Reverend Gary Davis (1896-1972), guitar virtuoso and folk-blues giant, moved from Durham, N.C. to New York City, where he struggled for years as a blind street singer and storefront preacher. Working at first as an instructor through Brownie McGhee’s Harlem-based folk music school, Davis then served as a mentor to a generation of acoustic players who’d lead the folk boom in the Village, Cambridge and elsewhere, including Happy Traum, Eric von Schmidt, Patrick Sky, David Bromberg and Bob Dylan. John Kruth spoke with musicians touched by Gary Davis’s genius and eccentricities.
On December 6, 1949, the legendary “King of the 12 String Guitar,” Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, gave up the ghost. Although his nickname made the notoriously violent singer seem invincible, his death wasn’t caused by anything nearly as mythic as drinking strychnine-laced whisky or taking a couple rounds of hot lead to the gut, but from the devastating onslaught of Lou Gehrig’s disease.
A concert held in his honor took place at Town Hall, New York City, on January 20, 1950, featuring performances by his friends, folk legends Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, as well as the Piedmont blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
Following a recording session with talent scout/producer J.B. Long (who discovered and recorded Reverend Gary Davis in 1935), Sonny and Brownie made New York their home, in hopes of making a name for themselves as the folk boom began rumbling on college campuses around the Northeast.
Brownie McGhee soon started a school of folk music in Harlem dubbed “Home of the Blues” and employed Reverend “B.” (short for “Brother”) Davis who had migrated earlier from Durham, North Carolina, as a part-time guitar instructor. Most likely it was Brownie who was responsible for squeezing the Reverend onto the bill at the tribute to Lead Belly.
Suddenly the Reverend, looking like he’d been to Golgotha and back, appeared unannounced from behind the curtain, kicking off the evening’s second set with his version of “You Got to Move” (a song also attributed to Mississippi Fred McDowell that was later made famous by the Rolling Stones) along with his pristine ragtime instrumental “Marine Band.” As the immaculately hip comedian Lord Richard Buckley once said about Jesus: “When he laid it down, wham! It stayed there.”
“You Got To Move”-Rev. Gary Davis:
John Cohen, a fledging folk musician at the time, soon to form the New Lost City Ramblers with Tom Paley and Mike Seeger, was in the house that night. He recalled the impromptu performance as “stunning,” claiming he never “witnessed or even imagined such a guitar virtuoso before.”
Although he’d been playing on the street corners of Durham since his mid-twenties, the Reverend, now 53, was “discovered” by a largely white, educated, middle-class audience that initially was more interested in his hot guitar picking and gravelly blues-holler than getting that old-time religion. The painter/folk-blues singer Eric von Schmidt, who later befriended the Reverend at the Cambridge, Massachusetts coffeehouse Club 47, recalled Davis ranting on “about the Virgin and the Lamb with that stinking cigar butt wagging in his jaw” while preaching “about sinners with a gin-soaked tongue.”
The Reverend Gary Davis led a dual life, inhabiting two vastly different worlds, preaching in storefront churches, and playing religious songs for Harlem’s black community, while personifying the living repository of black musical and cultural tradition for a burgeoning generation of hippies hanging around Greenwich Village coffee houses. Although invited into his home for guitar lessons, very few of his students ever witnessed the other side of the Reverend’s life,
“Jesus was just part of the tradition of gospel music,” his “lead-boy” and sometime partner, banjo picker Barry Kornfeld, said. “It was foreign to me. It wasn’t something I grew up with, but then again, now that I think about it, the music was foreign too. I remember going to the Second Southern Baptist Church in the Bronx to see him preach, and my impression was that the people really got something out of their religion. The emotional response from the congregation was incredibly powerful. I had never attended a black service before. It was really moving. When the Reverend got rolling, it wasn’t just him, it was the whole church that got rolling! They responded to the sermon in ways I had never seen before in temple or at any church service.”
“He never tried to convert anybody that I knew of,” said ace guitarist David Bromberg, who first met the Reverend in 1962 at the Dragon’s Den on Bleecker Street. “His preaching was frequently incomprehensible. His elocution was very stylized. When he got to preaching, there were times I couldn’t tell what the hell he was saying. He had a very heavy Black Carolina accent.”
When the Reverend got rolling, it wasn’t just him, it was the whole church that got rolling!
Armed with his jumbo-bodied Gibson J-200, the Reverend would amble down to the corner of 138th Street and Lenox Avenue to broadcast the Lord’s word. Although the street was rife with thieves and hustlers, Brother Davis soldiered on, day after day, through every kind of imaginable encounter, while singing about Jesus with a tin cup pinned to the lapel of his overcoat. There were days when he made nothing at all and other times, when his money-maker was shakin’, he claimed to have brought in between fifty and a hundred dollars.
Soon after the Lead Belly tribute, John Cohen, who was working at the office of People’s Songs (the forerunner to Sing Out! magazine) volunteered to chauffer Davis from the Bronx to a downtown hootenanny and began taking guitar lessons from the Reverend.
Gaining the confidence of the Reverend Davis, Cohen, in 1952, lugged a wire recorder onto the subway and trained up to Gary’s apartment in the Bronx, to capture Davis’s vast repertoire for posterity. Unhappy with the tape’s sound quality, John saved his money and bought a new portable ¼-inch Pentron reel-to-reel the following year. His second session yielded a dozen songs (plus a few tunes from Gary’s friend Kinny Peebles, who sold Italian ices on the same Harlem street corner where the Reverend used to sing). Ultimately, John’s tapes were deemed unworthy of commercial release at the time due to their substandard recording quality. Occasionally the mix was unbalanced, due to the positioning of the microphone, which, at times favored the Reverend’s guitar over his voice.
The album, If I Had My Way: Early Home Recordings, finally saw the light of day 50 years later when it was released by Smithsonian Folkways in 2003, with copious notes and photos by Cohen. It is a fascinating document, as it contains a handful of tunes Davis never recorded again. Gary’s wife, Annie, can also be heard adding ethereal harmonies on a few of Davis’s rustic gospel numbers.
“I Am The Light Of This World”-Rev. Gary Davis:
“The first time I saw him was in 1956 at the Circle in the Square in the Village,” (producer/former vice president of Epic Records) Lawrence Cohn recalled. “It was with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and the headliner that night was Josh White. Gary kept falling asleep on stage and when it came time for him to play, Brownie would elbow him in the ribs and Gary would jump to attention and would pick up in mid-stream. He only used two fingers, that’s it, his thumb and index finger. I said to myself it’s impossible. It just can’t be done.”
To pay his rent and have something to chew after saying grace, the Reverend taught a new generation of mostly white guitarists (there were a few black students among his flock that included Taj Mahal and Larry Johnson) at his humble home in the Bronx.
Lawrence Cohn recalled taking one guitar lesson from the Reverend: “I went up to his house after having just proudly purchased a Gibson J-200 at Manny’s Music and was very excited. He asked me to play something for him, when he suddenly grabbed my fingers and put them where he wanted them to be. That terrified me. It freaked me out and I never took another lesson from him. Quite stupidly, I didn’t go back.”
“In 1956, I worked at a summer camp called Buck’s Rock with my friend Tony Saletan,” Barry Kornfeld recalled. “Once I went to visit Tony in Boston and he introduced me to Manny Greenhill [who managed Joan Baez, as well as Gary Davis] who, for some reason got it in his head that Gary and I would make a good duo. I think, in part it was because I had a car and he was looking for somebody to make sure that Gary got there,” Barry chuckled.
Kornfeld first met Gary through [Lead Belly’s niece] Tiny Robinson, who hosted weekly soirees on Tuesday nights at her Lower East Side apartment. He was already familiar with the album that featured Davis on one side and Pink Anderson [as in Pink Floyd fame] on the other.
“We did a concert at Boston Symphony Hall that Manny produced. It wasn’t in the hall but in the basement for a couple hundred people. Boston had a very active folk scene, in many ways more than New York. I was still in college at the time, so I wound up traveling around with Gary. We played at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959 and played at the Golden Vanity in Boston.”
“Samson & Delilah”-Rev. Gary Davis, live at the Newport Folk Festival, 1959:
“Being around the Village in those days I saw Gary Davis countless times,” recalled composer/multi-instrumentalist David Amram. “Jack Elliott, who was one of the best flat-pickers around, used to talk about what a tremendous player Gary was, and Dave Van Ronk did too. Dave would come down to the Five Spot in 1957 and talk about the differences between Trotsky and Lenin and the permutations of the Russian Revolution. But I was more interested in the chords that Brazilian guitarists used. In turn, he told me about Reverend Gary Davis’s finger-picking style. Dave didn’t consider himself a folklorist, but he was enormously knowledgeable about different kinds of music.”
Jack Elliott, who was one of the best flat-pickers around, used to talk about what a tremendous player Gary was, and Dave Van Ronk did too.
With the help of Tiny Robinson and 12-string guitarist Fred Gerlach, the Reverend recorded Pure Religion and Bad Company in June 1957. The album contained fifteen classics from Gary’s repertoire and was first issued on the London based label 77 Records.
“Pure Religion”-Rev. Gary Davis:
“The first major concert I ever played was around 1958 or ’59 at Town Hall,” guitarist Happy Traum recalled. “It was a prestigious hall, and I was only 19 years old. I was still in college at the time, at NYU. It was with Pete Seeger, Reverend Gary Davis and me and Barry Kornfeld as a duo. It was a big deal for me at the time, being on stage with Pete Seeger and the Reverend.”
While things had begun to look up for Davis’ career, the Reverend continued to face all sorts of degradation on a daily basis…
“Gary told us all sorts of stories,” Lawrence Cohn recalled. “When he was playing on the streets of Harlem, before he was rediscovered, he would get tired and sit down on the stoop to rest and invariably someone would come along and steal his guitar and his tin cup full of money. He said he couldn’t even count how many guitars were taken from him. It’s hard to imagine, but it happened.”
Davis later claimed a total of five guitars, as well as his Braille wristwatch had been stolen during his street singing years. Once he was robbed on Lenox Avenue at two in the morning by two men who at first befriended him, but then, as they walked along, one of them attempted to slip his hand into his pocket and grab his billfold. As Davis reached in his pocket for his knife, they began to beat him.
“If I had me a pistol, I wouldn’t be sittin’ here. I woulda killed ‘em both. I could eat a nail I was so mad,” he told Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold (wife of musicologist Alan Lomax) in an interview in the spring of 1951.
“Death Don’t Have No Mercy”-Rev. Gary Davis:
While he considered himself a servant of the Lord, Gary’s temper could quickly turn whenever he was provoked. Back in his early days in North Carolina, he allegedly stabbed some joker who’d playfully grabbed a dollar bill from his hand. Luckily, the fool lived to see another day and all charges were dropped.
Lawrence Cohn recalled an episode when John Lee Hooker unknowingly risked life and limb after messing with the Reverend: “Once we went to a party at [banjoist/guitarist] Dick Weissman’s house. A lot of people from the New York scene were there, including Pete Seeger and Sonny and Brownie, as well as [Lead Belly’s wife] Martha Ledbetter and Tiny Robinson. Gary was sitting with John Lee Hooker, who was a very close friend of mine, as well as Lead Belly’s family. Gary and John Lee didn’t know each other from a hole in the wall. The Reverend picked up his guitar and played for a while when John Lee reached over and grabbed it out of his hands and said, ‘Give me that guitar, old man, I’ll show you how to play.’ This was uncharacteristic of Hooker who was the sweetest, most even-tempered guy, who didn’t drink or do drugs…I thought “oh my God, there’s gonna be a killing here because Gary was known to carry a gun.” The irony was that Hooker could play in one key at best and Gary was one of the greatest guitar players who ever lived,” Cohn chuckled.
Although the Reverend trusted in Jesus, he also was known to rely on his pistol, “Miss Ready,” as he called her, whenever needing a more immediate brand of justice. The life of an itinerant musician frequently hangs in the balance and depends on cold, hard cash as they tend to live from hand to mouth. Reverend Davis usually expected to be paid up front and in full, before gracing the stage.
“Now I got this second-hand,” singer/songwriter Tom Rush said. “But there was a tight-knit folkie community in Cambridge and stories got passed around pretty quickly and accurately. One night at a club called the Golden Vanity, near BU [Boston University], the owner, a guy named Carl Bowers, paid Gary in ones and told him they were twenties. The next day Gary came tap-tap-tapping down the street into the door of the Golden Vanity and said, ‘Where’s Carl?’ Somebody said, ‘He’s in the back, in the office.’ Tap-tap, Gary goes back to the office and draws his gun on Carl. The Reverend packed heat! He always used to say, ‘If I can hear it, I can hit it.’ Gary got paid properly and left and I don’t think Carl ever made that mistake again.”
I thought “oh my God, there’s gonna be a killing here because Gary was known to carry a gun.” The irony was that Hooker could play in one key at best and Gary was one of the greatest guitar players who ever lived.
Eric von Schmidt’s version of the “Shootout at the Golden Vanity” was a bit more colorful. He claimed to have watched in surprise one night while Gary grumbled as he was handed a check after an evening’s performance.
“When the Vanity opened, I played back-up guitar for Sonny Terry as his regular partner, Brownie McGhee couldn’t appear that night due to a contract conflict. Blind himself, Sonny took as few chances as possible and insisted on being paid in cash. Sonny had the owner pay me, then I counted the money out loud as I put it in his hand, bill by bill. I’m glad he felt he could trust me. I was paid twenty bucks, by check which I promptly lost. Months later I found it, along with some lint, a matchbook and loose change, while searching for something else under the front seat of my car. When I deposited it, it bounced! When the Reverend returned to New York City and discovered his check had yo-yoed, he vowed to pay a personal visit to the Golden Vanity on his next visit to Boston.”
Upon entering the club, the Rev. not only loudly demanded his money, but like a crazed geriatric Wyatt Earp, whipped out a nickel-plated pistol from the depths of his overcoat and furiously waved it in the general direction of Sin, begging the customers for more specific aiming instruction, or as Eric recalled “the exact position of the club owner’s ass!”
“Although the details aren’t correct, Eric’s story is basically true,” Barry Kornfeld chuckled. “It certainly has the feel of what it was like traveling with Gary.”
Beyond the particulars, there is something unnerving about the thought of a blind man wielding a gun. As David Bromberg recalled: “I remember being in his basement for a lesson once. He had just gotten a brand-new BB gun that day and was so proud of it that he shot it off into the ceiling a few times. BBs were ricocheting all over the place. It could’ve taken an eye out. But he couldn’t see anyway, so I guess he didn’t care.”
“The first time I saw him was at the Gaslight in the Village around 1964 or ’65,” folksinger/uilleann piper Patrick Sky recalled. “I knew Gary from playing clubs and concerts. I wouldn’t exactly say that we were close, but we got along quite well. We played at some club in Phoenix, Arizona and they put us up in a motel. Gary’s room was next to mine. He certainly liked to have a few sips of whiskey, so I went out and bought a bottle and knocked on his door to have a few drinks and he was sitting there, polishing a thirty-ought-six rifle,” Sky laughed. “I remember him having pistols, but that was a long rifle! I don’t know how he traveled with the thing or got it on the plane.”
Barry Melton, the curly-haired lead guitarist with the psychedelic San Francisco band, Country Joe and the Fish, found himself nose to muzzle with the Reverend’s pistol early one morning. During the mid-Sixties, Melton lived in Berkeley, next door to a tiny folk club called the Jabberwock. Bill “Jolly Blue” Ehlert, the venue’s proprietor, was bringing the Reverend to town to play the Berkeley Community Theatre. A fan of Reverend Davis, Barry kindly offered him the use of his bedroom for the duration of his visit.
Things went fine for the first few days. Barry cooked breakfast for the Rev and escorted him around town on various errands. They would hang around in the kitchen, smoking and playing music until the wee hours of the morning. That night after the concert Davis made sure he was paid in cash.
Beyond the particulars, there is something unnerving about the thought of a blind man wielding a gun.
“He brought me with him to collect the money and made me read off the denomination of each bill,” Melton recalled. “It was counted into his hand, and I remember him stashing the larger portion of his money into the sound hole of his Gibson J-200, while leaving some traveling money rolled up in his pockets.”
The next morning, as the Reverend slumbered, Barry tiptoed into his room to retrieve some clothes from his dresser drawer: “I was very quiet, as I could hear Rev snoring and didn’t want to wake him. I got what I needed and headed toward the door when I heard in a commanding voice, ‘Don’t move or you’re dead!’” Melton froze. There was the Reverend waving a pistol in his general direction, “sort of moving around, so as to cover a wider target area.”
“No! Don’t shoot!” Melton begged. ‘One wrong move and you’re dead.” Davis growled, warning the intruder again. Barry did some fast talking: “Don’t shoot Rev.! It’s me! Barry! I was only getting something from my chest of drawers!”
“Is that you, Barry?” Davis asked.
“I guess, from his perspective, it must have been weird to be alone, blind, on the road, 3,000 miles from home, rooming with a bunch of young, lunatic musicians. But to this day, the picture of Reverend Gary Davis that sticks in my mind the most is early in the morning, half-awake and blind as a bat, with a .38 in his hand pointed in my general direction. It was one of the most frightening moments of my life. I’ll never forget it.” Melton laughed, happy to be alive.
Davis’s love affair with guns was just part of the picture. One must wonder how the Rev would fare these days when cancel-culture calls out every alleged sex offender from Al Franken to Pepé Le Pew, the “odor-able” French cartoon skunk. Would he survive the current purge for singing his lascivious date-rape saga, “She Wouldn’t Say Quit”? Would his uncontrollable urge to squeeze female fans have him cast forever into purgatory?
It was like the first time you heard Roland Kirk or Charlie Parker records or saw John Coltrane or Muddy Waters live. Ultimately, he made me happy. Gary Davis brought happiness to a lot of people.
“There were several parties that I went to where he’d hit on women like mad,” Happy Traum said. “He was a horny lecherous old guy. He’d be playing his guitar when some Jewish girl we used to call ‘Bagel Babies’ would come up to him and say, ‘I love your playing Reverend, and he’d say ‘Come here, ‘I gotta feel what you look like’ and grope the hell out of her.”
“He was a pretty wild guy,” Patrick Sky recalled. “He loved women. A woman once told me he had the fastest hands in the West. These girls would come up and say ‘Reverend, I really like your music’ and the next thing you know he’s got his arm around them and is pinchin’ their tits.”
“C’mon! He was a dirty old man,” Lawrence Cohn concurred. “Gary had a great penchant for pinching women’s asses. He had amazing radar. A good-looking girl walked by and he always got her ass.”
Despite a blatant lack of propriety, the Reverend believed his Jesus was filled with forgiveness as he repeatedly ping-ponged between the sacred and the profane.
“Music is the key to spiritual revival. Psychedelic drugs were too!” said Danny Kalb, former lead guitarist for the Blues Project. “I was deeply into the blues and had heard the Reverend Gary Davis’s record Harlem Street Singer before I started taking lessons from Dave Van Ronk. I was deeply affected by the singing and the playing of this man. Some guitarists just heard his incredible playing, but for me, I saw it as a total experience in relationship to nature and God. It didn’t speak of small things. It had the power to change your life. It was like the first time you heard Roland Kirk or Charlie Parker records or saw John Coltrane or Muddy Waters live. Ultimately, he made me happy. Gary Davis brought happiness to a lot of people.”
Davis was, as Bob Dylan dubbed him, “One of the wizards of modern music.”
While the Reverend’s reputation blossomed as a guitarist and singer (his soul shout was second only to Ray Charles) in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village, Cambridge, and Berkeley, he began to make a name for himself in England as part of “The Blues and Gospel Train” package tour, in May 1964, which featured Muddy Waters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Otis Spann, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
“Baby Let Me Follow You Down”-Bob Dylan and the Band, Last Waltz. This version was based on Eric Von Schmidt’s adaptation of Rev. Gary Davis’s version:
His songs eventually caught fire with the public through recordings by Peter, Paul and Mary (“If I had My Way”), Bob Dylan (“Baby Let Me Follow You Down”), the Grateful Dead (“Death Don’t Have No Mercy”), Taj Mahal (“Candy Man”), Hot Tuna (“Hesitation Blues” and “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning”) and the Blasters (“Samson and Delilah”) just to name a few.
“I’ll Be Alright Some Day”-Rev. Gary Davis song covered by Jorma Kaukonen:
Reverend Gary Davis did his “last singin’ in this land” before meeting his maker in Hammonton, New Jersey, 49 ago, on May 5, 1972. The man’s impact on a younger generation of guitarists is incalculable. Davis was, as Bob Dylan dubbed him, “One of the wizards of modern music.”
He even made the Dead talk! As a member of the world’s most famous jam band, Bob Weir viewed the Reverend as his mentor, and appreciated his improvisational approach to playing, telling John Sievert of Guitar Player in 1981: “I never took any formal lessons from anybody except Reverend Gary Davis. He wasn’t as tightly structured by the blues as those other guys [who] were confined in some ways. I’m quite sure he’ll resurface as time goes on.”
Bob’s illustrious band-mate, Jerry Garcia, agreed, telling Sievert, “He was always kind of overlooked, but technically speaking he’s definitely the best of them.”