almost 50 years has passed since I was sitting by the stage at Gerde’s Folk City in New York City with my two track Tandberg tape machine recording my teacher, Rev. Gary Davis’ performances. It was the week of February 3rd to 10th, 1962. Rev. Davis was booked along with the New World Singers (Gil Turner, Happy Traum and Bob Cohen) at the famous bar in Greenwich Village. During the week’s engagement all the new and old folk singers of the Village came by to watch, listen and pay their respects – from Dave Van Ronk to a newly arrived Bob Dylan.
When the gig at Gerde’s Folk City came up I was excited, as here was a chance to record performances of Rev. Davis for a full week. I had been going down to Gerde’s for some time and Mike Porco, the owner, knew my face and would let me in for free as long as I sat at the bar (even though I was underaged!). I was also friends with Manny Greenhill of Folklore Productions. He managed Rev. Davis and was encouraging me to record Rev. Davis whenever I could. Manny wanted me to get as many songs and instrumentals recorded so that they could be published and protected. So I had the green light from all concerned and Mike allowed me to leave my Tandberg in the basement after each night’s performances.
Rev. Davis was very much part of these recordings. He wanted to play tunes that he had not yet recorded. Each set was filled with songs I had never heard.
– Stefan Grossman
1. You Got To Move
2. Intro to Come Down And See Me Sometime
3. Come Down And See Me Sometime
4. Wouldn’t Say Quit
5. Oh Lord
6. Announcing Guitar lessons
7. People That Use to See, Can’t See No More
8. There’s Destruction In This Land
9. Intro to Soon My Work Will Soon Be Over
10. Soon My Work Will Soon Be Over
11. Intro to Oh Glory, How Happy I Am
12. Oh Glory, How Happy I Am
1. I Want To Be Saved
2. Just A Closer Walk With Thee
3. Death Don’t Have No Mercy
4. Lord I Won’t Go Back In Sin
6. Buck Dance
7. Samson & Delilah
8. Working On The Building
9. I’ll Fly Away
10. Sun Goin’ Down
11. Fox Chase
1. God’s Gonna Separate
2. Lord Search My Heart
3. Jesus Met The Woman At The Well
4. Say No To The Devil
5. I Am A Pilgrim
6. All Night Long
7. Trying To Get To Heaven
8. Thank You Jesus
9. Twelve Sticks
10. Intro to Tesse
12. Lord They Tell Me
13. Right Or Wrong
Thanks to Poke and Sussex for providing this amazing set!