Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Pure Religion & Bad Company – the Music of Reverend Gary Davis

Any number of truly great musicians were “discovered” during the folk revival that took place in the States from the 40s thru the 60s. Of course, all of them had been out there making music for some time, many of them since the 1920s or even earlier—but they hadn’t been known to the largely white, college-type listening audience that was opened up during the revival. Of all these fantastic musicians, it would be hard to say that any were better (or had a wider influence) than Reverend Gary Davis.

Reverend Gary Davis was a street performer first & foremost—he began his career at an early age in his native Sout
h Carolina, playing everything from Sousa marches to ragtime to blues & gospel. Davis moved to Durham, North Carolina in the ‘20s, where he continued to perform on the streets—in Durham, he met the renowned Blind Boy Fuller. As Paul Anderson pointed out in Contemporary Musicians:

Music was often the only occupation available to these [blind] men & their ra
nks boasted such legendary figures as Blind Lemon Jefferson from Texas, Blind Eubie Blake, Georgia's Blind Willie McTell & Louisiana's Blind Willie Johnson. From the necessity of playing on the street came a style that was forceful and clear, with crowd-pleasing melodies around which the singer invented showy guitar riffs.

Forceful is c
ertainly one way to describe Davis’ musical style, especially his singing—in fact, “forceful” might even be a bit of an under-statement. When singing gospel tunes like “Pure Religion” or “Samson & Delilah,” Davis’ voice carries the dynamic force of an impassioned preacher. As far as “showy riffs”—Davis’ guitar playing was virtuosic; in that sense, the riffs aren’t "showy"—they’re perfectly conceived. Davis playing is among the clearest examples of the call & response type of blues or gospel playing—Davis often exhorted his guitar to “do your talk” as he finished singing a verse or a line. In doing this, Davis would play syncopated counter melodies & improvisations on the treble strings, while all the time keeping a powerful beat going with his thumb on the bass strings. This is the essence of what’s now called “Piedmont blues”—a style born of ragtime & a way of imitating banjo frailing on the guitar. The old-time practitioners—like Davis—often used just the thumb & the index finger to alternate between bass & melody or counter melody—those of us who are mere guitar mortals tend to add in the middle finger & occasionally the ring finger as well. The thumb is crucial because it keeps the rhythm—apparently one of the greatest compliments Reverend Gary Davis would pay a guitarist would be to say, “He has a sporting thumb.”

When the casual listener thinks of blues, he/she probably doesn’t think of the
Piedmont style—the more familiar form of the blues came out of the Mississippi Delta, thru Chicago, & later morphed into rock & roll. Piedmont blues is based on syncopation as opposed to the backbeat. Still, this style has had a profound effect on a number of well-known musicians, & Davis played a big role in handing the tradition down. After his “re-discovery”—by this time he was living in Harlem & was an ordained minister, but still essentially a street musician—he set up shop as a teacher, tho his sessions sound rather like a cross between a party & a sermon; according to Anderson, “Davis's guitar lessons at his house were often accompanied by food & drink; invariably, they contained pungent advice on many different subjects, especially religion.”

Davis’ students included such accomplished musicians as Dave Van Ronk, Stefan Grossman, Jorma Kaukonen, Taj Mahal & Ry Cooder. Taj Mahal said of him: "Gary Davis took you out of playing baby guitar and made you play it like a grown man."

I particularly like this quote—y
ou most certainly need to be a “grown-up” guitar player to even think of managing a number of Reverend Gary Davis’ techniques. But even if we’re not up to Davis’ virtuosic playing, we can learn a lot about music from him—for instance, we can learn the equivalent of volumes about the call & response technique; & we can learn to play & sing from the heart, because Davis most certainly did this, for all the mastery he had in his hands.

If you’re looking for an introduction to Reverend Gary Davis’ music, you can’t go wrong with Prestige/Bluesville’s Harlem Street Singer. This is all gospel music, so if you want to hear some of his well-known secular tunes like “Candy Man” or “Cocaine Blues” or “Baby, Let Me Lay It On You,” try Shanachie’s Reverend Gary Davis: Blues & Ragtime.

& stick around here & check out this great musician in the vidclips below, or stop by Just a Song, where I’ll be posting today about the Reverend Gary Davis’ harrowing masterpiece, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.”

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  1. An informative and entertaining piece, as ever. I read it along with your piece on the Just A Song blog and together they provide an excellent introduction to the work of the Rev Gary Davis.

  2. Hi Alan:

    Glad you enjoyed this, & thanks for following over at Just a Song!


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