During a recent cable news interview marking the inauguration of Barack Obama, Quincy Jones recounted a conversation he had had with the new president in which he tried to persuade the Commander-in-Chief that what America really needs is a Secretary of the Arts. France and England have one, Jones said, as do numerous other less prosperous countries.
I won’t argue the merits of such an office, but I will say that if it did exist, I’d wholeheartedly nominate Guy Davis to the ministerial post.
Davis is an American treasure. The son of actor-intellectual-patriot-activists Ruby Dee and the late Ossie Davis, Guy Davis came of age along with civil rights. His work is infused with a keen sense of history, an acknowledgement of the contradictions among and within people, and, perhaps most significantly, an endless supply of humor and hope. In short, Davis’s music evokes the artistic sound, spirit, and aesthetic of America. It’s raw and bluesy, playful and ironic, sincere and honest. It’s comedy and tragedy. It’s folk music and music about folks. An accomplished actor onscreen and onstage (he played the title role in an off-Broadway play about Faustian blues legend Robert Johnson), Davis has the rare gift of being able to simply convey the complexity and nuances inherent in interpersonal relations, using only the simple tools of his trade—-a beat-up acoustic guitar, an old harmonica, and a voice with enough gravel to pave the interstate.
And if Davis did want to be head of his nation’s art department, Sweetheart Like You, his latest album, could easily serve as his audition piece. Filled with stripped down swamp ballads, upscale Delta blues romps, political musings, and his omnipresent wicked sense of humor (subtle and not so subtle varieties included), it epitomizes a Guy Davis album. And while it may not be his most artistically significant work (see 2000’s brilliant Butt Naked Free), it is certainly his most expansive, covering multiple genres and lyrical forms, the culmination of his previous releases.
The album-opening title track, a cover from Bob Dylan’s overlooked 1983 Infidels record, is certainly a highlight. The song is a showcase of Davis’s abilities as a performer and interpreter. With achingly beautiful harmonica and heart wrenching vocals, Davis manages to make the song his own while being true to Dylan’s vision. The phrasing and the lyrics are definitely Dylan, but the emotion and the rawness are all Davis.
“Slow Motion Daddy” is Davis at his most devilish. Based on a Utah Phillips story, the song, oozing sexual imagery, manages to satirize everything from relationships and gender roles to power and government: “You know I need my rest / So I can do my best / A woman appreciates a ready man / I treat my women good / The way I stack my wood / I put’em on my slow motion plan”.
“Words to My Mama’s Song,” a tribute to Davis’s mother, Ruby Dee, is among the most creative songs Davis has written. Featuring the beat boxing, vocal percussion, and spoken word poetry of Davis’s teenage son Martial, the song is an exciting amalgam of Delta blues and hip-hop.
True to his roots, Davis includes unique versions of three blues classics on Sweetheart Like You. Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” is performed slowly and methodically, with Davis performing the main riff on his harmonica. “Can’t Be Satisfied,” the legendary Muddy Waters tune, is deftly played by Davis on a five-string banjo. And the Big Joe Williams anthem “Baby Please Don’t Go,” on which Davis shows why he is such an exciting blues singer, features growling vocals and stride-like piano.
The real high points on Sweetheart Like You, however, appear towards the album’s end. “Angels Are Calling” is a pop gem about growing old. It is as infectious as anything Davis has written and is sure to be covered in the years to come. And “Ain’t Goin’ Down,” a cover of a Lead Belly field recording, features Davis easily giving the most emotional recorded performance of his career. When Davis sings “I ain’t goin’ down / I ain’t goin’ down / I was a true believer / But I don’t believe no more,” goose bumps are inevitable.
On his previous albums, Davis proved he could keep the Delta sound of Lead Belly and others alive and well. But Sweetheart Like You is more than just an acoustic blues smorgasbord. The lyrics are inspiring and the music is moving, resulting in an album with cross-genre appeal. Davis has already made his case as the premier blues musician of his generation. Perhaps one day soon he can add Secretary of the Arts to an already impressive list of accomplishments.