Serious musical observers spend a great deal of energy categorizing artists. But sometimes we encounter musical personalities who are impossible to fit into neat slots. The guitarist Rev. Gary Davis is a prime example. He combined gospel, blues, and Dixieland influences using a unique fingerpicking style. Although a preacher whose music mostly covered religious themes, his best-known disciples are folk/rock musicians indifferent to his specific religious message.
Gary Davis was born in South Carolina in 1896 and became blind as a very young child. By the time he reached his teen years, he was skilled playing guitar, banjo, and harmonica. He migrated to Durham, North Carolina and recorded some sides with Blind Boy Fuller and others. Ordained as a minister in 1933, he eventually relocated to New York in the ‘40s. He was discovered during the folk revival of the ‘50s and ‘60s, becoming a mentor to many notables of that generation, including Jorma Kaukonen, Stefan Grossman, and David Bromberg.
Davis was grounded in the so-called “Piedmont” style of fingerpicking guitar playing, which uses the thumb of the right hand to create alternating bass notes. But he transcended the inherent rhythmic and melodic limitations of the technique, supplementing it with single note runs or thumb rolls.
His approach is on fully on display in the tour de force “Samson and Delilah.” First recorded by Blind Willie Johnson under the title “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down,” this song has been covered by others, most notably The Grateful Dead. With all due respect to Deadheads, Rev. Davis created the definitive version. The song is conducive to solo performance, since it focuses on Samson’s personal torment. Davis does a remarkable job of melding his complicated guitar licks with the dense lyrics. Non-guitarists who wish to understand just how difficult this is can try the following experiment:
1. Juggle several balls in the air at the same time (or substitute some other difficult task requiring maximum concentration).
2. Continue this activity while reciting the Gettysburg address.
Besides his guitar playing, another quality distinguishing Rev. Davis was the passion of his singing. At his core, Davis was a religious man, a preacher, and he approached this material in a deeply personal way. This passion was shown, perhaps more subtly, in his non-religious material as well. In the song “Lord I Wish I Could See,” he sang:
It was a time when I went blind,
It was a time when I went blind,
Was the darkest day that I ever saw
Was the time when I went blind.
Lord I cried the whole night long,
Lord I cried the whole night long
Cried, O Lord, won’t you tell me how long,
Am I to be blind always.
Lord, I wish I could see again,
Lord, I wish I could see again
If I could see, how happy I would be,
Lord, I wish I could see again.
The song is stunning in its simple, poignant expression of grief.
Not everything was deadly serious for Rev. Davis, though. In “Whistling Blues”, he used a slide to mimic a woman whistling at him.
Back to” Samson and Delilah.” The song has a fascinating structure, alternating between first person (chorus) and third person (verse). It begins with Delilah wheedling the secret of Samson’s strength from him, then moves backwards in time to describe his exploits. Thus, as the final chorus begins, the listener has a contrast between Samson’s former power and his current helplessness. I never had the experience of watching Rev. Davis perform this song. But with his virtuoso playing and his passionate singing, one can visualize the old, blind musician being transformed into the blinded, bound, taunted Israelite hero praying to break the chains of his limitations.