By becoming an ordained Baptist minister in 1937, Reverend Gary Davis avoided being labeled another “Blind…” somebody. Blues has a long list of these: Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Blind Willie Johnson, the latter of whom we will speak more of in a moment. When pure country blues reached its zenith in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, there was little else a person afflicted with handicaps could do to make ends meet. It seemed that sight-impaired buskers came out of the woodwork, and American music was greatly enhanced for it.
Reverend Gary Davis shared with Blind Willie Johnson the Baptist faith and street performances. There the similarities ended. Davis sang passionately, but he sang nonetheless. His message was embedded in the music. Johnson roared like a possessed man, shouting his verses at passers-by with an apocalyptic fury. Music was merely a vehicle for his message. Being from the Piedmont section of the Carolinas, Davis incorporated a delightful dose of jumpy ragtime into his guitar playing. Johnson was an East Texas slider—in fact, both Ry Cooder and Eric Clapton contend that Johnson was the best slide guitarist ever. And perhaps most distinctively, Gary Davis was willing to veer away from pure gospel songs to include a few danceable if not downright racy numbers in his repertoire. Blind Willie Johnson would have had his tongue ripped out by the roots than sing about anything apart from God. If he had heard Davis performing “She Wouldn’t Say Quit”, Johnson would have plowed up the graveyard.
Live at Newport captures the multi-faceted Reverend Gary Davis during his appearances at the folk festival in July 1965. Vanguard has reissued the original 1967 LP with an essay by John Milward and two additional tracks not previously included. The sound quality of this recording is noteworthy given the limitations of live recordings for the time. Not so exceptional is Davis’ uneven performance.
The album opens with “Samson & Delilah (If I Had My Way)”, one of Davis’ best-known covers and his strongest performance on this collection. The song includes a refrain which states: “if I had my way I’d tear this building down,” a biblical reference to the blinded Samson who was given a final dose of strength enough to destroy a Philistine temple, taking his own life in the process. Ironically, this tune was also a mainstay of Blind Willie Johnson’s repertoire, and he was once arrested in New Orleans for singing (shouting) this song on a street corner in front of a brothel. Davis, on the other hand, destroys the Newport audience with his powerful baritone, the crowd breaking into spontaneous acclamation before the song is over.
Ragtime is delivered in a one-two punch via “Buck Dance” and “Twelve Sticks”, the latter appropriately performed on a 12-string guitar. The former track captures the essence of Davis’ musicianship, a skillful demonstration of his unorthodox two-finger technique. Though clocking in at a mere minute and a half, “Buck Dance” is this album’s highlight, helping the listener to appreciate the lighter and more diverse qualities of Piedmont-style blues. The bouncy track ends with Davis slapping his knees to the rhythm and whispering, “that’s old music.” The audience explodes with applause.
Fans of psychedelia will recognize “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” which was covered by Jefferson Airplane. The performance begins to crumble, however, with “Lovin’ Spoonful” (which inspired the band name). Musically this song is a fascinating expose of alternate tuning. Davis imploys a drop-E and utilizes the same chord changes found in Skip James’ eerie “Worried Blues”. But Davis has several Elvis moments in the song, stammering and forgetting the words. He’s unable the hit the high notes on the aforementioned “She Wouldn’t Say Quit” (a song that was and still is controversial for its blatant sexism), and between several verses Davis puts on a nauseating sinus draining display.
Fortunately these mishaps are atoned for by inspiring renderings of “Twelve Gates to the City” (Davis accompanying himself on blues harp) and “I Will Do My Last Singing in This Land Somewhere”. The bonus tracks include a be-musing though lengthy version of “Soldier’s Drill” (which probably drew the ire of war protesters at the time) and a downright silly duet with Barry Cornfeld, “Get Along Cindy”.
Live at Newport is an important document for the student of country blues wishing to explore some of the divergent forms that affected the Piedmont (and Davis’) style. It is refreshing to hear a bluesman who didn’t rely on gimmicks and histrionics to achieve captivating performances. Thankfully his highly-developed guitar skills were captured for the audio record. Still, I am more interested to know what Blind Willie Johnson had to say to the Reverend Gary Davis when they met on that bright shore.