Reverend Gary Davis
(April 30, 1896 – May 5, 1972)
Reverend Gary Davis was a towering figure in the world of fingerstyle guitar. Not only was he an incredibly powerful and diverse player, but was also blessed with a voice that could shake you to your soul.
He was of the Piedmont fingerstyle tradition which had a heavy ragtime influence, and counted among his peers Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, and Blind Willie McTell. His seemingly bottomless catalogue was embellished by his prolific writing and boundless creativity and energy. He was definitely one of a kind, his unique style a combination of gospel, blues and ragtime. His music is immediately arresting, intense, and inimitable.
Gary Davis was born blind in Laurens, South Carolina in 1896 and raised by his grandmother. His aptitude for music was discovered at an early age, he could play the harmonica by age five and the guitar by age nine. Some of his first musical experiences came from the Center Raven Baptist Church he attended as a child, it was then that he developed his strong religious convictions which not only helped him deal with his blindness, but also cemented deep gospel roots he would draw upon for the rest of his career. He also broke his right wrist in an accident somewhere around this time, it was never set correctly and accounts for a good deal of his unorthodox fingering and hand positions.
He became a well known street performer in the early 30’s and made a great reputation playing blues and gospel songs for parties and dances around South Carolina. In 1933 he was ordained as a Baptist minister and stopped playing the blues around this time. He made his first solo recording of 15 sides in 1935. Eventually he made it up to New York in 1940 where he continued to work as a street performer until he recorded again in 1956, the result was ‘Gospel, Blues and Street Songs’. The garnered him a lot of attention and he was finally rediscovered the by folk and blues revivalists of the early ‘60s. He continued recording albums and became very popular on the folk circuit and toured throughout the US and even Europe, spreading his gospel message and spellbinding audiences with his power, intensity and virtuosity until his death in 1972.
Here is an amazing performance of Reverend Gary Davis from 1967
It’s hard to identify any one album as the ‘definitive’ Rev Gary Davis, they all have something different to offer, even if it’s different versions of the same songs you already know. It’s also hard to recommend all of his albums, because as with any artist there are artistic and performance lows to match the soaring highs. Ultimately, its going to be what catches your ear and heart that you’ll be drawn to. Here are a few recommendations which highlight different aspects of his style, and some of our favorite performances.
It may seem a little odd to recommend an Davis album that only has eight songs on, but these eight songs with change your life. The power and intensity of these 1956 performances is unrivaled. Pink Anderson is also a good old songster, in our opinion not in the same league as Davis, but interesting and highly listenable. Trivia: Pink Anderson is where Pink Floyd derived half of their name from, the other have being Floyd Council – another Piedmont musician.
This is a great collection of posthumously released material, disc one was recorded at Columbia University,1958-1959, disc two was recorded at home from 1964-1966, and disc three comes from concerts in 1962-1966. Very well rounded, it has some incredible moments, some comical and candid moments, and unfortunately Davis sounding a little tired and sloppy. Well worth a listen.
This is Davis at one of his guitar playing peaks. Recorded in ’57 when he was in his 60s he demonstrates not only what fifty years of guitar playing can add up to, but that the fire inside never extinguished.
Rev Gary Davis’s former student Stefan Grossman has written three books outlining songs, transcriptions and techniques. These books are a handful.
The first instruction guide exclusively about this major innovator and stylist. It reveals Gary Davis’ style of playing and hints about playing in Davis’ own words. More than 20 tunes, including Cocaine Blues, Candyman, and Lost Boy In The Wilderness.
Rev. Gary Davis was a musical giant. His ideas spanned a wide range of techniques and styles. His repertoire featured blues, rags, show instrumentals and gospel songs. He played with his thumb and index finger to pick out complex melodies, rhythmic licks and lightning fast single-string runs. In this book, seven of Rev. Davis’s blues are presented. These arrangements have been performed and recorded by a host of great artists including Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, Hot Tuna, David Bromberg, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch and many others. These lessons are for the intermediate to advanced fingerstyle guitarist. The accompanying three CD lessons teach these arrangements phrase by phrase as well as presenting the original recordings.
In this book, six of Rev. Davis’ Holy Blues are presented– gospel songs with a taste of the blues. The accompanying three CDs of lessons teach these arrangements phrase by phrase as well as presenting the original recordings. These lessons are for the intermediate to advanced fingerstyle guitarist. All of the music is in notation and tablature.