Reverend Gary Davis
Rolling Stone, December 23, 1971
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| It was the Reverend's
73rd birthday: he was in fine spirits. Someone in England had sent him
a box of small cigars and he'd been smoking on them steadily in spite of
a bad cold. When we reached the standstill in front of the Midtown Tunnel,
he suddenly broke out coughing, choking, wheezing.
"I swear, Brother Davis, you gonna cough yourself to death on them things," said Reverend Davis' wife, Annie. "You gonna cough yourself right into the coffin. You smoke them things just like a child eats candy."
"Aw hush," the Reverend replied when he had pulled himself together. "I ain't gonna die. I ain't going nowhere. And if I did die, I'd be here just as often as I was when I was alive." He returned the cigar to his mouth.
"Know something, Reverend, you and I are exactly fifty years apart," I observed as our white Galaxie finally gained the lip of the tunnel.
"Is that so?" he asked in an incredulous falsetto. "Well you got a long time before they get your meat."
With that he reached into his pants pocket, took out his thumb and finger picks, and began groping up and down the pearl-inlaid neck of Miss Bozo. Suddenly, like beads of rain dripping from branches, music began to stream from his fingertips. It was a high-stepping, rambunctious rag, something that might have been played by an old-time jazz band choogling down the streets of New Orleans after the burial of a beloved trumpeter. The Reverend's fingers sprang from fret to fret with assurance of sixtyfive years of experience with the inexhaustible blues idiom. Occasionally his left hand would sneak way up the neck and twinge a few pleading, whining notes and follow with a sassy bass run as it wandered back down to the C chord.
"That was the John D. Rockefeller rag," he said when it was over. "He put the panic on in 1905. 'Save up your money, don't buy no coin, 'cause John D. Rockefeller put the panic on.'" He paused to take a long pull from his cigarillo. "I caught that one coming out of a city one time in South Carolina." Back in the tunnel the ooze of a hundred idling engines was condensing on the grimy tiles. Still bottlenecked.
"You know," he went on, "when I was your age I went to a party one time wearing a white suit and I was sitting there when all of a sudden a whole fight broke out. I went into the kitchen and stole a potato pie off the table and came over to the fireplace and clumb over the burning logs and hid up the chimney till they quit fighting. When I got out, good God, my suit was all black."
"Aw come on, B. Davis," Annie interrupted.
"You still trying to tell people that story?"
Back at home in Jamaica, Queens, in the cellar, out of Annie's hearing, the Reverend sits before a noisy electric heater and begins to recall in a low, salacious voice the violent world of poor black sharecroppers in the Carolinas, where he lived till he was 40.
His earliest memories are of a "red tin-top house with a honeysuckle vine climbing up the side of it," nine miles out of Lawrence, South Carolina, where he was born -born blind -in 1897. When he was old enough, like every black who could stand on two feet in that part of the country, he went out to the fields and picked cotton and cane and bailed hay for the Man. He was the oldest of eight children, of whom six, including two sets of twins, died in childhood. His last brother was cut down by a woman with a butcher knife when he was 25.
His father was killed by the police in Birmingham, Alabama, when Gary was ten: "He told a woman to stop coming to see him; she came around and he cut her throat. Then he ran around telling everybody, 'I killed a woman. Come and get me.' The sheriff and his deputies came and he shot one -but the sheriff got him." But even before his father's death his uncle had taken over his upbringing.
"The first instrument I played was a mouth harp," he says. "My uncle would go into town and buy him one. Then he'd buy me one. You could get a good one for 25c." The young boy would sit all day in the barnyard calling to the pigs and the chickens on his harp, and under his uncle's tutelage he became an accomplished country harpist, until he could blow the sounds of a whole coon hunt, the baying, panting, snarling, and whining of the pursuing hounds and the hissing of the treed coon. He always carries a couple of harps in his jacket but hadn't played them since he had got the cold: playing with a cold is "too much whiskey for a dime. Make you as drunk as any shot of whiskey."
Discovering that the boy was "musicinclined," his uncle helped him make his first banjo out of a pie plate, and presented him with an $18 Washburn guitar on his eighth birthday. It was the most important day in his life, the day "the Lord put something in my hands so I could take care of myself." He soon picked up the chords from the radio and from visiting neighborhood guitarists, and by the time he was 12 he was in demand for local fairs, hoedowns, hops, and camp meetings.
When he was 19 he went off to a school for the blind in Greenville, South Carolina, where he learned braille and played on street comers in a string band with Sonny Terry, Blind Boy Fuller, and Big Red. He was making what he calls "good -looking blues": "the kind that makes a woman say, '0 Lord, Mr. Davis, I can't stand it.'" To hear him tell it, women were constantly succumbing to the spell of his blues, the insistent moan of his voice and his devilish good looks, evident in the old photographs in his bedroom. "I've had my portion of stuffing," he says. "They wouldn't let me alone, you understand? I grabbed one one time after I backed off her you understand. She fainted. Fell out. I thought she was dead right there. I just shook her a little bit, she said, 'Lord God, honey, if you do it that way to me again I'll go to heaven.'"
In his 20s, he wandered through the Carolinas from one city to the next, from streetcorner to fairground to dancehall to barroom, from one wild woman to another, with no one to trust and no dependable income, drowning in whiskey while people were shot and stabbed around him.
He married, ran the woman out of his house when he found out she had been seeing a man he had thought was dead. He learned the blues the only way they can be learned, by living them. "Blues," he says, "is for gut-bucket people who run around with only half their clothes on. A man just got off them and they don't even wipe themselves."
In his early 30s he was disenchanted with the reckless profligacy of the blues life, and instead of ODing on a floor somewhere or being gunned down in his prime lilce Blind Lemon Jefferson, he became a man of God. In 1933 he became an ordained minister in the Freewill Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, swore off the blues, "the Devil's music," as Annie calls them, and began his new life as a religious street singer. Many of the holy songs that "came" to him are about his conversion, like the following one, which he and Annie sing together, and she calls "a real halleluia song":
Now when I went out in this world
I was out in darkness and I could
One day while Jesus was passing
He gave me a horn and told
me to blow,
Now stand back Satan and get out
of my way.
Thank God I got over at
Now I'm fire baptized and Holy
Oh glory how happy I am. Oh glory
how happy I am.
The Reverend became one of the last of the blind religious street singers, a venerable profession that has been snuffed out by such advances of civilization as government pensions for the blind. His astounding fingerpicking soon attracted the notice of the race record industry, and in 1935 he was invited to record for the Perfect label in New York. After cutting two records which made him a near-legendary figure but paid him practically nothing, he settled in Harlem where he could be heard on the streets on almost any day of the week for the next 30 years.
When I first met the Davises back on a freezing winter night in 1963, they were living in a three-room shack in the Bronx behind a row of condemned buildings on Park Avenue. The folklore center in Greenwich Village was in the custom of giving out the number of a blind old guitar teacher who needed the money, and Annie had answered and kept on calling me "child" as she explained how to get there: an exhilarating trip on the A train, the B train and the C train, a bus ride that began in front of a "flower florist" and a brisk walk through Spanish Bronx.
Annie let me in, clapping her huge white palms together in delight at the sight of such youth. The temperature of the room was easily a hundred degrees hotter than it was outside and as hot as any cottonfield back home. The heat was coming from an oil stove in the middle of the room around which two very large elderly ladies in dazzling Sunday hats were sitting, and it was so intense that it had warped the leaves of an Old Testment calendar that was tacked up on a wall covered with framed prayers, house blessings, and scriptural homilies.
Annie said Brother Davis was at the barber shop but she had just made some sweet potato pudding that was still warm inside, so I sat down and underwent the scrutiny of the two ladies until the Reverend made his entrance. He was telling a joke that was making the shy, thirtyish churchgoing man who had taken him to the barbershop redden behind his ears. The two ladies suddenly changed into young giggling flirts. One of them went up to the Reverend, took off his stubby-brimmed hat, felt his new haircut and said, "My, my don't he look nice."
"Here's your new student, Brother Davis," Annie said, coming out of the kitchen.
"Where, where, I can't see him," the Reverend said, and boohooed like a train whistle until he felt my hand in his, grabbed it, started back in a W. C. Fields take, and said, "Great God Almighty, what's this?" He felt the fin~rtips for callouses and said, "So you come to me to play the guitar?"
Over in a corner of the room there was an armchair, a stool, and a row of banjos and guitars in cases. Mrs. Davis drew a curtain dividing us from the stove and the ladies and the Reverend took out Miss Gibson, the beautiful
flower-embroidered Gibson J -200 he bought in 1943, slipped his fingers in the A minor position on the fifth fret and said to watch his fingers. The three-hour lesson, on a slow and easy Cab Calloway song called "Babe Why You Cryin' 'Cause I Leave You," was interrupted three times by people on the phone asking for him. One was a hysterical woman screaming that her husband was standing over her with a gun and please Brother Davis help me, what am I gonna do? "Now you just calm down and pull yourself together," he told her. "If your man is gonna kill you, you probably deserves it."
It was only in 1964, when the Reverend was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, that he was recognized as one of the last of the first generation blues singers and one of the kings of old-time country fingerpicking. Although he had been playing for 59 years, had recorded in 1954 and 1956, and was well known to the New York folk underground, the only living he had been able to make was on streetcorners, in bars, at church functions, and from guitar students.
The other outstanding early blues
artists had all either died or given up their music long ago, and had to
be tracked down and resurrected. But Gary Davis had kept playing because
he was blind and it was all he could do, and when his moment finally came,
at the age of 67, when a funky old man nobody had heard of was led
out at Newport, his long, magic fingers and his strong voice, lacerated
by years of singing over street noises, did not fail him.
While Annie was getting ready for church the Reverend was telling the gentlemen in the living room how the Queen of England caught his show in London and how he "got a chance to kiss the King's wife." One of the gentlemen was Mose, the 20-year-old who was driving and running errands for the Davises when he wasn't working at his latest job as a bill collector in Brooklyn. Mose, for his part, was rapping about the imminent confiscation of his GTO for unpaid back installments and how he wanted to be a cartoonist and learn the guitar and be a certified public accountant and ball a minister's daughter he met last Sunday at a church supper in the Bronx.
The drive to church in the dull slushy afternoon led through the endless vacant lots and sidestreets of Jamaica on Mose's shortcut to the Van Wyck Expressway.
Annie was feeling down: it was the flu season and many of the people she had asked to her program were sick and weren't going to make it, after all that telephone work. It was especially a shame that both Elder Glover and Reverend Bonepart were laid up and Reverend Lloyd People was performing a baptism and the Holy Angels had to sing at another church and probably wouldn't make it over at all.
Yes, the snow was a real problem. Little children were playing on the dirty mounds of snow that had been pushed up on the curbs of Spanish Harlem and there was only a thin way for the Galaxie to snake through. Mose stopped in front of a gray wooden storefront on East 119th Street and went to park.
It was a very small building in what seemed to be an unusually wide alley, but inside the cracked and stained ceiling extended far enough back that there was room for ten rows of wooden folding chairs, an aisle between them, a table with a collection plate, a large bouquet of red plastic roses, a lectern with a purple cloth draped over it, and off to the side a tiny room with a rusty sink. It was definitely a place of worship.
The few guests who were going to make it had arrived. There were the Davis' old friends from Corona, the Reverend Harold and the Reverend Claire Wright, neither of whom was very well. In order to supplement the meager
earnings from their missionary work, they were in business putting out a small mail order weekly advertising bargains ballpoints available in Wichita for 29c.
Then Pop Collins, a tall grey-haired gentleman who wore a three-piece suit and white spats, and carried an ivoryknobbed cane, another old friend from North Carolina. Then two Lower East Side follies with guitars who had set up a mike for their tape recorder on the lectern.
The only one missing was the preacher, and in a few minutes he arrived, out of breath and apologizing for being late, a small beaming man with a businesslike black attache case. He and Annie began talking and each time she said something he would rub his hands enthusiastically, brimming over with religion, and say, "0 yes yes yes. Yes yes yes yes yes." It became clear that this was the first church he had ever held. He passed around his calling card.
It was time to start the service. The preacher opened his attache case on the piano stool: All it contained was a tambourine. He began shaking it and slapping it and talking fast, gulping in lungsful of air and dispelling them with long incantations, as many as he could manage in one breath, stoning himself out from the lack of oxygen: "Hear us Gracious Lord, hear us sweet Jesus, hear us heavenly Father, come down to us heavenly Father come down to us right here 0 Lord," gulp, gasp, for his first time he was really getting it on, everyone was joining in with amens and alrights and laughter and clapping louder, louder, faster, faster, the tambourine shook, the hand slapped impossible to follow so fast, the place was rocking, we were all together, brothers in God, in a righteous revival frenzy.
When it ended, Annie got up and thanked everyone for being there and introduced everyone and called on Brother Collins to say a few words. He got up and just stood there for a while, his eyes shining with the goodness that was inside him. Then gazing up at the ceiling he began to talk in a steady, gentle voice, almost as if the words were written up there, about how all the troubles the world was in today were due to our being in rebellion with God, to people hating each other, to white and colored people not getting together with each other, and how he was so happy to see that some of our young white brethren are here with us today, and wouldn't it be fine if we could start right here putting aside our differences and tell the world what we're feeling. The preacher punctuated his speech with a few emphatic slaps of the tambourine, and Pop Collins stepped down, leaving the room ringing with exaltation.
Reverend Davis gave the sermon. Standing at the lectern with Miss Bozo around his neck, he looked 30 years younger: his forehead was creased, sweat pouring out, his nostrils flared, upper lip curling-he looked like Victor Mature as Samson straining at the pillars of the temple.
It was a musical sermon, of course:
sometimes he was playing with his left hand alone, sliding up and down
the neck while he snapped the fingers of his right hand or slapped them
on the sound box. Moaning, shouting, squealing, at times his voice and
Miss Bozo were indistinguishable, fire-baptized and Holy-Ghost-filled.
Annie was clapping right hand into left, left into right, swaying
back and forth with closed eyes. Occasionally she would shake and utter
little screams as shivers of religion ran down her spine, and her eyes
would pop open for a moment until she got into the sermon. This is what
he was singing:
You better know how to treat everybody
(Some of you people don't realize it; taking the world by storm; don't even know how to treat your family; doing all kinds of ways; living all kinds of lives; saying everything before your children; treat your wife all kind of ways; treat your husband every kind of way; God says:)
You better learn how to treat
('Cause the mother to get careless; but God tells you how to raise a child; you got to place you say everything before the child; and do everything before; God says:)
You better learn how to live 'fore
(And you're traveling through the world; and don't know how to treat your wife; and giving everybody else the thing that you ought to give your wife; God says: )
You better learn how to treat
(And you're traveling through the world; some people think; just because a man is a drunkard; and will drink liquor sometime and cut up and raise sand; if they come and carry him to your house; you got to carry him in before the Lord; when God save him you can suggest saving your own self; God says:)
You better learn how to treat
Ashes to ashes and dust to dust,
The life you're living won't do to trust.
One day a letter came from Annie:
"greeting in the name of the Lord
Alex it was a plasure to have you spin the night feel free to visit us
the same goes for Mary Lee she is so sweet you tell her for me I can't
forgt the good cheese cake she made for the party i had a Birth Day feb.
25 that always hope I might have something for B. Davis he is such a lonely
person I can't do too much for him he got in from Chicago march 16 Evy
thing was 0 K i gave some of the Bread for him he lake it he said it Remind
him of the kind of Bread his grandmama would make on the fith Sunday Eavng
we will Be at 2843 Eaight Ave Don't youall want to come time 3:30 p.m.
that one Block from Rocking palice write me back at once OK I hope you
got back all Right so long
It turned out the party was canceled because of his cold, but there were plenty of things to do-weeding the dandelions from the backyard, getting some slats at the lumber yard for his daughter Ruby's bed and getting the Reverend's 'scription filled at the drugstore. It turned out there was a party anyway, because a couple from Brooklyn showed up with all their relatives to get married. A bishop was recruited from a choir rehearsal on Merrick Boulevard to fill out the marriage license.
When everything was ready Annie raised the piano seat and took out a large book of Dutch fairy tales whose pages were superimposed with the braille New Testament and all the important services. The Reverend felt over and recited a passage from Peter about the gravity of marriage and then began to lecture the couple in his own words on the seriousness of the step they were about to take, how they were committing themselves to stand by each other through sickness and setback for the rest of their lives, and the vow they were taking was being witnessed in heaven that very moment, and something about Shadrach, Mishach and Abednego in the fiery furnace.
The bride, a huge Amazon in a black shawl, seemed little impressed and more than once showed signs of a mocking, bullying attitude toward her future husband, who was about a foot shorter than she was. When it came time for her to say "I do," she said it so halfheartedly that the Reverend stopped the service right there and told her that it sure didn't sound to him like she did. She stammered that she really did, honest to God, and having done his best, the Reverend pronounced them man and wife.
Long after the wedding party had gone home and the rest of the house was asleep and the sound of voices and footsteps was no longer to be heard, the Reverend sat up in the living room. He often sat like this in his armchair, smoking his pipe and dropping quids into the red plastic bucket that is his spittoon, alone, late into the night, with all the lights off, just sitting there silently in his darkness until five or seven in the morning.
At length the Reverend asked for Miss Bozo. He slouched back in his armchair and began strumming one of the quiet
introspective songs about the life to come that have been coming to him lately, and slowly the music began to fill the darkness:
Soon my work will all be done.
The angel at the gate is waiting
I have a mother she's waiting
Soon my work will all be done.
"You know," he said several minutes later, "when you come to that line, 'soon my work will all be done,' that song reaches to a streak of gladness."
Next morning the doorbell rings and in breezes Joseph, the Davis' nephew. Sporting Life himself, 28, glasses, high school jacket, pencil moustache. He used to live with them in the Bronx, he says, hasn't seen much of them since he grew up and moved to Brooklyn and they moved to Queens. But this morning he didn't have anything to do and hitched a ride with a friend who was making a truck delivery a few blocks away. He asks the Reverend how he's been. The Reverend says he just had a birthday.
"Is that right.
So how old you now, Brother Davis?"
"Old man was 95 years old and I was sitting down in the barbershop and the fellow sounds like a train come through the barbershop," he imitates train's boohoo and pants, sounding just like wheels clacking down the track. "I said what's the matter with you old man? 'It's used to be I could have a good time, I can't do nothing no more.' [Woo-hoo hoo hoo]."
"Well you can smell it. Nothing wrong
with smelling it. That's all you can do. Right?"