Archive for the ‘Gary Davis’ Category

“Brass band coming through”

July 20, 2015

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excerpt from “Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis,” by Ian Zack:

Reverend Gary Davis’s first memory of hearing a guitar—that it sounded like “a brass band coming through”—is no idle quip. From his earliest years, he imagined the six-stringed instrument in his hands as capable of making the fantastic cacophony of sounds he heard from those rousing brass bands. That conception would help fuel his revolutionary approach to the guitar, not as a mere vocal accompaniment but as a band in a box with cornets, trombones, tubas, clarinets, and drums all at his disposal.

Carnival, circus, wild West, and minstrel shows crisscrossed the nation at the turn of the twentieth century, featuring many of the musicians who would pioneer the new sounds of ragtime, blues, and jazz—what music publishers and the press had dubbed “coon songs.”

Traveling companies usually pitched huge canvas tents that could seat hundreds of people around a stage lit in the early years by kerosene lamps. They put on extravagant spectacles with music, theatrical comedy, minstrelsy (with both white and black performers in blackface), acrobatics, and circus freak-show acts.

Every show had at least one brass band with a dozen or more members, and some of the white-owned circuses employed a white band for the main stage and a black band for the sideshow tent. When traveling shows arrived in a town, usually by rail, they drummed up business by sending their bands parading through the streets to the town center decked out in gold braided silks, sometimes riding atop colorful horse-pulled bandwagons.

Brass bands performed at schools and in factory yards, and on the earliest 78 rpm recording they could be heard playing popular songs, Sousa marches, blues, and ragtime. Gary Davis played all those genres on guitar, and the songs he heard traveling bands play would show up later in his own repertoire.

In the fall of 1915, for instance, most of the brass bands on tour were performing the songs of William “King” Phillips, a cornetist whose composition “Florida Blues” Davis would teach to students but never record. During the same season, the brass bands were cutting their teeth on the latest sheet music hit of W. C. Handy, “Hesitating Blues,” a song Davis would make famous (as “Hesitation Blues”) for guitarists during the folk revival. Davis also would record several marches, including, most famously, “Soldier’s Drill,” which he derived in part from John Philip Sousa.

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Say No to the Devil

April 26, 2015
Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis, by Ian Zack (University of Chicago Press)
Who was the greatest of all American guitarists? You probably didn’t name Gary Davis, but many of his musical contemporaries considered him without peer. Bob Dylan called Davis “one of the wizards of modern music.” Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead—who took lessons with Davis—claimed his musical ability “transcended any common notion of a bluesman.” And the folklorist Alan Lomax called him “one of the really great geniuses of American instrumental music.”
But you won’t find Davis alongside blues legends Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Despite almost universal renown among his contemporaries, Davis lives today not so much in his own work but through covers of his songs by Dylan, Jackson Browne, and many others, as well as in the untold number of students whose lives he influenced.The first biography of Davis, Say No to the Devil restores “the Rev’s” remarkable story.
Drawing on extensive research and interviews with many of Davis’s former students, Ian Zack takes readers through Davis’s difficult beginning as the blind son of sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South to his decision to become an ordained Baptist minister and his move to New York in the early 1940s, where he scraped out a living singing and preaching on street corners and in storefront churches in Harlem.
There, he gained entry into a circle of musicians that included, among many others, Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Dave Van Ronk. But in spite of his tremendous musical achievements, Davis never gained broad recognition from an American public that wasn’t sure what to make of his trademark blend of gospel, ragtime, street preaching, and the blues. His personal life was also fraught, troubled by struggles with alcohol, women, and deteriorating health.