Thursday, September 2, 2010

Rev. Gary Davis

"If I Had My Way", by Rev. Gary Davis, was included on a blues/gospel compilation I borrowed from the George F. DeVine music library sometime during my four year stay at the University of Tennessee. I remember how lucky I felt that my dorm was about two blocks from an EXTENSIVE collection of rare blues discs (Yazoo re-releases, Library of Congress reissues from their mighty fine LP recordings made in the field, long ago) and that my honors student status allowed that I should take them from the building, in their pristine status, back to said dorm, in order to give them a very close listening. "If I Had My Way" stood out for the barrelling guitar work, that twinges all the way up the neck and comes back down in tiny picks and whines and slides which to my unattuned ears were at once as delightful as they were surprising. I listened to a lot of Robert Johnson, Skip James, and kind of early piano ragtime kind of stuff in high school (the aforementioned Yazoo records were available through the library catalog, before someone took off with them, never to return), but it was my first brush with "how gospel can be fun", a lesson to be taken up again with Rich Amerson and Rev Utah Smith recordings.

The subject matter of the lyrics, first popularized by Blind Willie Johnson, is actually the Samson and Delilah story from the Old Testament. Though "If I had my way, I would tear this building down" became an oft sung response to "How's work?", it refers to Samson pulling down the columns, in that part of the Samson story where he's pulling down the columns (I never said I was a biblical scholar). I love the colloquial approach to the storytelling-- it puts the idea that hymns have to be sacred and reverent on its ear, this "hymn" earns something in the approachability it preaches.

"Well Delilah, she was a woman fine and fair
She had good looks, God knows and coal black hair
Delilah, she came to Samson's mind
The first he saw this woman that looked so fine
Delilah, she set down on Samson's knee
Said tell me where your strength lies if you please
She spoke so kind, God knows, she talked so fair
'til Samson said 'Delilah, you can cut off my hair
You can shave my head, clean as my hand
And my strength 'come as natural as any a man' "

And you really have to listen to the way its delivered. Which, you can do, as I posted a live video of the man himself...right here.

Another of his, "Sally Where'd You Get Your Liquor From?", as he picks it out on an afghan covered couch. This is someone's living room he's filling up with that sound. Gorgeous.

More songs of his on youtube? "Cocaine Blues" , "Death Don't Have No Mercy", "Candyman". How's THAT for titles?

Today I was reading an interview with Rev. Gary Davis (alternately referred to as "Blind Gary Davis", as he was that too), and was struck with how much his vernacular matches my grandaddy's when I was growing up. South is south, in some cases, I guess. I love how colorfully people used to speak, even about serious things. Some highlights:

  • I was born on the last day of April, which is the thirtieth, in 1896. I was raised in Laurens County, South Carolina, on a farm, way down in the sticks, too. Way down in the country, so far you couldn’t hear a train whistle blow unless it was on a cloudy day.
  • My grandmother mostly raised me. You see, my father gave me to my grandmother when I was a child because he knowed that there was no confidence to be put into my mother. She was always from one place to another, going from different towns and dances. Things like that. So my father gave me to my grandmother. I had one brother. He was a good guitar player. I taught him. He used to keep me up all night long to teach him how to play the guitar. He got killed in 1930. The woman he was going with killed him.
  • Do you know why I hardly never do anything like that? Because its cheap guitar playing stuff. I don’t play no cheap stuff.
  • He suffered a kidney trouble. That’s what killed him. His thigh wasn’t as big as this guitar neck here. That’s the way he went away.
  • His home was in Rockingham, North Carolina. He came up to Durham later. When I first run across him he didn’t know how to play but one piece and that was with a knife. He wanted to take some of my training. I’d sit down and he’d come up to my house everyday and sit down and play. I taught him how to play. He would have been alright if I kept him under me long enough.
  • I knew his wife first. He had gotten away from her. She come to my house, I met her in the streets the first time, lookin’ for him. I took her home with me to my mother’s house. She had been out all night long and hadn’t slept yet. Gave her my bed so she could lay down and sleep. Next day she happened to stumble up upon him, you know. He had got away from her and she didn’t know where he was. She was awful fond of him. She was crazy about him. She never wanted to get too far from him. I can’t talk too much about it because you women know how it is, even if you ain’t married! When you come across somebody that you love you like to keep them close to you.
  • Sometimes people get drunk and get fightin’ and shootin’. All like that happened. I would stop playing and find somewhere to go when that happened because you know me and bullets don’t set horses.
  • I ain’t never heard anybody on a record yet beat Blind Blake on the guitar. I like Blake because he plays right sporty. Blind Lemon Jefferson plays like he wants somebody to feel sorry for him.
  • Well a lot of things I could tell a person if I just had the time to study what they were fishing for. To play blues on a guitar I’d teach them to play the guitar like a piano.
  • When I was coming up, it was so.
  • I played everything I thought of. No religious songs though. Around then I was keen in my "young ways".
  • Long about them days what they called playing well wasn’t what I could call playing well today.

    (You can read the whole interview HERE)

Between what he's talking about and the WAY he's talking about it, you could see how I was mesmerized by the interview. If I can find an old burned copy of his early recordings (the copy I found when I came back from college is STOLEN), I think I'll nose around the track listings and see what else I can dig up about the man. That song alone, however, ought to be enough to sell anyone.

Wikipedia on Rev Gary Davis
A homepage of sorts

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