Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Reverend's Disciples

Being a blind African American in the Jim Crow south must have intensified the challenges to survive with any measure of dignity. Interestingly, this very affliction, coupled with the historical moment, conjoined to give the country some of the most remarkable country blues recordings of the century. Even the most precursory list of blind blues musicians sounds like a a legendary roll call of American blues: Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller and South Carolina's own Reverend Gary Davis.

Of all the great Piedmont blues artists, none had as profound and direct an influence on the evolution of folk guitar as Reverend Gary Davis. After the rural blues recording industry began to decline and give way to R&B and urban blues ensembles after WW II, Davis moved to New York city. There he languished in obscurity until the American Folk music revival, spearheaded in large part by Pete Seeger, began to take notice of his endless repertoire of unique finger-picked arrangements, which ranged from ragtime and traditional country blues to ditties and military marches. Assisted by an appearance at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959, the Reverend's presence in New York began to work to his advantage as Greenwich Village became one of the primary focal points for the folk music revival on the East Coast. While in the Village, Davis came into contact with numerous aspiring folk musicians, providing inspiration, lessons and guidance to a virtual generation of influential players. His influence was incredibly far reaching, inspiring musicians as diverse as Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary and the Grateful Dead.

The Reverend: "Make Believe Stunt" showcases the Reverend's fluent ragtime style. A great example of the Reverend's religious work can be heard on "I Saw the Light," and "I am the Light," recorded in the 1930's. Incredible guitar work here. Also, check out this unique arrangement of the traditional song "Candyman." Below is a partial list of the many "disciples" of the Reverend, all of whom are still alive with the exception of Dave Van Ronk.

Woody Mann: In my estimation, the master pupil of the Reverend. Mann can play it all with incredible fluidity. His multiple skills are on full display on "Top Hat." Whether it's playing a Blind Blake or Davis rag or covering Bo Carter, Woody is an outstanding player all the way round. Also, check out the stylistics on "Lennie's Lament."

Stefan Grossman: Another disciple who has proven himself an outstanding player in country blues, ragtime and related genres. Co founded the roots music label Kicking Mule. Check out his approach on "Bermuda Triangle Exit."

Roy Bookbinder: Roy enjoys the comical side of playing but he was also one of the Reverend's star pupils, having been connected to him by Dave Van Ronk in the Village back in the early 1960's. Listen to Roy talk about his teacher and display his talent here.

Ry Cooder: Roots and World Music guru Cooder was directly influenced by the Reverend and took lessons from him at an early age. Since then, Ry has been a leader in championing the cause of roots music all over the globe. This is early Cooder when he was doing traditional blues.

Taj Mahal: New York born, Taj and Ry Cooder must have seen the Reverend many times in the folk clubs of the Village in the early 1960's. Taj moves in and out of country and urban blues styles and has dabbled in World Music as well. This rendition of "Fishin Blues" nods to the influence of the Reverend.

Dave Vann Ronk: One of the leading figures of the Greenwich Village folk scene, the late Van Ronk was a political activist and was directly influenced and took lessons from the Reverend. His work is textured by jazz and blues traditions. Dave talks about the Greenwich scene and his experiences and then performs "Down South Blues. "

Dave Bromberg: Dave is a truly gifted musician with an eclectic approach. He studied directly with the Reverend in the early 1960's and later branched out into diverse forms of roots music. Listen to him talk about the Village, the Reverend and then perform "Maple Leaf Rag." An absolutely fascinating video.

Jorma Kaukonen: Best known for being a founding member of the Jefferson Airplane, Jorma was a huge Reverend Gary Davis fan back in the sixties and stills honors his influence with covers. Here Jorma performs the Davis religious tune "I Am the Light of this World," one of my all time favorites.

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