Reverend Gary Davis (or "Blind Gary Davis", as he used to be called on his earlier recordings) was born on Apr 30, 1896 in Laurens, SC; he died on May 5, 1972 in Hammonton, NJ.
Either blind at birth or partially blind and losing his eyesight completely during his teens (details about his early life are rather sketchy), he taught himself to play harmonica, banjo, and guitar, performing for parties and picnics in his hometown area before moving to Durham, NC, where he played blues on streetcorners. In the early 1930s, he turned to religious music and was ordained as a baptist minister in 1933.
In the mid-1930s, he teamed up with Blind Boy Fuller in Durham. Both artists traveled to New York City and recorded several sides for the ARC (=American Record Company) label (a subsidiary of Columbia) in 1935.
In 1940, Gary Davis made New York City his permanent residence and subsequently made numerous recordings for the Folkways, Stinson, Riverside, and Prestige-Bluesville labels, while also preaching the gospel and playing his songs in the streets of Harlem.
With his ragtime-flavored blues fingerpicking style, Gary Davis influenced a lot of artists, most notably Stefan Grossman, Dave Van Ronk, Taj Mahal, Dave Bromberg and Ry Cooder. He became a well-known figure in folk circles and performed at all the major festivals in the early 1960s.Dylan, who probably first met Gary Davis in person at the Indian Neck Folk Festival, May 6, 1961, covered several of his songs:
- "Jesus Met The Woman At The Well" (on the 1961 East Orange Tape -- probably learned through Dave Van Ronk),
"Death Don't Have No Mercy" (on the May 1961 Minnesota Party Tape),
- "It's Hard To Be Blind" (aka "Lord, I Wish I Could See" from Davis' 1935 ARC session -- on the May 1961 Minnesota Party Tape and the Dec 1961 Minnesota "Hotel Tape"),
- "Candy Man" and "Cocaine" (both from Dec 1961 Minnesota "Hotel Tape"; "Cocaine" also performed during 1997/'98 legs of Dylan's "Never-Ending Tour", one live recording officially released on "Lovesick" CD single).
German magazine, 'Blues Forum', issue No. 14, 2nd quarter of 1984, contained an interview with blues artist Larry Johnson.
Larry Johnson, born in Atlanta, GA, in 1938, made New York City his home in the late 1950s where he played harmonica for people like Brownie McGhee or Alec Seward.
Alec Seward, a fairly unknown blues guitarist (although he recorded with Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee), introduced Larry Johnson, who had just started teaching himself guitar, to Reverend Gary Davis.
"One night we went to his place. Gary liked my harmonica playing.... And since we both came from the same rural area, we started to talk. I mentioned Blind Boy Fuller and stated, "Yeah, Gary, I remember his 'Step It Up and Go' well."
"Yes, " he replied, "I taught him that back then."
I said, "You're crazy! "
But then he played it for me and it knocked me off my feet."
p. 15; translated by Manfred Helfert.
Gary Davis also claimed authorship of Blind Boy Fuller's "Mama, Let Me Lay It On You" (recorded by Dylan as "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.").
Gary Davis is listed as the author of the version released on "The Last Waltz,", Winterland, San Francisco, CA, Nov 25, 1976.
MANY THANKS TO SETH KULICK FOR POINTING THIS OUT!!!
I do not mean to belittle Reverend Gary Davis' contributions to the canon of American folk song, but there are several versions of "Mama, Let Me Lay It On You" which predate Blind Boy Fuller's recording:
Walter Coleman's 8 Feb 1936 recording (Chicago, IL; 90611-A-test), which remained unissued at the time (released version recorded Chicago, IL, 3 Jun 1936; 90611-C, both available on "Cincinnati Blues 1928-1936," Document CD 3519-2).
TONY RUSSELL, in "The Blues Collection, No. 52: Blind Boy Fuller," (p. 624) claims that Memphis Minnie recorded and released a duet version (with her husband Joe McCoy) as early as 1930.
Thus, Reverend Gary Davis' claim of authorship and his subsequent listing as the author of "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" on "The Last Waltz" is IMO unfounded and the song is most likely traditional.
Before the end of 1961, he [BOB DYLAN] was talking about marriage... planning the ceremony in detail. One winter night at the White Horse, he told Suze and me how it would go: "We'll get Reverend Gary Davis... to perform the ceremony. Naw, he can just sing the ceremony. And we'll have all the singers there."
No Direction Home, London, 1987, p. 131
I was married by Rev. Gary Davis. Dylan was there. Paxton. Van Ronk. And they all sang "Just A Closer Walk With Thee..."
quoted by Robbie Woliver, Hoot! A 25-Year History of the Greenwich Village Music Scene, New York, 1986, pp. 134
BUFFY ST. MARIE:
I did a tour with Gary Davis, Paul Simon and Ramblin' Jack. We did this tour by car. We were driving like heck through these winding roads. Gary Davis couldn't see the turns, so he'd be flying all over the place. When he finally got out of the car, he kept saying, "Free at last. Free at last."
Once, Buffy Ste. Marie was touring with Rev. Gary Davis, and the Reverend was spending the entire tour trying to feel her up. Pretending to fall out of the car -- whatever he could do.
For a blind man he could sure find a woman's parts real easy.
I thought Rev. Gary Davis was absolutely the best American overall guitarist. He's a total genius. If he had sight he would have been more than a genius....
All quoted by Robbie Woliver, Hoot! A 25-Year History of the Greenwich Village Music Scene, New York, 1986, pp. 45-46.