Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis

Ian Zack

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.”

Davis' First Guitar Cost $2.45

White farm owners often had little cash to pay for labor and were inclined to keep tenants on at the end of the cultivating season if they met their obligations as laid out in the rental contract. If not, owners might send them packing unless the tenants had too many debts to pay. Tenants, on the other hand, moved around a lot, seeking the best terms. The Davises, it seemed, had problems with most of their landlords.

Though he was blind, young Gary learned how to do just about everything on the farm, his labor doubtless a necessity for his family. He picked cotton and sugar cane, pulled corn fodder, and baled hay. He had a special affinity for the animals he raised, especially the chickens. He recalled raising 350 head of chicken, who became the future minister’s first flock, alighting onto his shoulders when he approached the coop.

In the absence of any affection from his mother, Davis often called his grandmother “maw.” She cared for him but ran a strict home, whipping him with belts or switches if he got out of line. Housing for sharecroppers consisted of one- or two-room wood frame dwellings, with the children often sleeping on pallets. Food was scarce, and what little they had often went to important guests. “Lots of times my grandmother used to go to church and bring back a gang of preachers and eat up the best food,” Davis remembered. “The rest of the children would be scared to ask for it. I wouldn’t. I’d get to the table… I’d say, ‘Maw, I’ll thank you for some chicken!’” Usually, the response came back: “Eat what’s before you.” And that was “whatever they’d give us. If it would be cornbread and cabbages, it would be that. And if it be butter and bread, we get that. If it be butter, molasses and bread, we get that. If it be bread and milk, we get that.”

Visiting preachers were treated like dignitaries because of the church’s dominant role in black southern life. At a time when blacks endured growing restrictions on their rights and freedoms, renewed assaults on their dignity and physical attacks intended to cow them into submission, the church became, literally, a sanctuary. Nearly every black South Carolinian adult claimed church affiliation. Blacks ran their own congregations, and with politics off limits, churches became the voice of solidarity and aspiration. Ministers and preachers -- usually men with engaging personalities and a gift of oratory -- occupied a privileged status in the community. One can easily see how Gary regarded these men with awe, given the perquisites they enjoyed.

Davis’s grandma, who had likely been born a slave, was a religious woman. (Plantation owners often encouraged their slaves to sit in on church services and participate in revivals.) She taught Davis his first spiritual, “Children of Zion,” which he would later record and which he would claim was “over five hundred years old,” perhaps suggesting an African origin to the melody. He also remembered first hearing the spirituals “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning” and “Blow, Gabriel” from his grandmother. Unlike his mother, Grandma Annie “always would carry me to church and everywhere she wanted to go,” Davis recalled.

As a boy, Davis sang in the choir of the Center Rabun Baptist Church, whose congregation still exists today in Gray Court. The congregation first held services in 1873 under a brush arbor “in the woods,” church members recalled. By 1904, when Davis was eight, the church occupied a forty-by-sixty-foot wood frame building with wings on one side, a belfry, and a baptistery, and its congregation numbered about 125 souls.

Davis later identified himself as a Missionary Baptist. In South Carolina, the Missionary Baptist movement had come into its own during a religious revival in the 1830s that occurred amid the Second Great Awakening, when Protestantism spread rapidly in both the North and South. An evangelical sect, Missionary Baptists put most of their energies into converting the masses and expunging evil from the world in preparation for Christ’s Second Coming. The Missionaries’ focus on saving individual souls appealed to a growing number of slaves throughout the South, who helped it become one of the most popular denominations for rural southern blacks after the Civil War. That evangelical zeal would ultimately follow black migrants like Gary Davis to their small storefront congregations in northern cities, and in his case, evangelism would become his life’s work once he became a minister.

Firsthand accounts of the churches of Davis’s youth are rare. A white woman who identified herself as Aunt Kate witnessed an early twentieth-century black church service in Laurens County, and her chronicle is one of the few that survive from that era. She described a packed church building as “well lighted by gas” and services much more spirited than what she was used to at her own church, including “the shouting they do now, [which] consists of waving the hands and keeping time with the music as their heels strike the floor.” She went on:

The text the preacher took was a very appropriate one for the occasion as the meeting closed that night -- “The harvest is past, the summer is ended and ye are not yet saved.” ...The singing appealed to me most. How would you like to hear an old time darkey of the Uncle Remus type rise and sing in [a] sweet alto voice as only a negro can, “I have a mother at the beautiful gate. She’s a waiting an’ er watching for me.”

Davis would use similar lyrics in one of his own compositions, “Soon My Work Will All Be Done,” in the 1960s.

The spirituals sung in the early black Baptist churches were those of a people, first enslaved and then oppressed, who dared to conceive of a better life. As James Weldon Johnson would write in the Second Book of Negro Spirituals, the black churchgoer “dreamed his dreams and declared his visions; he uttered his despair and prophesied his victories.” The true meaning of the black spirituals -- who churchgoers had in mind when they sang about “the devil,” or what “promised land” they hoped to reach -- was known only to them.

If blacks in Laurens County preferred the relatively safe confines of the church, they had good reason. Race relations were touch-andgo at best, and the threat of violence always hung in the air. At their annual convention in 1904, black South Carolina Baptists noted that lynching, homicide, and other capital crimes were on the rise, and it didn’t take much to set a white posse in motion. Davis recounted one story from his youth of a black man who was lynched for hugging a white woman. “They took that man out there and made sausage out of him ... that’s what they done.”

Violence could be avoided if certain protocols were followed, as one historian of black life in South Carolina noted:

On public roads and sidewalks, [a black] conceded the right of way to whites and tipped his hat or head to them… He addressed postadolescent whites with titles of respect though such titles were never extended to him. Instead of the respectful “Mr.” he might be called “Professor” or “Reverend,” for white Carolinians regarded those terms as neutral. If he were elderly or “respected,” he was addressed as “Uncle. If his wife were old and “faithful,” she was “Aunt” or “Auntie.”

Not all race relations were bleak. Davis could point to examples of kindness from whites. He always remembered a white neighbor who took pity on the little boy whose mother was rarely around. “He used to tell me about a white lady, how good she was to him,” Davis’s second wife, Annie, recalled. “She’d feed him and… she had a little boy just about his age and size… and they would play together. And he said she’d even let him sleep over at night.”

Music became a part of Davis’s life from a very young age. He took up the harmonica around age five at the encouragement of his mother’s elder brother, William. Davis learned to mimic the squeals of pigs, the squawks of chickens, the chug-a-lug of a steam train, and the baying of hounds on a coon hunt. He became accomplished at the blues harp and often included solo harmonica pieces in his concerts later on. By the time Davis turned seven, his parents had gone their separate ways and his mother had remarried. A stepfather, who didn’t remain in Davis’s life long, bought him his first five-string banjo, and Davis taught himself how to play.

Around the same time a traveling musician came through toting the instrument that would become like Davis’s third arm: “The first time I ever heard a guitar played, I thought it was a brass band coming through,” he remembered. “I was a small kid and I asked my mother what was it, and she said that was a guitar. I said, ‘Ain’t you going to get me one of those when I get large enough?’"

By the late nineteenth century, mail-order houses like Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck and Company had figured out a way to deliver inexpensive, mass-produced guitars to communities across the nation, helping transform what had earlier been largely a parlor amusement for the urban middle class into an egalitarian hobby for all, including the rural poor. Black musicians already well versed on the banjo transferred banjo picking styles to the guitar. At the same time, parlor guitar sheet music, wildly popular among whites in the 1800s, influenced the first generation of southern black songsters and blues musicians, who often included spiced-up versions of parlor guitar favorites like “Sebastopol” and “Spanish Fandango” in their repertoires.

To satisfy his curiosity, seven-year-old Gary made his own guitars, using a brace-and-bit to drill a hole through his grandmother’s pie pans, cutting a piece of timber for the neck, and stretching copper wires across it for strings. For his efforts, his grandma usually whipped him. Soon, Davis’s mother bought him his first guitar, paying $2.50 for an instrument with a “fine tone,” he recalled. (The low-end guitar in the 1902 Sears, Roebuck catalog sold for $2.45.) The new guitar laid around for a week before Gary picked it up. “She went to work and left me with that guitar and she come back that morning and I was eatin’ that guitar up,” Davis said.

A local musician named Craig Fowler taught Davis his first guitar chords. Among the early songs he learned to play were “Darling, You Don’t Know My Mind,” a tune that shows up in the repertoires of both country and blues singers, and “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand,” a spiritual that Davis would later record. Davis and his guitar became inseparable. At night he liked to sit out among the stalks of cane and play under the stars.

Davis’s grandmother didn’t much care for his new hobby. “Oh, put that thing down,” she told him, “or the devil will get you!” But she eventually warmed to his playing of church spirituals. Baptist churches didn’t permit guitars at services, so Davis had to keep his instrument at home. “You better not bring no guitar in no church!” he recalled. “They thought it was wrong. After, I got to reading after the Bible to find out what the Bible said about instruments. I played guitar anytime, Sunday and anytime. No harm in playing music, but it is what you play.”

For a budding guitarist in Laurens County, music could be soaked up everywhere: out in the fields in the form of work songs; at informal porch gatherings, barn raisings, or daylong country picnics; from traveling tent shows; and, of course, at church, where a cappella singing predominated. Davis recalled that two of his most famous songs, “Candy Man” and “Cocaine,” came from traveling carnival shows, which also provided his first exposure to the blues. “The first song that was a blues I heard was a man in a carnival singing ‘I’m on the road somewhere, if the train don’t break down, I’m on the road somewhere,’” Davis recalled.

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