The blind [redacted] street singer is rapidly disappearing from the sidewalks of America. At one time the only course open to a blind man was to adopt the role of the street minstrel as a means of making an honest though frequently meagre-living. But various economic, social and educational factors in American life have tended to destroy such an occupation. The blind man of today is assisted by numerous government and private agencies to achieve technical and other skills necessary to support himself and his family by more socially acceptable means. Governmental ordinances at both the state and local level have outlawed itinerants of all classes – beggars, unlicensed salesmen, and street musicians no longer are free to ply their “trades”. Often such ordinances have been the result of campaigning against noise and nuisances by civic minded groups and individuals; occasionally the driving force behind such moves has been professional musicians organizations and/or unions who seek to protect the livelihood of their members by removing any and all sources of “free” music, which the street musician represents in its epitomy.
Today, when one comes upon a street singer plying his trade under the eyes of the policemen on the beat, most often he will be heard singing religious music. Public temper will not permit the minions of the law to carry out their duty if it means interfering with religion, the most “sacred cow” in modern American culture.
GARRY DAVIS is one of the last of a long line of religious street singers. But his performance of religious songs is motivated by other than a desire to be allowed to continue his street singing. Davis is an ordained minister who appears frequently before numerous store front church congregations in Harlem.
Whether he is singing to passing street audiences or to his “flock”, his performances are always restricted to song-sermons and spirituals. As a young boy in South Carolina, he was raised on blues and party music, as well as religious music. But as a minister of the church he preserves the traditionally adhered to dichotomy between singing religious and secular music – the blues representing “the Devil’s music” to most “hell-fire and brimstone” preachers. Although the Reverend Davis hasn’t sung the blues since his conversion to the church in the early 1930s, his guitar playing and singing style is still basically that of a blues performer. This was also true of many of the street singers of the past. The repertoire of many of them consisted of both blues and spirituals, but a basic blues tonality permeated all of their performances. GARRY DAVIS epitomizes this tradition.
Born in 1896 in Lawrence County, South Carolina, Davis took to string instruments at a very early age, and was an accomplished blues guitarist before he reached his teens. As a young man he played for a short time in a string band in Greenville, South Carolina, his only group experience as an instrumentalist. But dance music and the blues were left behind when Davis was ordained as a minister in Washington, North Carolina, in 1933. Two years later he came to New York City to record a series of remarkable recordings for the now long-defunct Perfect label. Davis became a near-legendary figure as a result of those recordings, though for those in the know he was a live enough reality whose stirring music could be heard on the streets of Harlem on almost any day of the week.
Almost 20 years passed before he was again recorded in April, 1954. In 1956 he once recorded some his “holy blues”, but both of these records have been deleted from their companies catalogs and are now collector’s items.
In August 24th, 1960, Davis was brought to Rudy Van Gelder’s recording studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, by folklorist Kenneth S. Goldstein (who had also been responsible for Davis’ previous recording dates in the ’50s) and “Tiny” Robinson, niece of the late Huddie Ledbetter and long-time friend of Reverend Davis. With his battered, weather-beaten Gibson guitar which had served him so well on the streets of Harlem, Davis immediately became the focus of attention in the magnificent cathedral-ceilinged studio. As the first notes of his fabulous guitar-playing came through the speaker in the control room, it was evident that this was to be Davis at his very best. The recorded results are certainly proof of this.
Davis planned his own program and was well rested for the session. With the exception of one number, all of the tracks on this record are first “takes”. Several times when the engineer suggested resting between takes, Davis insisted on continuing, so intently was he wrapped up in his music. In three hours, he had recorded 20 numbers, a fabulous feat of near-perfection.
His strong, rasping voice, the result of many years of street singing, seemed a perfect complement to the vibrant timbre of his big Gibson guitar. At times it was difficult to tell where the voice ended and the guitar began. Utilizing a device used by many religious and blues singers of the ’20s and ’30s, Davis frequently let the guitar “talk” for him, omitting the singing of a word or phrase and letting the instrument become the “singing voice”.
Davis’ guitar style is basically that of the old country blues singers – a “finger-picking” one. But Davis uses only two fingers, a thumb and forefinger, whereas most guitarists who play in this style use three fingers in addition to the thumb. Not only is Davis’ style unique, but he is also remarkable in that he gets more music out of his instrument with two fingers than most of the finest guitarists can do with three, four of five.
When asked what key he mostly plays in, Davis replied: “I play all over the guitar!” This is an understatement, to say the least. A fascinating bit of his artistry is to play part of a song by sharply hitting the strings with his fretting (left) hand while his right hand takes a short rest.
The numbers themselves are a small part of the vast repertoire of songs which Davis draws from when singing on the streets of Harlem. Samson and Delilah was generally associated with the legendary religious singer, Blind Willie Johnson, who recorded it in 1927 as “If I had My Way I’d Tear that Building Down.” This song-sermon, Davis’ signature tune, together with another biblically-based song, Twelve Gates to the City, are his most frequently requested numbers, now associated with Reverend Davis in much the same way that they were with Johnson more than 30 years.
The camp meeting flavor of an old-time revival is suggested by Let Us Get Together Right Down Here and Goin’ to Sit Down on the Banks of the River. I Belong to the Band speaks of the great day when the Rev. Davis will take his seat in the greatest orchestra of them all – the heavenly band.
Pure Religion, perhaps the most widely known of the songs here recorded, is a sermon sung to the liar, the gambler, and other sinners, warning them that to cross over to salvation they must have that “pure religion,” while Great Change Since I Been Born tells of his own conversion to the church and the change that this new “birth” brought to his life.
Death Don’t Have No Mercy is an ominous recital of the sad inevitability of death for “old death never takes a vacation in this land.”
Trying to Get Home is a shouting spiritual dealing with the oft-recurring theme of “crossing over” to the other side where one is “done with the work of the Devil.” In striking constrasts is the sedate Lo, I Be With You Always, almost psalm-like in its cadences.
I Am the Light of This World and Lord, I Feel Just Like Going On are joyful songs of hope. The latter, perhaps the brightest and most cheerful of all Davis’ numbers, abounds with some remarkable blues forms. In the former, the theme of “heavenly band” is again present, no accidental motif to a musician like Davis.
Reverend Davis’ songs are “holy blues” in the truest sense of the expression. With their roots deep in older religious pieces and their tonality and music configurations in the best tradition of blues and jazz, they form a bridge between the [redacted] folk religion of the last century and the most meaningful American music of today.
Notes: Larry Cohn