PIEDMONT FREIGHT TRAIN Reverend Gary Davis

 

As a freshly-unearthed (via the Sutro Park
label) classic LP illustrates, the South
Carolina bluesman legend is justified – his
influence, profound.

 

BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

When hardcore,
old-school blues music fans sit around and chew the fat, arguments usually
evolve around the usual suspects – either Delta bluesmen like Charley Patton,
Son House, and Robert Johnson or influential, modern era Chicago blues pioneers
like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Howlin’ Wolf. Even if the debate eventually
turns towards the more folk-oriented Piedmont blues sound that emanated from
the Carolinas and Georgia during the 1920s and ’30s, legends like Blind Willie
McTell and Blind Boy Fuller are usually the names discussed.

 

One name
that is spoken in reverent, almost hushed tones is that of Reverend Gary Davis.
A Piedmont blues guitarist originally hailing from South Carolina, Davis is
often overlooked in the aforementioned discussions, but his influence is
widespread and mighty powerful. His songs have been recorded by folkies like
Dave Van Ronk, blues artists like Taj Mahal, and even rockers like the Grateful
Dead, while his groundbreaking six-string style would inform that of such
accomplished pickers as Ry Cooder, John Fahey, and even Davy Graham across the
pond in England.

 

A
self-taught guitarist, while Davis himself was influenced by bluesmen like
Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson, he is also said to have had a
major impact on the playing style of Blind Boy Fuller. Like many of his
Piedmont contemporaries during the 1920s, Davis’s original sound was a lively
mix of blues, ragtime, hokum, gospel, and even jazz styles, but after turning
to the ministry in the late ’30s, Davis leaned more towards spiritual and
gospel material, often infusing the sacred with the profane influence of the
blues, whether he meant to or not.

 

Davis
first recorded in the 1930s but, dissatisfied with the money paid him, wouldn’t
venture back into the studio for nearly 20 years. He moved to New York City in
the 1940s, where he would undertake a street corner ministry, preaching and
performing for passersby in Harlem. Davis would be “rediscovered”
during the folk-blues boom of the late 1950s and ’60s, and he performed and
recorded regularly until his death in 1972, releasing material on a number of
folk, blues, and jazz record labels like Prestige, Bluesville, Biograph, and
Vanguard. For a man of the cloth, Davis could be awfully cagey, and in
interviews he often contradicted himself or left questions about his past
unanswered.   

 

 

 

 

Much like
Davis’s lengthy career, the story behind the guitarist’s New Blues and Gospel LP –
freshly reissued by archival label Sutro Park (launched a few years ago by
David Katznelson of Birdman Records fame) – is somewhat shrouded in mystery.
Originally recorded for Arnold Caplin’s Biograph Records label, varying
references claim that the album was released in 1968…or maybe 1971, which makes
more sense when considering that blues historian Stephen Calt’s liner notes
refer to Davis as 75 years old (he was said to have been born in 1896; you do
the math). Regardless, this true-blue Sutro
Park edition slaps Davis’s timeless songs onto a thick slab of
pristine 180-gram vinyl packaged in a sturdy cardboard sleeve with the album’s
uber-cool original cover art on the front and Calt’s rambling notes, along with
the album’s track list, on the rear.

 

New Blues and
Gospel
lives up to its advertising, the album’s ten songs displaying some
of the gospel bluesman’s most accessible performances. Even at 75, Davis could
swing his 12-string guitar like nobody else, out-picking pretenders like Jimmy
Page with a deft, fluid hand while laying down some of the fieriest,
sermon-on-the-mount vocals that you’ve ever heard. The LP leads off with the
upbeat, distinctively Piedmont blues-styled “How Happy I Am,” a
wonderful showcase for Davis’
spry finger-picked guitar style and soaring vocal style. With “I Heard The
Angels Singing,” Davis veers more towards the spiritual side of his
catalog, his somber vocal performance tempered by a darker, more intricate
guitar line that is stunning and effective.

 

Davis’s
“Samson and Delilah” is, perhaps, the best-known tune in his
songbook, recorded by the folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary in 1962 for their
chart-topping debut album. The Rev. Davis’ version remains without peer,
however, and his performance of the time-tested song on New Blues and Gospel is
joyous, transcendent, and mesmerizing, his voice leading the listener in one
direction while his complex, busy guitar line embroiders the song with a zeal
that veers in an entirely different direction. Another well-known chestnut in Davis’ repertoire is
“Children of Zion,” on which the singer delivers a haunting vocal
performance that is made all the more powerful by his carefully-crafted,
dark-hued six-string soundtrack.       

 

 


 

 

Side two
of New Blues and Gospel follows much
the same well-traveled path as the first five songs, perhaps one of the
best-known tunes here being “Sally, Where’d You Get Your Whiskey?” A
rollicking Piedmont-styled blues story-song with a recurring riff (not
dissimilar in nature to what Fred McDowell was creating Hill Country blues with
in Mississippi at the time); Davis lays his gymnastic vocals atop the lively
guitar licks. The traditional “Hesitation Blues,” popularized by W.C.
Handy in 1915, may have originally been a spiritual number, and it has
frequently been recorded in different versions by artists as diverse as Louis
Armstrong, Jerry Garcia, Doc Watson, and the Holy Modal Rounders, among many
others.

 

Davis’ take on the song displays
a soft ragtime influence with its talking blues construct, the guitarist
speaking rather than singing the seemingly stream-of-consciousness vocals while
his busy fingers pick out an energetic melody. “Whistling Blues” is a
similar talking blues tune, even more so, really, Davis delivering the song’s
rambling story with vocals accompanied by both laid-back guitar passages and
the odd squeals and screams of string-bending notes. The album closes out with
“Lost John,” a traditional folk song that features Davis
on harmonica rather than guitar, the mostly instrumental performance reminding
of 1940s-era harpslingers like DeFord Bailey, Davis’ freight train chromatics punctuated by
random hollers and whoops.       

 

“The
Legendary” Reverend Gary Davis, as he’s billed on the cover of New Blues and Gospel, is a joyful and
charismatic performer, a gospel-blues artist whose closest peer would probably
be the great Blind Willie Johnson. Unlike Johnson, who certainly influenced Davis’s music, Davis
himself would influence a generation of young white blues enthusiasts who would
subsequently carry his music and message well into the future.

 

New Blues and Gospel, for those who haven’t
heard it, is an unexpected treasure, a fine introduction to the skills and
charms of the good Reverend, and a bona fide classic of the gospel-blues genre.
Even at 75 years old, Davis
could still swing that hammer like nobody else, and contemporary guitarists
could certainly learn something about melody, song construction, timing, and
technique from this legendary, albeit frequently overlooked blues-cum-gospel
performer.  

 

 

Go here to read Gordon’s interview with Sutro Park
founder David Katznelson.

 

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