Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis
Who was the greatest of all American guitarists? The relatively unknown blind son of sharecroppers, whom Bob Dylan called “one of the wizards of modern music.”
Excerpted from Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis by Ian Zack (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2015. Courtesy of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
There Was a Time That I Was Blind
It’s so hard I have to be blind
I’m away in the dark and got to feel my way
And nobody cares for me.
-- Rev. Gary Davis
Elderly blacks in Laurens County, South Carolina, still remember an old railroad trestle and a putrid piece of rope that hung from it for decades. The rope, they say, had last been put to use back in 1913 by a white mob that lynched a black man accused of rape. While the rope and trestle live on only as jagged shards of memory, other unpleasant reminders endure of the harrowing environment in which Gary Davis grew up, most notably the Ku Klux Klan Museum and Redneck Shop, housed in what used to be a segregated movie theater. Items available for purchase at the shop include white hooded robes, Klan stickers, and photocopies of “Whites Only” segregation signs.
A few paces away is the Laurens County Courthouse, a Corinthian columned building that looks about the same as it did in Davis’s youth. The courthouse square in the city of Laurens, the county seat, retains a retro feel, its red brick storefronts adorned with Coca-Cola and Bull Durham Tobacco ads painted on the side. It doesn’t take a lot of conjuring to envision the old stagecoach route that linked Laurens County to Greenville and Spartanburg to the northwest in the 1800s. Back then, if you had traveled along that dirt thoroughfare from the courthouse and veered off a great distance into the gently rolling hills, you’d have eventually found yourself amid a quiet patchwork of ragged farms, mountain-fed creeks, and lush forestland miles from any hint of bustle. This is the place where Gary Davis’s life began -- and might well have ended, if not for his astonishing musical gifts.
Laurens County was in the midst of social and economic turmoil in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The Union victory in the Civil War had left the state’s farm economy in ruins. Many white farmers who’d depended on forced labor had been wiped out as four hundred thousand South Carolina slaves became free under the watchful eyes of federal troops and the Freedmen’s Bureau. Farmers who’d managed to stay afloat still needed a workforce, and newly freed blacks had few skills outside of farm work, so the uneasy alliances of sharecropping and tenant farming had arisen in place of outright servitude.
At the same time, a violent struggle had erupted over Reconstruction, as whites aimed to take back what Robert E. Lee’s troops lost on the battlefield. One center of resistance was Laurens County in the northwest corner of the state. In 1870 it was the scene of a bloody riot, when a brief battle between white and black militias over a local election prompted thousands of armed white men to descend on horseback from surrounding counties; they chased down and attacked blacks over several days, killing six, including a recently elected black state legislator, whose corpse was left rotting in the road. As terrorist acts against blacks escalated statewide, President Ulysses S. Grant tried in vain to assert federal authority and tamp down the influence of the Ku Klux Klan by suspending habeas corpus in Laurens and eight other South Carolina counties and placing them under martial law. But by the time the century drew to a close, Washington gave up trying to impose its will and turned its attention elsewhere.
In 1895, South Carolina’s new constitution effectively resurrected the antebellum order. The charter imposed, among other things, a poll tax and de facto literacy test for voting -- voters had to be able to read or interpret an entire passage of the state constitution, an impossibility for illiterate former slaves -- as well as a ban on interracial marriage; it provided the legal basis for the Jim Crow laws and customs that would subjugate blacks for decades to come. The following year, the US Supreme Court established “separate but equal” as the law of the land from sea to shining sea.
If life was hard for most black South Carolinians then, it was especially so in Laurens County, where only 4 percent of blacks worked a farm they owned, the second-lowest proportion of the state’s forty counties. John and Evelina Davis were among the sharecroppers in Laurens trying to eke out an existence on a patch of someone else’s land. On April 30, 1896, their eldest son, Gary, was born.
Gary Davis’s mother, the former Evelina Martin, was seventeen when she gave birth, and she would go on to have a total of eight children, most likely by multiple fathers. But with proper medical care for blacks practically nonexistent, six of her children died as infants; only Gary and a younger brother -- probably a half-brother, named Buddy Pinson -- survived, and Buddy would die in 1930 at age twenty-five, stabbed to death by a girlfriend with a butcher’s knife. That would leave Gary as the sole survivor of Evelina Davis’s large brood.
The event that would define Davis’s life -- the loss of his sight -- occurred soon after birth. “I’d taken sore eyes when I was three weeks old,” he recalled in one version of the story. “They [took] me to a doctor and the doctor put some alum and sweet milk in my eyes and they caused ulcers in my eyes. That’s what caused me to go blind.” In his later application to attend a school for the blind, Davis’s mother would tell a similar story, blaming his blindness on “medicines of doctor who made a mistake.”
A doctor who examined him as an adult would conclude that Davis had suffered both infant glaucoma and ulceration of the cornea, a condition that can result from neonatal conjunctivitis contracted from a mother with gonorrhea and also can afflict children with a severe Vitamin A deficiency. As to what led to Davis’s blindness, a family friend named Tiny Robinson gave a different explanation: she said Davis’s mother blinded him by trying to treat his eye infection with lye soap, an old folk remedy. Davis’s second wife, Annie, corroborated the story about the doctor as Davis himself told it. Both accounts seem plausible, but the common denominator was the absence of even rudimentary medical care. Davis said the doctor told his family that he “might overcome it” as he aged, but he never regained his sight.
Davis’s blindness was “near total,” as his blind school application would note, meaning he wasn’t in complete darkness. That jibes with Davis’s own description decades later in New York: “I could tell the look of a person, but to tell who it is, I’m not able to do that.”
The exact location of Davis’s birthplace remains unconfirmed. However, in one interview, when asked about his parents, he said: “This was Mr. Abercrombie’s farm. He had a great big plantation. I don’t know how long we stayed with Mr. Abercrombie ’cause I was a baby then.” The plantation Davis remembered most likely belonged to a Jonathan McCall Abercrombie, who owned 322 acres in Young’s township, in the upper-west quadrant of the county not far from the town of Gray Court.
“My parents were workin’ people -- farmers,” Davis recalled. “They raised everything on the farm -- chickens, cattle, hogs, dogs... peaches, apples, plums, pears, apricots -- pretty near every kind of thing.” Cotton, of course, was the big cash crop, aided by the region’s temperate climate and long growing season, and Davis may have neglected to mention it on that occasion because it was a given.
Davis’s parents weren’t well suited to raising children, and Davis’s maternal grandmother, whose maiden name was Annie Spencer, quickly assumed responsibility for young sightless Gary. Davis’s mother “was once upon a time a rough woman” -- a southern euphemism for being sexually loose -- who was always “twistin’ about from one place to another,” Davis remembered, and “didn’t care to be bothered with no children.” His father was “in trouble all the time.” John Davis eventually left South Carolina and was shot to death around 1906 by the sheriff in Birmingham, Alabama, apparently after slitting a lover’s throat and telling the authorities, “Come and get me.”
Evelina Davis not only gave up primary responsibility for raising her son to her mother -- she outright rejected Gary emotionally, although she remained in his life. The abandonment had a profound effect on him. As Davis later recalled:
I felt horrible about it ’cause I felt like I was throwed away. In fact, my mother never had cared as much about me as she did my younger brother… He was her heart… Because of the way she talkin’ to me, she’d wish that I were dead. She tell me that a heap of times.
It’s surely no coincidence that the themes of death, abandonment, the lost child in the wilderness, and a reunion with his mother ran through Davis’s gospel message and music. Indeed, gospel as an art form grew out of the misery and deprivation of the southern black experience, and those themes are common in the music as a whole. In Davis’s case, it’s easy to see why. Perhaps his most famous song, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” though based on traditional spirituals, has a strong autobiographical element for the only surviving child of eight, with its signature lament, “death don’t have no mercy in this land.”
Davis would often sing about seeing his mother in heaven, when, presumably, all would be forgiven under God’s grace. But his anger would also remain palpable. In “Lord, I Wish I Could See,” he would address his mother’s rejection in searingly poetic detail, singing: “Nobody cares for me, because I’m away in the dark and I cannot see.” The other theme that would occupy Davis as both a minister and performer -- personal salvation and the rejection of sin -- can be seen, in part, as a response to the wayward ways of his parents: his mother’s philandering and his father’s “troubles,” which may have been alcohol related. “You got to learn how to live [be]’fore your children,” Davis would sing in “You Got to Go Down,” and it’s likely he had both parents in mind.
Life in Laurens County revolved around the harvest, particularly cotton, although low market prices only added to the economic distress of the landlocked white farmers and their black tenants in the tempestuous decades after the Civil War. Davis and his family had an unsettled life as sharecroppers, to say the least, and it was probably quite desolate, though Davis would rarely discuss his childhood in those terms, and he never tried to elicit any sympathy when asked about his early years. Still, he hinted at the lack of basic necessities like shoes, telling a concert audience in the 1960s that the clay was so red in Laurens that when the rains came it would “put another shoe sole on your foot.”
The Davises rarely stayed on one farm for very long, and Gary’s account of moving year after year during his youth is a remarkable testament to the instability of the sharecropper’s life:
We stayed at Mr. Abercrombie’s place and we moved from that place ...near the railroad to Mr. Tan Moore, it was. Then after we left there, we went to Mr. Joe C. Calhoun, and we left there -- uh -- one place I remember we lived at -- I was a small child then -- was Mr. Jim Todd’s near a town... and [we] went to Miss Nero Trainhem’s. And we left Miss Trainhem’s and went to Mr. Calhoun Wallace’s place. We left Mr. Calhoun Wallace and went to Waterloo on Mr. Joe Culbertson’s place; and after we left there, we went to Doctor Fuller’s. Left Doc Fuller’s and went to Miss Lou Crummley’s. From Miss Lou Crummley’s, we went to Miss Pet McKilvey’s. From Miss Pet McKilvey’s, we went to Willard Dick. Left there and went to Mr. Paul Roper’s and stayed there. We left Mr. Paul Roper’s and went back to Miss McKilvey’s. From Miss Pet McKilvey’s [to] Mr. Joe Whamps. We left Mr. Joe Whamps and went to Mr. Jim Lewis McCarthy’s. Stayed there for about two years.
The sharecropping system, with its contracts and strict accounting, was intended, in part, to protect black farmers from exploitation, but in practice most were illiterate, and plenty of opportunity existed for landlords to take advantage. Farm owners typically provided supplies like mules and feed as well as clothing and a place to live in return for a quarter to half the harvested crops. Davis recalled how the system kept his family from making any real economic progress:
Down there you worked on the halves, like if you made ten bales [of cotton] you’d get five and the boss man get five. Now if you got $10 from the boss man, he’d look for you to pay $20 back… The guy would come out there with his great big old goggly-looking glasses on his face and say, “Why don’t we run up accounts? Well, you got $150 so-and-so-and-so, and the one day that you didn’t work and I had to hire somebody in your place -- I’ll charge you $50 for that. Then you know I had to pay for all the fertilizer, and it comes to soand-so-and-so… Well ah…” and he’d get to figuring up: “Sum total -- well, I owe you a nickel!”