Read Recently — December 2015 — The Anti-Robert Johnson

Say No To The Devil: the life and musical genius of Rev. Gary Davis by Ian Zack

Go ahead and turn on the video. Listen to it while you read the review. The black man at the front singing and playing the guitar is the Reverend Gary Davis, aka Blind Gary, and the subject of this biography. The guy behind him trying to play along on the Banjo is Pete Seeger (whose show it is), and one of the mop-tops in the background is Donovan, of “Mellow Yellow” fame. This episode was taped on March 10, 1966, and the whole episode is available on Youtube if you want to watch it.

Gary Davis was born in South Carolina in 1896. He wasn’t born blind, but was rendered blind while still very young, possibly by bad medical care. Neither of his parents was a good caretaker so he was raised by his grandmother. He took to music early and learned to play the guitar, which he would make his own.

Robert Johnson allegedly went down to the crossroads and traded his soul for the ability to play the blues; Gary Davis learned to play the blues and then turned his back on them to become a preacher and play spirituals. For years he supported himself playing on streetcorners in New York, before being discovered during the great folk revival of the 50s and 60s. The list of players he influenced directly and indirectly is basically a who’s who of blues and folk: Dave van Ronk, Maria Muldaur, the Weavers, Janice Ian (Ian credits Davis with getting her career started), Bob Dylan (of course. But then, who didn’t influence Dylan?), Keith Richards, the entire fucking Grateful Dead . . . but the one who did the most for him was Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul and Mary: the trio recorded one of Davis’ songs and, unlike many who did so, registered the copyright in his name, leading to big payouts that at least meant Davis’ last years were not spent in poverty.

Well-written, though there is at least one stand-out autocorrect error (remember when we had to make our own typoes?) where a person met a “grizzly death”, not at the paws or fangs of a bear but by being hit by a train, the interesting story of an unexpected new listening pleasure. Recommended.

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