By Steve Boisson
Fifty years have passed since Simon and Garfunkel released Sounds of Silence, the duo’s breakthrough album. In that time, “I Am a Rock,” “Richard Cory,” and the title cut have become folk-rock classics. But the record covered one already-beloved song: “Anji,” an instrumental by Davey Graham, was well-known among British fingerpickers. Paul Simon had spent most of 1965 performing in Great Britain, and his mastery of Graham’s finger-twister proved Simon’s bonafides on the British folk circuit.
“Anji” was first released in 1962, on the Topic EP 3/4 AD by Graham and Alexis Korner. It ran a mere two minutes and 26 seconds. But the instrumental track crystallized the brilliance of its creator, as it mixed blues- and jazz-style verses around a classical resolve in a form that would become known as Baroque folk. Covering “Anji” separated the doers from the dilettantes across the pond. Singer-guitarist Wizz Jones recalled Graham playing it at the Continental Coffee Bar in London’s Soho district around 1960—Anji, the song’s namesake, was Graham’s barista girlfriend who worked there. “Other people have claimed that they’re the Anji the song was written about,” Jones says, “but they’re lying.”
For many players, “Anji” was the portal from simple folk to new possibilities. Its author was a cool, military-mannered bohemian of Scottish and Guyanese ancestry, who dazzled young solo guitar players such as John Renbourn, Martin Carthy, and Bert Jansch with his command of various idioms, from blues to Indian ragas. “Davey was the one—the guru—who really inspired a whole generation of European guitar players,” Jones says.
Jansch covered “Anji” on his self-titled 1965 debut album. It reached a wider audience than Graham’s modest EP had, and consequently many people associated the tune with Jansch. Americans learned it from Simon, and to a lesser extent from Vanguard’s Lucky Thirteen, a US-released compilation of Jansch’s first two albums.
“I bought that record around 1966, and that was the tune that I tried to work up a version of,” says Duck Baker, the American fingerstyle master who would later move to England and tour with Graham, Jansch, and Renbourn. “It’s reasonably close to Davey’s version. I think in some ways it’s better than Davey’s version. As for Davey, it didn’t hold his interest as much as some of his other things, or as much as it held the interest of some other people, especially Renbourn.”
Like Caesar’s Gaul, “Anji” is divided into three parts. The first involves a double hammer-on in A minor, played over a descending bass line of A-A-G-G-F-F-E-E, starting on the open A string. The bass line changes to a monotonic open A in the second section, anchoring some bluesy bends on the B string. It slips into a snappy cluster of thirds and sixths, rolling back into an E chord.
Covering ‘Anji’ separated the doers
from the dilettantes across the pond.
There’s plenty of room for variations—Graham never played it the same way twice. On the EP, he keeps a medium tempo, picking cleanly and softly, sticking close to the structure, save for a quick break before the first turnaround. Jansch amps it up considerably, playing faster than Graham, slashing the strings every fourth measure, more so as the tune progresses. He quotes jazz musicians Nat Adderley and Oscar Brand’s “Work Song” after the first turnaround, and replaces Graham’s final chromatic descend with a blues riff.
Simon’s version is tamer than Jansch’s and more florid than Graham’s. Like Jansch, he quotes from “Work Song.” He keeps Graham’s neat, chromatic descend after the turnaround, on which, like Jansch, he slides thirds and sixths up and down the fretboard. He closes on a bucolic A major 5 chord, a signature touch.
“Let’s face it, it’s just a standard chord sequence,” Jones says. “But it was [Graham’s] timing and his attack on the guitar that was just totally unique. You can play it the way Bert played it, but it’s hard to play it the way Davey played it. Davey’s timing was so cool.”
Often called the grandfather of British folk guitar, Graham was born on November 26, 1940, in Leicestershire, England. He grew up in London’s Notting Hill Gate, where he started playing guitar at the age of 12. An accident during his teens left him nearly blind in his right eye, which some believed sharpened his hearing and musical talent. At 18, Graham began to indulge his life-long passion for travel, busking throughout Europe and North Africa.
In 1959, Graham made his public debut with an appearance on the BBC-TV broadcast Hound Dogs and Bach Addicts: The Guitar Craze. His youthful rendering of the popular torch song “Cry Me a River” has been preserved on YouTube. “It sounds very sophisticated,” Baker says of the performance. “Yet compared to the way a jazz guitar player would have thought about that tune, it’s remarkably simple. And I mean that in a very good way.”
Graham’s first LP, The Guitar Player, in 1963, presented acoustic versions of jazz numbers by Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Paul Desmond, and others. As the typical jazz musician aimed to get “out there,” to bend and shift the melody harmonically, Graham was getting “in there,” boiling the pieces down to the basics. Only one song, his “Blues for Betty,” ran for more than three minutes.
“He listened to a certain amount of jazz,” Baker says. “He was definitely influenced by the people associated with what you would call ‘soul jazz.’ So that would be Cannonball Adderley, Horace Silver, Johnny Griffin. And he had an approach to that stuff that was very direct. It didn’t have anything to do with the way people were playing jazz guitar.”
‘It made a lot of people uncomfortable because
he was so brilliant.’ —producer Mark Pavey
Graham would not forge his legacy in one genre, though. While visiting Morocco, he came upon DADGAD tuning, which facilitated playing Arabic music on guitar. At a live performance captured on the 1963 EP From a London Hootenanny, he applied it to the traditional Irish tune “She Moved Through the Fair,” which he played as an Indian raga. This presaged Graham’s penchant for boundary-busting.
His next two albums became Holy Writ for British acoustic guitarists. Folk, Blues and Beyond (1964) covered old blues—including a very melodic take on Reverend Gary Davis’ “Cocaine”—jazz, traditional folk, and Middle Eastern music, with some blends of the aforementioned styles. On “Majaan,” his Gibson J-45 sputtered out staccato runs like a Moroccan oud.
Folk Roots, New Routes, recorded with the English folksinger Shirley Collins in 1965, challenged notions about performing British folk music. Purists felt the old tunes should be sung a cappella, not behind a guitar, but Graham proved it to be a worthy support. “That’s probably my favorite album of all time,” says Clayton Linthicum of the folk duo Kacy and Clayton. “The sound of it is so deep and the reverb on everything is so perfect and the arrangements are so interesting.”
Throughout the ’60s, Graham continued to record top-quality albums—Midnight Man, Large as Life and Twice as Natural, and Hat—but commercial success eluded him. Around the middle of the decade, he became a heroin addict. His performances were erratic. And some believed the drug to be his undoing. “It triggered off some kind of mental problems, and he was never the same again,” Jones says. “But who knows, you never can tell when someone’s going to lose their mind, whether it’s going to be drugs or it’s going to happen anyway.”
Many of Graham’s disciples found wider audiences—Jansch and Renbourn enjoyed great popularity with Pentangle, a folk-fusion band of the late ’60s and early ’70s. And Jansch released several critically acclaimed albums until his death in 2011.
After Graham married the American singer Holly Gwinn, with whom he cut two albums in 1970, he quit heroin. Gwinn would return to the US without him a few years later, but they remained good friends until his death. He would record sporadically, but teaching, travel, and the study of languages often proffered greater rewards.
“He had an amazing facility for languages,” remembers Mark Pavey, who produced Graham’s last album, Broken Biscuits, in 2007. “He could speak French, Turkish, Gaelic, Greek, and he was always studying that stuff. He had an amazing memory. Actually it made a lot of people uncomfortable because he was so brilliant.”
Graham also served on the executive council of MIND, a mental-health charity. “He did a lot of volunteering because he was mentally unfit for normal work, being unsighted in one eye and having difficulties in later years with various issues,” Pavey says. Graham told one interviewer, “Learn to think in another language and you’ll be free of depression and obsession.”
The old wizardry was not as easily conjured, but Graham could still, on occasion, bedazzle and surprise—All That Moody, his 1976 album that revisits some earlier recordings, is filled with such flashes. “Tristano,” an original composition laced with blistering jazz lines, shows his synapses popping with spot-on abandon. But with age, Graham lost his once-driving ambition.
“He didn’t want to be in the public eye, particularly,” says Pavey, who discovered Graham while researching the influences of Nick Drake. Pavey began managing Graham, arranging tours, and was surprised to see that his new mate was still a draw. “We’d play in Sheffield, in the middle of the country, and there’d be 400 or 500 people showing up,” Pavey says. “He did better than guys playing in bands, splitting the fee five ways.”
Pavey would be the last of Graham’s career rejuvenators. He died of lung cancer on December 15, 2008. “I remember when he died and people were saying, ‘Oh, it’s a tragic story.’ It wasn’t a tragic story,” Baker says. “He was a lovely man, and I think he was crazy before he took his first aspirin. But he was a very sweet man, brilliant, with a very odd mind that darted all around. Davey was a hipster and an outsider and he never wanted to be part of what’s going on.
“He wanted to be who he was, and the fact that he did as well as he did in this world is a good story.”