Bluesman Gary Davis influenced an entire generation      

By John Cody

• Rev. Gary Davis: Demons & Angels — The Ultimate Collection, Shanachie, 2001.
• Rev. Gary Davis: Live at Newport, Vanguard, 2001.

BORN in South Carolina, Rev. Gary Davis (1896 – 1972) first recorded in the early 1930s. His debut session included two blues numbers, after which he refused to perform any more ‘devil’s music,’ insisting on playing spirituals for the remaining selections. Following a dispute over payment, he chose to avoid recording for the next two decades. He was ordained as a minister in 1937, and moved to New York City in the 1940s; there, he preached and played on street corners.

Davis’ playing style incorporated elements of gospel, blues, jazz, ragtime and popular tunes of the day. His considerable technique on six and twelve string guitar influenced an entire generation of players, including such notables as Taj Mahal, Bob Weir (Grateful Dead), Stefan Grossman who produced this package — Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane / Hot Tuna), David Bromberg, Ry Cooder and Dion, all of whom studied under Davis. His vocal approach was gruff and husky; even on instrumentals, he would grunt along, offering the occasional comment.

Davis was rediscovered during the folk revival of the late ’50s; by 1962, after Peter, Paul & Mary covered ‘Samson and Delilah (If I had My Way)’ on their chart-topping debut LP, income from publishing enabled Davis to purchase a home in Queens, New York. Others who covered his songs included the Rolling Stones (‘You Got to Move’), Hot Tuna (‘Hesitation Blues’), Jackson Browne (‘Cocaine Blues’), and the Grateful Dead (‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’).

Spanning 1958 – 1966, the three-disc Demons & Angels box set collects 58 tracks. Featuring just Davis and his guitar, the music presents a formidable sound. There’s plenty of gospel, both traditional and original, the latter including ‘I Am the Light of This World,’ ‘Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,’ ‘Get Right Church,’ ‘I Want to be Saved,’ ‘Oh Glory How Happy I Am,’ ‘There’s Destruction in That Land (Message From Heaven)’ and ‘Crucifixion’ — which includes preaching.

Praise of a more earthly delight, including ‘She Wouldn’t Say Quit,’ is just as enjoyable as the higher-minded material.

Live at Newport is from Davis’ legendary 1965 performance at the Newport Folk Festival. Now augmented with two additional tracks, it’s an excellent one-stop introduction for those on a budget.

• Mississippi John Hurt: The Complete Studio Recordings, Vanguard, 2000.
• Avalon Blues: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, Vanguard, 2001.

Mississippi John Hurt (1893 – 1966) played local square dances, church suppers and house parties in the tiny community of Avalon, Mississippi before an audition with Okeh Records led to three 1928 sessions for the label. Upon their completion, he returned home, working the farm until he was rediscovered 36 years later, at the age of 71.

Hurt tackled spirituals, and secular material such as work songs, with wit and a tangible sense of pleasure. His guitar playing was smooth and rhythmic, and his vocals evinced a warmth all too rare within the standard blues format.

Complete Studio Recordings collects three albums (Today / The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt / Last Sessions) released on Vanguard in 1967 and 1968. While the label was less than generous regarding Hurt’s gospel material, each disc includes a few prime examples.

Avalon Blues is a tribute disc spearheaded by Peter Case. The impressive list of contributors — including Bruce Cockburn, Chris Smither, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams (‘Angels Laid Him Away’), Alvin Youngblood Hart (‘Here am I, Oh Lord, Send Me’) Victoria Williams (‘Since I’ve Laid My Burden Down’) and Gillian Welch (‘Beulah Land’) speaks well of Hurt’s pervasive influence. The performances are unassuming, and for the most part in keeping with Hurt’s understated delivery. Conspicuous by his absence is long-time fan John Sebastian, whose group, the Lovin’ Spoonful, took it’s name from a Hurt song.

• Chris Smither: Live as I’ll Ever Be, Hightone 2000.

Smither’s formidable technique, coupled with a rich, strong voice, has garnered him a reputation as one of the finest acoustic blues players performing today.

For the most part, the disc concentrates on material from his last four releases. Many songs deal with Smither’s longstanding interest in the dilemma of evil, ethics and personal faith. He’s dealt with these issues as far back as his second album, Don’t Drag it On (1972) which included ‘Devil’s Got Your Man’ and ‘The Devil’s Real.’ The title track from his tenth album is a highlight here.

Posing questions rather than preaching any specific philosophy, on his website Smither recently described his own spiritual bent: “I’m not particularly religious, though I do a lot of non-theistic spiritual thinking and meditation; so I’ve got no answers for any one, least of all myself — though I’ve reached a point where I’m quite comfortable not expecting any answers.”

• Sacred Steel Live, Arhoolie, 1999.

In 1997, Arhoolie’s Sacred Steel introduced this relatively obscure genre — traditional sacred African-American music featuring steel guitar in place of vocals — to the world. The music had been around for decades, but this was the first time it had received outside exposure.

The disc showcased a variety of groups in studio settings. A handful of releases spotlighting individual players followed. Sacred Steel Live, which features four shows recorded in ’98 and ’99, offers six steel players in a variety of settings, many including vocals.

At times, the energy level is closer a rock show than a church service. The rowdy feel, coupled with improvising and the steel guitar’s big sound, brings to mind the live recordings on Cream’s Wheels of Fire. Recommended.

• Mississippi: The Blues Lineage, Rounder, 1999.
• Mississippi: Saints & Sinners, Rounder, 1999.

Racism and deplorable living conditions combined to make Mississippi the home of the blues. While it was a fertile climate for the music, those same conditions meant most players would leave the region as soon as possible.

Recorded between 1936 and 1942, The Blues Lineage features some of the more well known artists in the renowned and vast Alan Lomax catalogue, including Son House, Muddy Waters, some obscure names like Honeyboy Edwards and Willy Brown, and others that barely even made it to footnote status in the history books. All tracks were recorded on location.

Saints and Sinners is just what the title implies — songs of sin and salvation. Any collection that includes both Crap Eye and the Reverend C.H. Savage is bound to be interesting, and there’s no disappointment here.

© John Cody 2001

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| August 1st, 2001 | Posted in Articles |

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