Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Great Vintage Blues #18: Reverend Gary Davis

Like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Rev. Gary Davis, also known as Blind Gary Davis, played in the graceful Piedmont blues style of the southeastern U.S., rather than the rawer blues favored in the Mississippi Delta. Completely self-taught, Davis mastered a delicate and expressive fingerpicking style on the guitar, and played with such fluency that he never performed a song exactly the same way twice—accomplishing this despite a slightly maimed left hand which had been broken and badly set when he was young. "I don't play the guitar," he once said, "I play with the guitar."

Davis' parents were both ill-suited to raising a child ("there was no confidence to be put into my mother," Davis told his student Stefan Grossman in this short interview), and so he was brought up by his grandmother instead, growing up in rural South Carolina. He built his first guitar using a pie pan when he was seven. Born partially blind, Davis lost his sight completely over time, and was educated at schools for the blind when he was in his late teens. This also gave him the extra burden of prejudice not only against his skin color, but against his handicap: "You understand, they thought it was a disgrace for a woman to be walking with a blind man," he told Grossman.

Davis recorded a few songs in the 1930s but felt cheated by his record company, and didn't repeat the experience for almost 20 years, surviving instead as a live performer at parties and as a street busker. He included gospel songs in his repertoire in part so that the police would be less likely to roust him off his streetcorners, but as time went by he began to take the spiritual side more seriously, eventually converting to Christianity in the mid-1930s and becoming a Baptist minister. When he did record again in the mid-1950s, it was mainly gospel songs—though his secular material, like "Cocaine Blues" remained at least as popular, if not moreso, than his spiritual songs. Davis moved to New York City with his second wife in 1940, where he worked as a minister and guitar teacher, and when he was swept up in the rediscovery of old-school blues singers in the early 1960s, he became important not just as an influence through his recordings, but as a firsthand teacher of many of the next generation of blues and folk musicians.

Here's "Feel Like Going On," with a look around what I assume is Davis' New York home:

"In This Land," with a similar look around 1960s Harlem, where Davis and his wife lived. (Commenter Carnivorous Danus points out that the song is better known as "Death Don't Have No Mercy," so perhaps the YouTube clip was titled incorrectly; it also spells Davis' name wrong):

"If I Had My Way," written by Blind Willie Johnson and also known as "Samson And Delilah":

Here's a short clip with some advice on practicing the guitar:

"Sally, Where'd You Get That Liquor":

"Make Believe Stunt":

"Slow Drag / Cincinnati Flow Rag":


In this clip from Pete Seeger's mid-1960s TV show Rainbow Quest, Davis sings "Oh Glory, How Happy I Am." Though Seeger's show deserves a lot of credit for filming guys like Davis, the more I see clips from the show the more I tend to find Seeger's presence somewhat grating and even patronizing; he's not too bad here, though:

Update: A tip of the hat to commenter W.H. Itey for posting another clip from Rainbow Quest, Davis singing "Children Of Zion."

Just for the sake of completeness, I'll go ahead and add another clip from Rainbow Quest that I skipped earlier. Here, the show's other two guests that week, 1960s folk-rockers Donovan and Shawn Phillips, show Davis a sitar. He seems at best only politely interested, and the rest of the clip is Donovan and Phillips performing:


#17: Big Joe Williams

#16: Professor Longhair

#15: Mississippi John Hurt

#14: Mississippi Fred McDowell

#13: Mance Lipscomb

#12: John Lee Hooker

#11: Big Mama Thornton

#10: Lead Belly

#9: Lightnin' Hopkins

#8: Son House

#7: Furry Lewis

#6: Bessie Smith (and Bo Diddley)

#5: Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee

#4: Howlin' Wolf

#3: Bukka White

#2: Skip James

#1: Sister Rosetta


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