The reader enters the early story lines of blindness and guitar greatness with questions. In Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis, author Ian Zack debunks the misleading claims that the blind musician had lye thrown in his eyes, or got in a fight, with this offering--blindness at birth is caused by gonorrhea in the pregnant mother. In the 1890s, quality pre-natal care provided a young black woman was a rarity. My inventory of the blind black musicians appearing in addition to Gary in this book numbers ten—Blind Joe Taggart, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, and Sonny Terry to name a few.
Our subject’s guitar-playing virtuosity has to be drawn from talent, and then perfected with persistent effort in the face of many obstacles. Gary Davis’ mother shunned her maternal duties in favor of life experiences away from the home, and Gary was raised by his grandmother; double whammy—blindness and motherless. As an adult, Davis (b. 1896) signed his name with an “X”, scraped by on welfare checks, and put the salvation of souls ahead of secular motives.
There is no record here of Rev. Davis having attended a real divinity school. One day he became “reverend.” And we are not told much of the content of his preaching; however, he was clearly a stand-up life-lesson orator. The value of his church input may be found in the inspiration his “gospel blues” provided the congregation. The audience may have numbered only ten to twenty at a time, but the Rev. was sure to rev up his flock. As for his title, was it always abbreviated because it is a fabrication (my premise)?
Gary Davis was from South Carolina living among sharecroppers and the Ku Klux Klan influence; but, his vocation as a New York City street musician produced the most fear. Several of his Gibson guitars were stolen from him, and he worried that someone would spit in his coffee. Once his guitar strap was cut while he dozed, literally stealing it from his back. He packed a gun and spent a day in court explaining his motive for waving it in front of children.
Davis technique involved the right thumb for plucking bass strings and the fingers for simultaneous moving the melody along, called the Piedmont style. He had a stage act inserted for alternative entertainment he called something like “playing my guitar while putting my arm around a girl”—the left arm playing the tune and the right explored the volunteer audience member.
Davis was selective about what he played in public--gospel songs only, at least until he became famous in his sixties and song royalties and concert earnings became steady; then, his music became more secular and an expected source of revenue. His songs “Cocaine Blues” and “Candy Man” could cross the line and were deemed suitable for play only when devout wife Annie was out of the room.
In 1935, Gary Davis had his first recording session. A scout from American Record Corporation drove Davis, guitarist Blind Boy Fuller, and an albino washboard player Bull City Red to New York City from Durham, NC. The session produced two blues: “I’m Throwing Up My Hands” and “Cross and Evil Woman Blues.” Author Zack described the first as “… blistering single note runs and arpeggiated chords . . . the most virtuosic displays of fingerpicking captured on record ….” Davis would add 13 spirituals in the multi-day session. The 78 rpm sides of three minutes each were issued under the name “Blind Gary” on various dime store labels, a low-cost product. The practice of emphasizing church songs in his recordings is described by Zack as “… a great loss to America’s legacy, given his vast and varied repertoire.”
Notable folk and blues musicians have covered Gary Davis’s songs and describe the Rev’s influence--Bob Weir, Jorma Kaukonen, Donovan, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Stefan Grossman, and Taj Mahal. The book also includes an excellent review of the folk music revival of the early 1960s. Davis played Newport Folk Festivals and found Europe very welcoming. Hail from Chicago? Remember the blues bar Quiet Knight on Belmont near the elevated tracks? It has a folk music history, too.
Zack, Ian. Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago. 2015. Find a copy at DPL indexed as 787.871643 Davis.
A biography of Rev. Gary Davis reviewed
By Peter Furlong, PhD