Thursday, 23 August 2012

Rev Gary Davis playing Candy Man

there are a number of cover versions on Little Martha, and we'll be hunting down some amazing footage of the originals over the next few months...

first up we have:

From the king of ragtime guitar, and one of my many great heroes, Rev.Gary Davis, the funnest guitar player of all time.


Gary Davis was born in 1896 in Laurens, South Carolina and he was blind from the age of 2, which was of course mandatory for blues singers. He became a street musician, a ragtime picker and blues shouter. He first recorded in New York in 1935, playing second guitar on sessions with Blind Boy Fuller, but a couple of years later he was ordained and subsequently gave up singing the blues (''the devil's music'') altogether. He'd either sing Christian songs (everyone should hear his joyful ''Say No To The Devil'') or play ragtime instrumentals. By the 40s he was living in New York and teaching guitar and I suppose it's because of a couple of his students - Stefan Grossman and Ry Cooder - that Rev. Gary Davis is one of the folk musicians that became more famous when they were rediscovered during the 60s folk revival than they ever were in the first place.

My Dad had a record from the 60s of Davis recorded in his house by Stefan Grossman. I still have the album. It's called Ragtime Guitar, appropriately enough (they can't have rejected many titles before they hit on that one). The album had a huge effect on me when I was a kid. His guitar playing, which is sort of clumsy, sounded magical to me. It was playful, humorous and mischievous. When I heard it, I realised for the first time that it was possible to express your personality through an instrument. There are guitarists who can play much faster than he could, ones who can play much more complicated stuff, but so often they don't have any personality, any character. Their kind of musicianship is more like a kind of sport. Davis, on the other hand, had personality in spades. He makes mistakes too. He tries stuff out, and sometimes it doesn't work. This isn't a precise, robotic kind of music. I remember in the sleevenotes, Grossman writing about how important it was to record Davis in his home, where he was at his most relaxed. I always liked that. There's even a little bit on the album where he has a chat with his wife, and then he starts playing the next tune. I vividly remember sitting in front of the speakers and listening to this and seeing the whole neck of the guitar in my mind's eye, visualising it as if it was a road or a town even, with all these different points of interest in it, these different things that could happen. Hearing this album was when I started really liking guitars and liking the idea of being a guitar player. It's one of the first things I really listened to. I was learning how to listen. It's still a touchstone album for me, one that I will put on to cheer myself up or to remind me why I got into music in the first place.

A few years after I first heard Gary Davis, a folk musician called Derek Brimstone came to Wymeswold to play in the back room of the pub. Derek Brimstone had been a folk club musician for years, since the sixties. Like Billy Connolly or Jasper Carrott who came from the same world, he was more noted for his jokes than for the songs he would play. I guess I was about ten years old by then, around about 1993 or 94. I got up in the middle of Derek's set and did a couple of the Rev. Gary Davis tunes that I had learnt from Stefan Grossman's guitar tab books. I was terrified! Performing in front of 50 or so grown-ups! I think I got through the tunes OK. Derek was really sweet to me. It turned out that he had toured England with Gary Davis many years before and he told me stories about him. By Derek Brimstone's account, Davis was every bit as loveable in life as his recordings suggest he was. I remember too, I think I will always remember, Derek Brimstone singing the Rev Gary Davis version of Delia (All My Friends Are Gone) that night; just as beautiful and measured a performance of a song as I have ever heard.  

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