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.