He cut his first recording in 1935 and was ordained in 1937, thereafter his fiery fingers played in the service of the Lord, though as this set shows he could be persuaded to play some blues. Described by Stefan Grossman as "a folk musician with the instincts of a jazz improviser".
The Reverend Gary Davis was a guitar virtuoso and a teacher of enduring renown. "I have no children," he once said, "but I've got many sons."
Woody Mann was one of the many young guitar players who made their way to Davis' home during the 1960s. Woody's mom would drive her 12 year old son to the Queens, New York, home that Davis occupied after Peter, Paul & Mary's version of 'Samson & Delilah' lifted him from virtual poverty. His $5 lesson would often last most of the day, and Woody would arrive at Davis' house not just with his guitar, but with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Like one of Davis's earlier students, Stefan Grossman, Mann was quick to recognise that he was in the presence of a true original.
Lots of musicians were inspired by the fervored artistry of the Reverend Gary Davis, including an unlikely assortment of psychedelic rockers from San Francisco. The Grateful Dead found an early standard in his mournful blues, 'Death Don't Have No Mercy,' while Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassidy of the Jefferson Airplane introduced the ragtime and country blues of their other group, Hot Tuna, with the help of such Davis - associated tunes as 'Hesitation Blues' and 'I Am the Light of This World.' And such finger-style guitarists and Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, and Roy Bookbinder were inspired by the high wire swing and syncopations of Davis instrumentals like 'Buck Dance,' 'Twelve Sticks and 'Cincinnati Flow Rag.'
Davis made his first recordings in 1935, and while the sessions included a pair of blues, he subsequently refused to perform anything but religious tunes. Over the years, he fudged on this pledge in the same way that this God-fearing man would savour a drink of whisky. Still, his refusal to tailor his pastiche of styles to accommodate the blues market resulted in precious few recordings until the beginning of the folk and blues revival in the late 1950s.
Even then, however, Davis was not your typical rediscovered legend. Davis had been ordained as a Baptist preacher in 1937, and his religious devotion informed both his life and music. In that sense, he shared a kinship with Blind Willie Johnson, the scintillating, slide-guitar playing master of the holy blues. Both of these men had fiery fingers that played in the service if the Lord. Davis' evangelical zeal caused some consternation among those who came in contact with him. Welfare caseworkers in Durham were often met with sermons, and one recalled a meeting with Davis during which he lectured while "playing with a very large pocket knife." Another bureaucrat urged Davis to play her a tune on his guitar. "His ability as a guitarist in unbelievable, she noted. "I have never heard better playing."
Davis relocated to New York City in the 1940s, and the loner took a wife named Annie. He performed on the streets of Harlem, where a pocketknife could come in handy, and preached in storefront churches. Still, all things considered, this was on obscure musical figure who wasn't hiding his talents. Folklorists had to travel to Avalon, Mississippi, to locate Mississippi John Hurt, and to Rochester, New York, to find Son House, and in both cases, these fabled musicians had stopped paying the guitar. By contrast, Greenwich Village musicologists had only to take the A-train to rediscover this street-singing Segovia. And to their delight, the Reverend Gary Davis had not only never stopped playing, but he'd got better.
Stefan Grossman was in high school when he called up Davis to ask him about taking guitar lessons. "Sure," said Davis, "come up and bring your money, honey." Grossman's father drove him to a section of the Bronx that his son recalls as being as "bombed out as Dresden." Grossman found his teacher "in a three-room sharecropper's shack behind a burnt-out tenement." As he studied with Davis, Grossman quickly discovered that this was a folk musician with the instincts of a jazz improviser. "He'd have a sketch of a tune," recalls Grossman, "but every time he'd play the song, it would be different. He used to claim that he could play 'Candyman' for eight hours without repeating himself."
Whether at the Newport Folk Festival or a storefront church in Harlem, his performance would inevitably reflect the singular soul that made him one of the great traditional American artists of the past century. "He thought of himself as the governor," says Grossman, "as the greatest guitar player who ever lived." Claims like that will always start a debate, but this much is clear: Reverend Gary Davis was a man full of pride, but also an artist who played for the glory of God. We are blessed to be part of his congregation.
Samson & Delilah (If I Had My Way)
I Won't Be Back No More
Death Don't Have No Mercy
You Got To Move
She Wouldn't Say Quit
I've Done All My Singing For My Lord
Twelve Gates To The City
I Will Do My Last Singing In This Land Somewhere