by Ellen Harold and Peter Stone
Reverend (Blind) Gary Davis was a powerful gospel and folk blues singer and masterful acoustic guitarist, "truly, one of the supreme talents to emerge from the Piedmont tradition" (Bruce Bastin, Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986, p. 330).
Primarily a street musician, Davis made relatively few recordings in his early career, but his virtuosic finger picking was an important influence on other regional musicians, notably Blind Boy Fuller, the prime exponent of the Piedmont guitar style in the 1930s. In the 1950s and 60s Davis taught — and concertized in New York City, becoming a beloved mentor to urban folk and rock legends Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Dave Van Ronk, and Bob Dylan, to name a few.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Davis could play in any key. According to Allen Evans, who began studying with Davis when he was sixteen, he was one of the few blue guitar artists to explore minor keys, "creating works of deep pathos such as 'Death Don't Have No Mercy', 'Children of Zion', and 'I Heard the Angels Singing'."
His repertoire comprised Medicine Show tunes, white ballads, military marches, country instrumentals, the emergent ragtime piano, a virtuosic Piedmont (Carolina) blues guitar style, old church hymns, revival meeting and Gospel songs, popular tunes, original compositions based on all the above, and an archaic harmonica style rarely heard elsewhere. — Allen Evans, liner notes to The Sun of Our Lives: Gary Davis Recorded 1955–57 (World Arbiter 2005)
He produced a polyphonic style with the use of only his thumb and index finger. He told his student, Stephan Grossman, "You've got three hands to play a guitar and only two for a piano. Well, your forefinger and your thumb — that's the striking hand, and your left hand is the leading hand. Your left hand tells the right hand what strings to touch, what changes to make....One hand can't do without the other" ("Reverend Gary Davis Interview," Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop).
The Alan Lomax Archive contains a 300-page manuscript of interviews of Gary Davis, conducted in 1951 by Lomax's wife Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold when Davis and his wife Annie were living in poverty and obscurity in Harlem. Allan Evans has excerpted these in his notes to Lifting the Veil: The First Bluesmen - Rev. Gary Davis & Peers (World Arbiter CD, 2007), containing previously unreleased session tapes of Davis and cuts by Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Blake, Charley Patton, and others.
Gary Davis was born on April 30, 1896, to John and Evelina Davis in Laurens County, in the Piedmont section of upstate South Carolina, "on a farm, way down in the sticks,...so far you couldn't hear a train whistle blow unless it was on a cloudy day." One of eight siblings, of whom only two of whom survived childhood, he was raised by his grandmother — because his mother couldn't care for him and his father was constantly in trouble.
My father got killed when I was small [aged 10]. He was shot....We heard [emphasis in original] that the High Sheriff shot him. That's what I always heard. I don't know if there was any justice done by it or no. My mother married again...[and gave birth to his younger half brother].
In the interviews, Davis shared his sometimes terrifying memories of the Jim Crow South and also his anguish at his mother's initial rejection of him:
I felt horrible about it because I felt like I was throwed away. In fact my mother never had cared as much about me as she did my younger brother. . . She'd wish I was dead. She tell me that a heap of times. Sure... It's not what you say, it's what you show to prove it.
Of his blindness Davis recounted:
So far as I know, according to the statement of my grandmother, I taken the sore eyes when I was three weeks old. And the doctors [sic] put something [probably from a Medicine Show] in my eyes cause ulcers to grow over my eyes and cause me to go blind. Since I was a man that come up that didn't see, that perhaps if I had been a man that could see like the others...I might have seen more than I cared to look upon. Now what I'm trying to get you to see: a lot of people, you know, looks on a many things, and his eyes caused them to lose their lives. And many times where many people have been strung up on limbs in the low countries [i.e., the South] and lynched just by looking. Sometimes a man's eyes never done nothing but just look. See? I often think of that. Well, a body's eyes were made to look right enough, but sometimes it pays a man to keep his eyes closed.
Unlike many other blind musicians, Davis was able to distinguish shapes and could get around without a "lead boy." The case worker's record for Davis's Blind Pension examination in 1937 states:
Eye condition primarily responsible for his blindness: Buphophtholmus. Secondary condition: ulceration of cornea. Etiological factor responsible for blindness: glaucoma. Prognosis: "hopelessly blind." — Bastin, p. 246
Another case worker wrote: "His ability on the guitar is unbelievable. I have never heard better playing" (Bastin, p. 250): the awed reaction was typical of those who encountered him.
Davis had exhibited an interest in music at an early age and built a guitar from a pie pan around the age of seven. He taught himself to play guitar, banjo, and harmonica and began playing local dances for the white folk while still a child. "In the country they had these old stomp down dances....They used to have fiddle players." He first encountered what came to be called "the blues" in about 1910, on hearing someone picking on a 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." The first bluesman he heard was Porter Irving, a South Carolinian, and his song, "Delia." In those years Davis also sang at the Center Raven Baptist Church in Gray Court, South Carolina.
At 18, Davis applied to and was speedily granted a scholarship to attend the South Carolina Institution for the Education for the Deaf and Blind at Cedar Springs, Spartanburg, where he learned to read Braille. He left after six months, however, because he didn't like the food. In the 1910s and '20s, he busked and in the early 1920s played in a local string band in Greenville, then a center of the Piedmont blues style. In the mid 1920s Davis married and traveled around South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee, performing in the streets and teaching guitar to make a living. He left his first wife when he found out that "she wasn't my wife but everybody else's."
Around this time he broke his left wrist after slipping on the snow. The wrist was set out of position (left of axis), accounting, some have speculated, for his ability to play some unusual chord patterns not possible for a normal wrist, though he later denied having altered his playing in any way. In the interview from Grossman's Guitar Workshop, Davis said his right hand was broken, but a left-hand break would better explain his harmonic repertory.
He settled in Bull City (the nickname for Durham, North Carolina) around 1931. At that time blind musicians frequently played religious music, which was more publicly acceptable, on the street and secular music indoors and at parties. Gary Davis, however, had a deep predilection for spiritual music. Religious conversion provided him, even more than for most black people, with "a floor for his despair" (in James Baldwin's formulation), but also with a means for self-assertion. Willie Trice, who had known him as a street musician in Durham recalled that "The songs he played was mostly spiritual songs. He could play the others but he didn't do it so often." Trice also remembered that Davis could play the piano. "Played the same song he played on the guitar. Sounded just like it. He liked an instrument he could carry with him" (Bastin, p. 267).
Aaron Washington, another fellow musician, remembers Davis asking him if he played spiritual songs. "I told him no. He told me it might be a good idea if I did play spirituals because I would get just as much enjoyment out of it. These few words followed me all the time, and I decided to give it a try" (Bastin, p. 242). Davis didn't entirely abandon secular music, however, until his ordination as a minister in 1937.
In 1935 storekeeper and talent scout J. B. Long, the manager of Blind Boy Fuller, among others, "discovered" Gary Davis. "Oh, [Gary] could play the guitar up and down, any way in the world," he later recalled (Bastin, p. 220). Davis and Fuller were among a group of Durham musicians Long escorted to New York City to record for ARC, the "race" music subsidiary of Columbia Records. Between July 23 and July 26 Davis recorded 15 sides (1 unissued): ten Christian songs, and two sets of blues, "I'm Throwin' Up My Hand" and "Cross and Evil Woman Blues" (which Davis regularly calls, respectively, "Mountain Jack Blues" and "Ice Pick Blues"). Fuller did "The Stuff Is Here," "The Little Red Rooster," and "Sure As You're Born, Ida." George "Bull City Red" Washington, an old Durham collaborator, also participated in the sessions.
Unlike the other players, however, Davis was unfamiliar with the recording business. He couldn't see the red light that signaled when the disc was finished and wanted to keep on playing. He also had a healthy consciousness of his own abilities and was upset at being paid less than the other performers, who received more from ARC because they had recorded before. All his life he believed had been cheated and he refused when Long tried to get him to record again in 1939. "There was a difference between me and the 'man' [Long]," he later explained. Bruce Bastin speculates that the underlying reason for their quarrel was likely Davis's reluctance to record secular songs. According to Trice, "Mr. Long didn't take him on account of...Gary wanted to play spirituals. Mr. Long said Gary was kind of bull headed...Gary didn't know much about making records" (Bastin, 1986). It was 10 years before Davis made another record.
In 1937 Davis married Annie Bell Wright, a woman as deeply spiritual as himself, and she looked after him devotedly until his death. In 1940, when the blues became less popular in Durham, they moved to Mamaroneck, New York, where Annie had found work as a housekeeper. Later that same year they moved to 169th Street in Harlem, where they lived for the next 18 years and where he became a minister of the Missionary Baptist Connection Church. He continued busking and preaching in New York, acquiring the appellation "Harlem Street Singer." For a time he stopped playing the blues altogether in favor of gospel and old time songs, making an exception for "gospel blues" such as "Death Don't Have No Mercy," which he first recorded in 1960 (he is generally credited with writing it, though other versions exist from as early as 1926) and, for the first of several times in 1956, "Samson and Delilah," a song recorded in 1927 by Blind Willie Johnson, also called "If I Had My Way, I'd Tear the Building Down," using one or the other title each time. He also taught guitar — giving lessons that could last all day and into the night. As he became better known among folk aficionados he made recordings for Stinson, and later Folkways, Prestige-Bluesville, and Riverside, consenting little by little to revive some of his secular repertoire for the benefit of his white admirers.
Among folk revival guitar players of the 1950s and early '60s Reverend Gary Davis's finger picking style was legendary. One of the first to adopt it was Ramblin' Jack Elliott, whose cover of "Candyman" was a staple of his repertoire. Dave Van Ronk studied with Davis and also covered many of his songs. Other aspiring folk guitarists and blues players swarmed to take lessons from him. Bob Dylan, who covered "Candyman" and several other Davis songs and was close to both Elliott and Van Ronk, would have had an opportunity to meet Davis at the Indian Neck Folk Festival on May 6, 1961. In 1961 Dylan told Robert Shelton and Suze Rotolo that he wanted Reverend Davis to officiate his and Suze's wedding. The Grateful Dead performance of "Samson and Delilah" reveals Davis's influence on the vocal inflections and cadences of Bob Weir, who studied with him; and the list continues with Stefan Grossman, Taj Mahal, Gerry Garcia, Dave Bromberg, Ry Cooder, and Jorma Kaukonen.
Davis toured Europe and played at numerous folk festivals including the Cambridge and Newport Folk Festivals (1959, 1965, and 1968). It was at Newport and the recording by Peter, Paul, and Mary of "Samson and Delilah" that Davis's career peaked.
In 1968 Davis bought a house in Jamaica, Queens. He continued to perform locally in the New York and New Jersey area. 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 in Hammonton, New Jersey and is buried in Rockville Cemetery in Lynbrook, New York.
His widow Annie survived her husband by twenty-five years, outliving her three adult children from an earlier marriage. She took in boarders, remained active in the church, and kept in touch with Davis's former pupils. Allen Evans recalls that sometimes his phone would ring:
"Allen, can you come by on the second Sunday next month? I'm having a program at the church and want you to be on it so bring the guitar and do a few numbers of B[rother] Davis's." One was expected at 10 a.m. sharp for a service ending twelve hours later. Annie and her fellow congregants rented storefront churches in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx with folding chairs, an out-of-tune upright piano, sometimes an organ, and a roomy kitchen in the back, as many ladies arrived with generous trays of home-cooked roast turkey with stuffing, vegetables, macaroni and cheese, mouthwatering pies, puddings and heavily frosted cakes which sustained the faithful throughout a day of praising and celebrating God. At first I felt awkward as a non-believer, timidly facing the devout to play and sing Davis's music, but in time I came to cherish their faith as an act of goodness to others, distinguished by an absence of proselytizing, moralizing or judgmental admonitions; it emerged as families and friends united to strengthen themselves to rise above life's hardships, the most compelling existence of harmony and spirituality one can encounter in any religion. —The Sun of Our Lives: Gary Davis Recorded 1955-57
When Annie Davis reached 101, diabetes necessitated the amputation of her leg, and she moved into an apartment for the elderly. She died two years later in 1997, at the age of 103.