Wednesday, June 28, 2017


Gary Davis
By Kenneth Goldstein for The Record Changer  14:8

In the course of editing several albums for the Riverside Folklore Series I was faced with the pleasant task of finding material for an American Street Songs album to supplement the English, Irish and Scots material which had previously been recorded for use in the series. American street songs, however, are part of a tradition totally different from that of the British Isles. In England, Ireland and Scotland, street songs were almost exclusively secular. In America, street songs were as frequently religious as they were of a worldly nature. The traditions were also quite distinct and separate in their functioning. Rarely will a singer of religious material cross the line to sing secular material, and primarily secular street singers will rarely know more than the one or two religious songs with which they soften up their audiences.

The problem defined itself clearly into the necessity of finding two to represent the secular tradition and a second to represent the religious tradition. Finding the secular street singer was no problem. Riverside had in its recorded archives some 10 or 12 numbers performed by a Carolina street singer, Pink Anderson. which had been recorded by Paul Clayton in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1950. Where would we find a religious street singer to match with him?

Here, too, the solution was quite simple. In 1954, I had the opportunity to attend a recording session of the Reverend Gary Davis, by Stinson Records. One thing stood out clearly at that session. Sonny Terry, the fabulous folk harmonicist, supported the Reverend's singing and playing on his "mouth-harp." The engineering job was a pretty bad one, and the wonderful sounds of the harmonica completely drowned out the equally wonderful guitar playing of the Reverend Davis. I thought at that time that someday Davis would have to be recorded by himself, with a very careful and proper balance set up between his voice and his exciting guitar playing. Here then was the solution to my search for a religious street singer.

With the help of John Gibbon and "Tiny" Singh (a niece of the late Huddie Ledbetter), I contacted the Reverend and a recording session was scheduled for the evening of January 29 of this year. Also present at the recording session were John Gibbon and the photographer Lawrence Shustak whose superb shots taken during that session are seen on this page as well as on the cover of this issue of the Record Changer. As soon as the recording started everyone in the room came to the immediate realization that this was going to be a great session. Gary was at his best, without a doubt. Of the nine songs recorded in a little over two hours, only two had to be re-recorded. I have often followed the principle that good artists, folk or otherwise, are their own best critics. They know what they want to say and therefore are the best ones to decide whether or not they ended up saying it the way they intended. As soon as we played back the first recording, Gary broke into a huge grin. There was no doubt about it. He was listening to himself the way he wanted it to sound.

The music Gary Davis performs is more than just religious material. It is jazz—plain and simple. Daniel G. Hoffman has termed his performance "Holy Blues"...and that it is. The guitar breaks between stanzas. the intricate runs, the blues stanzas, the slurred vocal and instrumental lines, the frequent exchanges between voice and guitar...all are integral parts of jazz. His performances are an exciting combination of the deep religious intensity of earlier Negro spirituals. the subjective identification of the blues, the drive and movement of jazz, and the directed objective of the sermon.

Davis was born in 1896 in Lawrence County, South Carolina, the son of a poor farmer. He took to instruments naturally and could play the mouth harp by the time he was five, could pick a few songs out on the banjo by six, and played the guitar with facility at the age of seven. He remembers playing for a short time in a string band in Greenville, South Carolina, when he was still a young man, and this seems to have been his only group experience as an instrumentalist.

He refuses to talk about how he became blind, or when, but it must have been in his blues singing days as a young man. In any case, the occurrence which caused his blindness probably contributed to his decision to give up his rowdy blues singing ways and to turn to religion. He was ordained a minister in Washington, North Carolina, in 1933, and has since refused to sing anything but religious music (according to his own story). Examples of his blues singing have been preserved, however, though they are available only through discriminating collectors of rare jazz recordings. In recording sessions held in New York City on July 23, 24, 25 and 26, in 1935, he recorded 14 sides for the now long-defunct Perfect label. Of these, he was somehow induced by the Per-fect company to record two sides of blues, together with 12 sides of religious material. (For a complete listing of these recordings, see the Gary Davis discography at the end of this article.)

For the past 16 years he has been living in New York City, during which time he has recorded material for two long-playing records and has appeared, not infrequently, on radio and in folk music concerts. He has more to offer, however, than the average street singer, and he can be seen not only on the streets of Harlem or catering to the religious needs of storefront congregations, but also at small folksong gatherings where his audiences are made up of aspiring young guitarists and singers who hope to pick up one or another of the many instrumental tricks which contribute to his unique style. If readers of this article who own some of the early Perfect recordings of Gary Davis will contact me I should like to arrange to obtain copies made for the purpose of analysis, and I will then, in some future issue, analyze the changes which have taken place in his performance and songs in the more than 20 years since he made his first recordings.


For a complete discography of Rev. Davis, there is a carefully sorted one by William Lee 'Bill' Ellis in his doctoral dissertation, "I Belong to the Band." He was able to match up all the borrowings and re-borrowings that the Rev's recordings went through, one compilation to another over the years.

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