From the May/June 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | Ernie Hawkins
In the summer of 1965, a day after graduating from high school, I moved from my hometown of Pittsburgh to New York, on a mission to find the legendary blues guitarist Reverend Gary Davis. I took a job in Midtown Manhattan, earning $52.50 a week, and found Davis’ number, AX 1-7609, in the New York City phone book. Before long I had eased into the after-work routine of visiting Davis at his home, in the Bronx, where he would give me guitar lessons for five dollars, and his wife, Annie, would insist I stay for dinner.
In the basement where he taught, Davis and I talked, played, and became conspiratorial. He always seemed to know how I was feeling, and speaking low, caused me to lean in close to him. There was so much magic wrapped up in the man and his music, with its mysterious moving bass lines, its enchanting melodies, and its wordless messages from the past. In sitting there with Davis, as I was fortunate to do on and off for five years, I received a lifetime of musical insights.
Gary D. Davis was born in Laurens, South Carolina, in 1896 and became blind as an infant. His was the story of a legendary talent that endured persistent grinding poverty. Davis scuffed around the South, landing in Durham, North Carolina, where he met and taught Blind Boy Fuller, who would become a heavyweight bluesman in his own right. In 1933 he was ordained as a Baptist minister there.
Davis was captured at his prime on the 14 brilliant tunes he recorded for the American Record Corporation in 1934, before he became disenchanted with the music industry and survived by playing wherever he could, his income supplemented by welfare benefits. In the late 1940s, as the blues scene petered out in Durham, Davis moved to New York. By the ’50s, he was a fixture in the burgeoning folk scene, playing on the streets, as was his habit, before teaching and playing clubs. When acts like Peter, Paul & Mary and the Grateful Dead began recording his songs, he became financially secure for the first time in his life, buying a house and a car and enjoying long-deserved international fame.
Davis, who is widely celebrated as a genius of blues fingerpicking, was in fact largely curious about music in general. With his guitar at hand, he was known to pass by shops with speakers out on the sidewalk, learning the music right on the spot. He had a “phonographic” memory and mastered many idioms, from gospel, blues, ragtime, and early jazz to minstrel songs, novelty tunes, and old-time country hits. In this lesson, I’ll give you a sampling of what Davis taught me about his music in these styles—and what I’m still working out 55 years later.
A Matter of Key Importance
The most interesting things about Davis’ playing, at least to my ear, are the way his approach varied substantially within different keys, and the nonstandard details that abound in his music. For an example in C major, take “Candy Man”—an amazing, perfect song in the first position that sounds simple but is actually quite tricky, as Davis reverses the customary order of the bass notes. As shown in Example 1, you would expect a C bass note on beat 1 of the first full bar, but instead Davis plays a higher G. He uses this same displacement technique on songs like “You Got the Pocketbook, I Got the Key,” and to my knowledge it’s otherwise unheard of in American guitar.
Also in C, “I Belong to the Band” is likewise mainly in the first position, an economical choice that allows Davis to play contrapuntal bass figures. This is another example of Davis breaking all the rules, straying from steady bass lines in favor of lower voices that add a unique counterpoint to the melody. In Example 2, check out how the bass weaves in and out to complement the melody while pushing it along. It’s brilliant.
Davis had a kind of chord/melody approach to the key of G major, as heard on songs like “Goin’ to Sit Down on the Banks of the River” and “Will There Be Stars in My Crown.” But “Samson and Delilah” is really his masterpiece in G. It’s got everything: fast runs, deft counterpoint, and singing guitar. Example 3 is similar to what Davis played in the introduction to “Samson”—a fistful of chords, followed by a line that culminates high on the neck, at the 15th-fret G. After the intro, Davis’ active accompaniment has a wonderful singing quality, deeply and beautifully integrated with his vocals. Here the guitarist plays fingerpicked fills with subtle textural effects, like the fifth-fret G pitted against the open G string, as in the third measure of Example 4.
Bucking the Tradition
Davis was no stranger to the folk tradition—witness examples like “Buck Dance” and “Devil’s Dream.” On the latter selection, kind of a novelty tune, Davis plays a pretty straight-forward alternating bass part in the key of F, as depicted in Example 5, above which he negotiates the I chord (F) with a series of hammer-ons from the minor third (Ab) to the major (A). But in the second part of the tune (Example 6), which modulates to the relative key of D minor, Davis drops the alternating bass in favor of a more syncopated part. At the second ending, note the unusual melodic choices of the notes Ab and Eb, returning to the more consonant F chord on the last beat.
Atypical for a blues guitarist, Davis generally disparaged open tunings and slide playing—he thought it was too easy and anybody could do it. And while about 99.9 percent of his songs were in standard tuning, “Whistlin’ Blues” shows Davis’ own original take on slide guitar in an alternate tuning. It’s in open D6—low to high, D A D F# A B. The song is a talking blues in which Davis plays this lovely open chord while he riffs about traveling on the road and encountering a woman who plays boogie-woogie piano. He portrays her piano similarly to the music shown in Example 7, playing the I chord (D6) by placing the slide across strings 1–4 at fret 12, the IV chord (G6/D, not shown in notation) at fret 5 and the V chord (A6/D, also not in notation) at fret 7.
Whatever the context, Davis loved to play guitar parts involving simultaneous voices. “Fast Fox Trot,” having a melody, interior line, and bass part, is perhaps one of the best and clearest examples of this approach. As a teenager, I was baffled trying to learn the piece off the record. I could hear and play the individual parts, but just couldn’t figure out how Davis put everything together. The first time I met him, I asked him to play it. He just chuckled and hardly moved his fingers while playing all the lines in a perfectly distinct manner. It was a revelation to me. Be sure to listen for the different voices, especially the middle one, when you try the tune (Example 8).
Technique and Imagination
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Given Davis’ penchant for contrapuntal movement on guitar, it was only natural that he took to ragtime arrangements. Davis was certainly a rarity among folk guitarists in that he had the chops and musical imagination to pull off this impressive feat. He turned Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” into a guitar masterpiece, infusing it with his patented techniques—a key inspiration for later ragtime guitarists like Eric Schoenberg and David Laibman. Davis did this by boiling the piece down to thematic essences that he could adapt to his style of playing.
The first section of “Maple Leaf Rag” (Example 9) involves a diminished roll, answered by a bluesy single-note line, which reappears in the second section. Davis gets even more inventive in a subsequent section, as shown in Example 10, where he answers an E7 chord with a colorful voicing—an A chord with the third (C#) in the bass and the addition of the raised fourth (D#). Check out how the D#, played on string 2, fret 4, rubs against the open E string. Davis’ deep knowledge of the fretboard is apparent as he travels up the neck for the series of arpeggios and block chords demonstrated in Example 11.
More than just a ragtime or blues guitarist, Davis was a true improviser. Like the legendary jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, he could work through a spontaneously imagined theme, never losing sight of the structure, spinning out verse after brilliant verse. This high-level skill is apparent throughout Davis’ work, and especially on “Slow Drag” (also known as “Cincinnati Flow Rag”), a masterpiece of 1920s-style jazz fingerpicking guitar, with its contrapuntal textures, sophisticated structure, and improvisation along the length of the fretboard.
Since the beginning of time, music has been mystery and magic, the deepest source of human imagination. The archetypal blind seer emerged to give voice to that imagination. Once essential to the social-religious order, this mythic figure, this Homer, has tragically all but disappeared from our world. But Reverend Gary Davis, in all his earthy, profound, and epic reality, was one such mystic, and I see myself as having been simply blessed, sitting there at the feet of a master.
Based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Ernie Hawkins has been playing and teaching old blues, jazz, and country songs for decades. For his instructional videos and books on Reverend Gary Davis and other blues legends, visit erniehawkins.com or guitarvideos.com.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.