If I Had My Way

Familiar staples of the American folk, blues, and gospel traditions such as "Samson and Delilah", "You Got to Move", "Candy Man", "Death Don’t Have No Mercy" and "Twelve Gates to the City" have all closely been associated with Reverend Gary Davis, from before his recording career began in 1935 to his timely rediscovery during the 1950s and 1960s folk and blues scene revivals. 

Though he made each of the aforementioned tunes a significant part of his own canon, subsequent renditions - by popular artists such as Peter-Paul-&Mary, Joan Baez, the Grateful Dead, and the Rolling Stones and likewise by his many protégés - helped to make the late Reverend Gary Davis a significant figure in the history of American music at the fore of the folk, blues, gospel and ragtime traditions. More than thirty years after his passing, Davis’ stature has been cemented and his musical contributions are regarded as timeless, perpetuated in large part by the plethora of student guitarists he mentored. The "Rev" (as he was affectionately known) has influenced many musicians, including tonight’s performers–– Roy Book Binder, Ernie Hawkins and Jorma Kaukonen––as well as guitarists such as Larry Johnson, Taj Mahal, DaveVan Ronk, Woody Mann, and many others. Tonight’s edition of the New York Guitar Festival® celebrates the musical spirit of the legendary Reverend Gary Davis as a friend and teacher in order to help preserve his music.
Though the Reverend Gary Davis’ may not yet be a household name, his music has withstood the test of time. As Pittsburgh-born guitarist Ernie Hawkins recently said, "With that kind of talent, -his singing so distinctive and so powerful - he’s an innovator like Ray Charles or Louis Armstrong." Indeed, Davis ranks alongside such blues legends as Robert Johnson and Leadbelly. What puts Davis in a class of his own, however, is the fact that his music was quite literally untraceable. "His music was not the roots of rock ‘n roll. Robert Johnson became Muddy Waters became the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. You just can’t trace the Reverend," notes Hawkins. And neither can you pigeonhole the music of the Rev, whose playing and singing skirted the blues as much as folk and gospel. He fused multiple American music traditions and was able to create a distinctive musical style of his own. 
The Rev was known as a self-sufficient entertainer who rarely performed with anyone or anything more than his own voice and guitar. His approach to singing and playing on –anything from 6-string and 12-string guitars to banjo or harmonica to an occasional piano – made his music some of the most memorable of the folk and blues scene revivals of the 1950s and 1960s. Davis had a unique command of the guitar a wealth of sound at his fingertips. He made the guitar talk for him, and his very conversational approach in singing and playing followed the tradition of gospel and church music. Each performance he gave was a literal sermon.
Music was everything to Davis, who was ordained as a minister in the 1930s wasn’t bashful about what role it played in his daily spiritual life.. It was his link to God –and even his identity. Throughout his years as a street performer, and later on the world’s various stages––or even at home with guests or students––Davis generously shared his gift and the message of the music with those around him. Hawkins has affectionately called Davis, who became blind before he was one month old, "A blind seer bigger than life in a sense. He was a great teacher who was driven."
Another pupil of Rev’s music, Jorma Kaukonen, saw the legendary performer countless times in the 1960s and has since become one of the master’s better-known keepers of the flame through his own solo works and especially through his band Hot Tuna with bassist Jack Casady. Said Kaukonen, "He was so ahead of his time. The Reverend really had a style that was so distinctly his own. He was sure to teach the right way, his way, so that (his) music could be passed on correctly. Rev was kind of a stickler about having things done the way he did it - the right way." Hawkins agreed that, "He could just about teach anybody, and that kind of giving was really rare." The Rev was genuinely delighted that others were actually taking the time to learn his music and his complex lines, and he spent whatever time others wished to spend with him sharing in his knowledge of the music." 
To watch Davis at work was practically an optical illusion, his movement not matching the complexity within his music. His bouncy, pianistic stride approach came through particularly in his ragtime performances and recordings, making it clear that he was influenced by such memorable piano players as stride master James P. Johnson, as well as the legendary blues men Blind Blake and Willie Walker, Big Bill Broonzy and Lonnie Johnson. , Playing with only two fingers ("Because that’s all you need"), Davis rendered left-hand piano bass and middle and lead voice parts with his thumb while using his index finger to further articulate the middle voice and high melodic notes. His unmatched mastery of the guitar was paired with a instinctive vocal delivery and a knack for composition. "Not only was he a great guitarist, but (he was) a phenomenal songwriter. He said every few days that God sent him a different tune," noted Book Binder. 
Unbelievably creative in every key, and a rare explorer and experimenter of minor keys in particular, Davis has left countless listeners amazed at how deep his music was and still is. "I knew how great he was but it took years and years of listening…It’s a matter of really getting deeply into it. The deeper you go, the more depth you find. He invented the wheel in every key. He was a genius," says Hawkins with sincerity. Though relaxed, his technique was also powerful. His finger picking was miles ahead of anyone else from his generation and his music much more complex. The Rev’s virtuosity has been compared to the classical guitarist Andres Segovia as well as banjoist extraordinaire Earl Scruggs.
The Rev knew quite simply that he was the best. Rather than flaunt his knowledge, however, he passed it along.. Consequently, respect for his music has gained with each new generation. Artists like Roy Book Binder, Ernie Hawkins and Jorma Kaukonen help to create a link with future generations of guitarists, such as Brandon Ross, who will bring a fresh interpretation of Davis’ music without ignoring its tradition. It is the tradition, after all, that Reverend Gary Davis felt was the most important thing.
-- Laurence Donohue-Greene
This essay originally appeared in the program booklet for “If I Had My Way: The Blues, Gospel, and Ragtime of Reverend Gary Davis," a January 20, 2004 NYGF concert featuring Roy Book Binder, Ernie Hawkins, Brandon Ross and Jorma Kaukonen.
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The Reverend Gary Davis with Megan Ochs
(courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives).
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Jorma Kaukonen straightens his tie (out of
respect for “The Rev”) backstage just before
show time.
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Janeen Shaitelman and John Platt of WFUV Radio.
The concert was broadcast live on WFUV
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Brandon Ross during his afternoon shoundcheck.
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Ernie Hawkins playing backstage for Roy Book
Binder and WFUV’s John Platt. Photo © Glyn
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WFUV’s John Platt interviewing Jorma on stage
at Merkin Hall. Photo © Glyn Emmerson.
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Barry Mitterhoff and Jorma performing the
Gary Davis classic, Hesitation Blues. Photo ©
Glyn Emmerson.


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