Davy Graham: Large As Life and Twice As Natural

[17 November 2005]

By Steve Horowitz

The last item I read about Davy Graham was a short piece in Mojo. It said the British guitarist rarely performed live anymore, but every once in a while he would head out and play unannounced at his local pub. That’s both sad and sweet. Graham should be a popular hero, with crowds clamoring for his songs based on the marvelous quality of the work he created during the ‘60s. However, Graham has recorded little during the past 30 years. His legend has faded. The fact that he doesn’t try to cash in on nostalgia for the era is commendable, but music fans ought to be chastised for forgetting him.

Graham’s acoustic guitar playing mixed together various elements of world music from different eras into intriguing and compelling aural concoctions. The nimble-fingered maestro blended traditional English folk, Indian ragas, Middle-Eastern drones, Dixieland, Delta blues, modern jazz and just about anything else he could absorb into fabulous creations that ranged from whimsical Dr. Seuss-like playful oddities that made one laugh, to serious-into-the-mystic constructions that could make one ponder the meaning of the universe. Graham’s mind-blowing sensibility made him a favorite of technical geeks and psychedelic trippers alike, who wondered how he managed to fuse such disparate elements together in such amazing ways. At heart and in spirit, he was always a musician first who let his compositions lead the way to wherever the journey took him.

Large As Life and Twice As Natural from 1969 is one of Graham’s best efforts, and its re-release on compact disc is worthy of special attention. The disc contains a wide range of eclectic styles and materials brought together by the esoteric master himself. Graham wrote interesting, if laconic, liner notes for the original disc, which are included in this reissue along with colorful artwork and a newly written appreciative essay about Graham by another notable English folk rock artist, John Renbourn.

The British folk musician covers several traditional American tunes from the past, such as the sassy Bessie Smith hit “Electric Chair”, which Graham sarcastically calls “One of the most ingeniously subtle of the ‘urban composed’ type of 1920s-‘30s blues”. The lyrics ask the judge to give the singer the electric chair because he killed his lover for cheating. Graham’s version features Harold McNair on flute, whose airy sound adds a surreal touch to the earthy blues song. Large As Life and Twice As Natural also contains “Good Morning Blues” (“The classic Huddie Ledbetter composition”), “Beautiful City” (“A zippy gospel song”), and “Freight Train Blues” (“Originally a song by Fred McDowell, down home negro singer of the early 20th century”). Graham and his combo (Danny Thompson on double bass, Jon Hiseman on drums, and Dick Heckstall-Smith on saxophone) turn each of these songs into something that’s both strange yet familiar by doing well-known tunes from the folk blues repertoire with exotic touches drawn from their vast knowledge of global sources. Graham sings lead on these tunes with a pleasant and unaffected voice. He doesn’t try to imitate the vocalists of the past or turn the art into artifice. He sings ‘em straight.

Graham’s familiarity with international music finds its greatest expression in the instrumentals “Sunshine Raga” and “Blues Raga”. He employs a distinctive, original modal tuning of his acoustic guitar that incorporates both Eastern and Western elements. His creative inventions make the Ravi Shankar-inspired George Harrison compositions of the era seem simpleminded and uninspired. Completely different in origin and style, but similar in complexity and beauty is Graham’s solo tribute to the avant-garde jazz pianist Lenny Tristano (“Tristano”). The folk artist’s fine fingering and precise strumming make him sound as elegant as Segovia performing Bach on classical guitar, albeit with a sophisticated bop melody.

The album gets its title from a Lewis Carroll line from Through the Looking Glass about Alice. In Wonderland, things like little girls are considered monsters or fanciful creations by the unicorns and other creatures who live there, but that Anglo-Saxons do not believe real. Alice is the creature of whom it is said, “It’s as large as life and twice as natural”. Carroll’s wry commentary on perspective—what is real in one culture, members of other cultures think a fantasy—seems an apt representation of what Graham does. He takes music meant to be understood in one context and shows what it says in another to reveal both sides. Appropriately, he begins the disc with a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” to which he adds strong Asian and Irish musical touches. When Graham gets to the lyric, “It’s life’s illusions I recall”, his phrasing and guitar playing give the language a Zen-like meaning that Mitchell barely implied. There’s something sublime about the way Graham mines the tune. He makes it larger than life, and twice as natural.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/grahamdavy-large/