Reverend Gary Davis: You Got To Move
by Jonathan Oldstyle
You like the blues. That’s why you’re here, reading about Reverend Gary Davis. Maybe you like jazz as well, maybe classical music. If you want to read about someone who played jazz like Davis played the blues, you might be reading about Art Tatum. Classical, it would be Frederick Chopin.
These are guys who challenged and expanded the parameters of their genre without even making it obvious that they were doing anything more than playing the same sort of stuff that their contemporaries were doing, except for one thing: from a musical standpoint, in bringing spectacular complexity to the method of presentation of traditional melodies they were moving the music to a new level. They were doing it better.
Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and later on B.B. King — these are the names that the public associates with the American roots music we know as traditional blues. Just a little further along the musical family tree comes Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Bob Dylan and suddenly there’s The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Rock And Roll becomes, simply, Rock. Hidden in there, forgotten by the public while still revered by deep blues aficionados, a few names will crop up during record collector discussion: Charley Patton, probably. Skip James, maybe. Reverend Gary Davis: always. Why? Because nobody has ever played the blues more beautifully than he, and ironically, because he didn’t even consider himself a blues musician. He was a preacher, a man of God, first and last and always foremost, he was a man with a guitar and a voice who sang about his love of Jesus and spent his life preaching the Good News. That’s who he was, to himself. To others, he may be the most talented musician to ever pick up a guitar. Not Hendrix, not Clapton…maybe not even Django. There’s Reverend Gary Davis, and then there’s those guys…and then everybody else.
Now, before you read on, if I may step out of the role of faceless author and give you a bit of fraternal advice, me to you, from a friend-in-music, so you can really enjoy this essay as much as I’m enjoying writing it, here’s a suggestion; stop reading for a few moments. Seriously, do it. If you have a copy of the concert he did at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1964 [Document DOCD 32-20-14] go put it on. Take five minutes before you continue reading. Don’t do both at the same time — that’s what we all do these days, we multitask — instead, sit and listen to that first track, and see what happens to you. “You Got To Move” sings Rev. Davis, and that’s what you’ll do, even if you’re still sitting when five minutes is up. You’ll be moving right there in your seat, from shortly after the first few notes where he tunes his guitar to the first few repeats of that basic idea that he’s singing, “You got to move, you got to move to move, you got to move…” He’s talking to you, to everyone, to YOU. He sings about all the people who got to move, regardless of who you are; “You may be high, you may be low, you may be rich, you may be poor”…”That preacher got to move, don’t you know you got to move?” Who’s Rev. Gary talking about? You? Me? Himself? All of us. “I got to move! Brother, when God get ready, you got to move! OW! GOOD GAWD!”
And then…applause. Fifteen seconds of it. That’s a lot of time for a lot of people to show their appreciation, that’s a good chunk of space on a CD for a producer to invest in communicating to the listener that something important was happening back there in 1964 when the man sat in front of a crowd and played his guitar.
Gary Davis was approaching the end of his sixties when he heard all those people applauding for him, and in that last verse he sang, when he took on a different timbre in his voice, when he played the part of a man speaking to his God, knowing that Almighty was ready for him to “move”…well, it becomes apparent that he’s not just talking about moving his butt in the chair. The Reverend means The Big Move, the one that will finally take him to Glory, a reward for keeping the faith during the long travels and travails of his life. And for all the joy that’s expressed in that song, for a man who’s been singing the gospel the entire time, the man known as a bluesman who’s been rejecting the blues since the beginning, that’s a very serious thing. So go, put on that disc, and get yourself in tune with Gary for a few minutes and then come on back here and let’s think about some facts about him, and consider some ideas he wanted to share with us.
So, that’s some song, huh? Enjoy the rest of the record, he just keeps building from there… sixty-eight years old, blind from birth, living the kind of life that a man born into poverty and tragedy could never have imagined, let alone expected. Approaching seventy and thinking about moving on, moving on to the promised land, and no doubt thinking back on his life every now and then and thinking something like “Huh…how’d that ever happen?”
He was born in 1886 in Laurens, South Carolina, a Civil War battlefield site and an important railroad hub with a cotton-based economy that was also the home of bluesman Pink Anderson (whose name, along with that of North Carolina’s Floyd Council, inspired Syd Barrett to name his rock band Pink Floyd). There were hard times there when Gary was born, especially for the black farmers who’d been hit by a downturn in the cotton business. Nobody had it harder than him, though: weeks old and too young to have any idea of what sort of life he’d been born into, eye trouble led to a bad medical treatment that left him blind for the rest of his life. Gary’s misfortune didn’t end there…that’s just where it began. Biographer Ian Zack quotes Davis, who said that his mother was “a rough woman” and his father was “in trouble all the time” until he was killed when the boy was only ten. He was raised by his grandmother in Greenville, the only child of eight that survived into adulthood. It’s no wonder that the boy grew up to become a preacher. Abandoned by his father, rejected by his mother, and eventually betrayed by his first wife, to say nothing of the inherent difficulties of being blind and black in the Jim Crow South, it’s remarkable that he kept on the straight and narrow for so much of his personal and professional life. It also follows that his devotion to God was deep and complete.
Davis sang for the first time in Gray Court Baptist Church and was playing local dances with his guitar as a teenager. He joined Blind Willie Walker’s string band in 1911 and played in the local manner, frailing and framming his guitar in the old-fashioned syncopated ragtime that was popular in the South in those days, incorporating more complex techniques into a new style, what came to be known as the Piedmont fingerstyle. He stayed with the Walker band for a while, attended a school for the blind, got married, busked in the streets, encountered some of the usual problems so many bluesmen encounter along the way, got divorced, left for Asheville for a time and finally transplanted himself to Durham, North Carolina in 1926, where there was a vibrant enough economy to support a blind street musician. You got to move…
Forty years old was further than halfway to death for most men at that time, but Gary Davis was only just warming up at that time. He managed to weather the great depression with his guitar and his banjo, and in the summer of 1935 he traveled to New York City with his student “Blind Boy” Fuller to make his first recordings, along with their friend George “Bull City Red” Washington. The first two sides by “Blind Gary” on July 23 and released on Perfect 35-10-16 were blues, a baker’s dozen more after that were gospel songs.
Truth be told, Davis was a difficult man. Perhaps, more fairly, it can be said that when it came to his beliefs and his principles, he was not willing to compromise. When he’d arrived in Durham he was willing to play to the crowd: about himself he said “Oh yeah, I was a blues cat then. What I mean by blues cat is that I played blues and blues again and again. I would go to parties, dances and things like that. Chittlin’ struts and all that kind of stuff.” In time, he lost his willingness to play music just for the sake of entertainment. Fellow Piedmont bluesman Willie Trice, who met him in 1932, said that “The songs he played was mostly spiritual songs…he could play them others but he didn’t do it often.” A welfare report states that “He has a very aggressive manner…(and) a religious obsession which influences his activities in an almost impractical manner. He stated that he was far-more interested in ‘saving souls’ than in remuneration for his services.” Another report confirmed his attitude about using his abilities to make a living: “Much ability is shown in his ability with his steel guitar which would be a source of income, but it appears that (he) has scruples against this kind of endeavor. When questioned about the guitar as a means of income, (he) stated that he does not play the kind of music that meets public appeal since he became Christianized.”
That first session went very well, if understood in terms of output, of musical preservation: Davis recorded fifteen of his own sides, fourteen more accompanying Fuller or Red. Those others being blues, secular and hokum songs, and which, we can assume, were played out of obligation to his friends. However, it didn’t go so well as a business venture, from the perspective of the ARC Record Company or the man who put the session together, talent scout and United Dollar department store manager J.B. Long. Poor record sales and hard feelings were the result. A reading of the discography of his solo recordings on that trip to New York strike me as intentional on the part of the artist, and not a reflection of the desires of the record company. I have a gut sense about what happened — it’s pure speculation so don’t quote me on this — but I suspect that Gary Davis went into that studio with a different list of approved titles than the ones that he wound up making that day. He was a difficult man.
“Blind Gary” made “I’m Throwin’ Up My Hands (Ain’t Gonna Work Here No More)” and “Cross And Evil Woman Blues” and then he followed up those two blues songs with spirituals. Two to give the Devil his due and the rest for Jesus. Is that what the record company really wanted? Is that what they thought they could sell to the public? Frankly, I don’t think that was the case, and I point to the fact that he didn’t record again until after World War Two. The bottom line is that two days in the ARC studio resulted in about half a dozen 78rpm records that didn’t sell well and a grudge against the man who arranged the session that lasted for the rest of Davis’ life.
I look at those two titles and I see a connection between them — the first is the tale of a lonesome man whose woman left him all alone, ruined and helpless. The second song, well, the first line says it all…“Lawd, your women sure do treat me mean…” When I think of him recording those two titles first, getting them done, locked in, and then letting them know that he was now going to sing his spirituals. And that was that. Regardless of what Mr. J.B. Long of ARC Records may have contracted for, what he got, after one blues record, was a stubborn man with a guitar sitting as the studio time ticked away. I think they knew him well enough to know it was going to be his way or no way, and so they made “I Am The True Vine” and “I Am The Light Of The World” and “Twelve Gates To The City” and ten others and, no pun intended, but thank God for that! What he did, and what we have, is an album’s worth of the best gospel music ever recorded…AND… the best guitar playing as well. “Meet Me At The Station: The Vintage Recordings of Reverend Blind Gary Davis” [DOCD-5060] is a testament to his musical genius when he was a young — or middle-aged — man.
Gary Davis was ordained a Minister two years later, and eked out a living on the streets of Durham with Fuller and harmonica player Sonny Terry. They made their money from welfare benefits and the coins left in the hat by passers-by, and in 1939 recommendation was made by a welfare worker, who recommended that Davis “be encouraged to utilize his musical talent for financial gain.” Nothing much seems to have come of that. Instead, reports from interviews with his landlord and his friends indicate that he was moving between bouts with blackberry wine and sleepless nights reading the Bible…
…and that leads me to another unanswered, unanswerable question. Back then, in the late-1930s, when Reverend Gary Davis’ landlord said that a “Person can think too much, and I believe Gary has. He sometimes wakes me up at two or three o’clock coming to bed. Falling over a chair. He sits up, reads his Bible that late”…I wonder, did Gary Davis have a regular Braille bible, or was he running his fingers across a flat page of letterpress-printed paper, indented by the pressure of direct impression of inked lead type into paper? There’s relevance in the difference: Braille writing is different from the form of English writing that’s read by people who can see. It’s a code that has its own language, with its own rhythms and different complexities. And this leads me to wonder about whether there may be a physical component to Gary Davis’ musical abilities, which are so far exceed those of just about every other guitarist and make him seem almost superhuman. Does the complexity of his patterns, the subtlety of his touch and his technique of drawing a whole band’s compliment of percussive sounds from every part of his instrument come from years of experiencing life through his fingertips? Is that the secret to the magic of Reverend Gary Davis’ playing? Or is it that, combined with his single-minded faith in God? Or both, or neither? This is an unanswerable question, posed for consideration, not solution…
J.B. Long contacted him some years later with an offer to record him again. Davis refused. However, he’d developed a liking for New York City, and he began to visit throughout the 1940s. He married Annie Mae “Mother” Wright in December 1943 and then moved up north, where they remained for the rest of their lives.
In 1945 Davis made his first recording in a decade for Moses Asch, an acetate called “Civil War March” that remained unissued until finally released on a 1967 Folkways compilation which Charles Edward Smith described “a lively and fascinating pastiche on a marching band” of a guitar solo with “stringy charm and versatility…which is mildly satirical and deals in innuendo.” Yes, it’s true: Rev. Davis was a Godly man but he had his earthly vices, and while he’d speak no words that were imposed upon him nor do anything unless he chose to do so, he’d sing what he wanted to sing about whatever was on his mind, whenever he wanted to sing it, as long as Mother wasn’t around. When his wife was present the Reverend remained reverent.
He made his living as a Harlem street singer and stepped into a studio again in 1949, this time for Harry Lim’s Continental Records, resulting in two sides of a single 78 on his Lenox subsidiary, “I Can’t Bear My Burden By Myself” and “Meet Me At The Station.” These three sides, the connection between his first 78s from the mid-1930s and the 1960s LPs which would make him a living legend among folk musicians and their fans, are best heard on Document DOCD-5060, a picture of Davis on the cover, holding the wooden Gibson guitar that he used in his second round of recording, the sound of which was so different than that of his earlier ARC recordings on which he played a steel National resonator, best suited for the amplification necessary to be heard in a public place. It’s appropriate at this stage, at this tipping point between his Early and Late periods, that he sings of the difficulty of bearing his troubles throughout his journey, and how important it is to have someone to accompany him as he makes his way through life. If there’s preserved moment in time that most exemplifies his message, this may be the one…in the middle of the song that he sang halfway through his career he stops singing and he explains, he preaches, simply and in gentle spoken words, that:
“There’s come time you want to tell somebody something. When you ain’t got nobody to talk with you that when you make you feel like you’re lonesome by yourself. When you meet people just like yourself, you know, cryin’ like you, you haven’t bettered yourself none. But when you meet somebody done cried to know what to tell you to stop you from cryin’…you feel like all loose in yourself then, tell them what the matter. Lawd, Lawd, well, well…”
I could go on. I could go on and on about Reverend Gary Davis, but in discographical lists words mean less as a litany of titles grows in length, and so I’ll just say that after Gary Davis sat down with Alan Lomax’ wife Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold to dictate his memoirs in what would result in over three hundred pages of written transcription he proceeded to put down a massive body of work on magnetic tape in New York City studios making LPs for Folkways, Riverside, Stinson, Folk-Lyric and Prestige, as well as doing dozens of hours of concert and home recordings. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he worked Moses Asch, Sam Charters, Chris Albertson, John Gibson, Tony Schwartz, Fred Gerlach, Tiny Robinson, and most importantly, Stefan Grossman, the guitar student who became his most important ally during the second half of his career and who is responsible for the release of hours of excellent, intimate Gary Davis home recordings on his own private label.
The wave of 1960s folk guitarists that included Grossman, Woody Mann, David Bromberg, Dave Van Ronk, Steve Katz, Roy Book Binder and Duck Baker all owe a debt to the guitar teacher who began his own career decades earlier playing with first generation guys like Willie Walker, Bull City Red, Blind Boy Fuller and Sonny Terry. Through his students his influence extended to The Velvet Underground, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Blues Project, Blood, Sweat & Tears, the Kweskin and Muldaur bands and many others.
The time that Davis spent in Greenwich Village at Gerde’s Folk City in the early 1960s put him into contact with young musicians like Bob Dylan, who covered his “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” on his self-titled debut album. Further down the timeline his impact modern music became apparent when The Grateful Dead, Hot Tuna and The Rolling Stones all covered his songs on their albums, and after them came the next wave with Rory Bloch, John Gorka, Suzanne Vega and Frank Christian.
Reverend Gary Davis played at Columbia University and Carnegie Hall and Newport. He traveled to England with the Blues and Gospel Caravan [again, see Document’s Manchester Free Trade CD]. He returned to England in 1965 with Buffy Saint-Marie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and then once again for a successful tour in 1971, just months before his heart finally gave out on May 5, 1972. His health had slipped since he’d returned home to the United States, but after a lifetime of waiting, Reverend Davis was all prepared. Brother, when God get ready, you got to move…
He lived his life, and in the end his words and his music remain. His message is right there within it all, spread across the recordings that continue to be issued and reissued to new audiences from each new generation. The songs are full of love and pain, but what’s notably absent in them is hatred and blame. Reverend Gary Davis was no saint — he was as much a troubled man as any man who’s born, and he was one of those men who managed to get through his life by simply managing it well, on his own when he had to do so, and with those who cared about him when he was lucky to have them around him. And always, always, with a sense of faith in a greater good, and in God above looking down on him and waiting for that time when Gary Davis would be called home. Until that day, he sang his songs, and although he always had his apprehensions about being thought of as a bluesman, and for making money for what he felt was nothing more and nothing less than his true purpose, he sang his spiritual songs from within that tradition, that sound that for lack of a better, more accurate description is called The Blues. And in that light, I’d like to finish this off with someone else’s last words, words from the author and musician Samuel Charters, in the final paragraph of his book The Poetry Of The Blues:
“There will be social change, too, in the United States, and if the blues simply mirrored the protest of the moment they would finally have little more than an historical interest, like the songs of the suffragettes or the Grange movement. Instead, as the Negro in America has struggled to find a life on the other side of the racial line he has turned to the blues as the expression of his personal and immediate experience, and in their directness and their concern with what the singers call the “…true feeling” the blues express a larger human reality. In the honesty of their emotion is an insistent reminder that on either side of the racial line live only other men and women, who find the same moments of pain and joy in the experience of life.”
“Jonathan Oldstyle” is a pseudonym used by the American author and filmmaker Jon Zeiderman to acknowledge his gratitude to two writers whose work is important to him: Joseph Heller and Washington Irving.
AN AFTERNOON WITH REVEREND GARY DAVIS At Allegheny College, Meadville, PA. 1964 notes by Gary Atkinson. Document Records, 2012
RED RIVER BLUES by Bruce Bastin. University of Illinois Press, 1995.
REVEREND GARY DAVIS – If I Had My Way: Early Home Recordings notes by John Cohen. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2003.
BLIND GARY DAVIS – Harlem Street Singer notes by Larry Cohen. Prestige/Bluesville, 1961.
REVEREND GARY DAVIS – A Little More Faith notes by Larry Cohen, Prestige/Bluesville, 1961.
REVEREND GARY DAVIS – Say No To The Devil notes by Larry Cohen, Prestige/Bluesville, 1962.
THE POETRY OF THE BLUES by Samuel Charters. Oak Publications, 1963.
BLUES & GOSPEL RECORDS 1890-1943 by Robert Dixon, John Godrich and Howard Rye. Clarendon Press, 1997.
AMERICAN STREET SONGS notes by Kenneth S. Goldstein. Riverside Records, 1961
REVEREND GARY DAVIS – Manchester Free Trade Hall 1964 notes by Bob Groom. Document Records, 2007
DEMONS AND ANGELS – Reverend Gary Davis: The Ultimate Collection notes by Stefan Grossman. Shanachie Entertainment, 2001.
REV. GARY DAVIS – Pure Religion And Bad Company notes by Paul Oliver. 77 Records, 1962
THE PENGUIN GUIDE TO BLUES RECORDINGS by Tony Russell and Chris Smith, Penguin Books, 2006.
REVEREND BLIND GARY DAVIS – Meet You At The Station: The Vintage Recordings 1935-1949 notes by Chris Smith. Document Records 1991 & 2007
OH, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL CITY: A Tribute to Rev. Gary Davis by Robert Tilling. Mel Bay Publications, 2010.
BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME: Twenty-Five Years of American Music at Folk City by Robbie Wolliver. Pantheon, 1986.
SAY NO TO THE DEVIL: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis by Ian Zack. The University of Chicago Press, 2015.