Playing in the Church of the Rev. Gary Davis
So here we are in the eighth term of the Reagan administration, in the middle of a heat wave, in the middle of the hottest year on record, in the middle of a likely mass extinction event.the middle of a likely mass extinction event.
It’s not quite time to say good-bye to your friends and family. It would be time to have a general strike, except nobody’s doing anything, so it’s hard to get jazzed about the prospect of overthrowing the corporate state. Doom is almost certain, yet not imminent enough for focus. What to do until there’s focus?
Me, I’m going to play the guitar. After many years of practice, I still kinda suck. I’m maybe a B-level fingerpicker. There are probably 50 children under the age of 5 on YouTube who play better than I do. That gets really discouraging. But I plod along. Nothing gives me a sense of satisfaction like learning a new move on the guitar neck.
Most of my repertoire consists of songs by John Fahey and the Reverend Gary Davis. Both were Christian mystics, Fahey through several levels of irony and existential philosophy, Davis a pure Pentacostal. Both created astounding, eerie worlds of beauty by absorbing and reconfiguring just about everything in American music in the first half of the 20th century. Both had difficult lives, Fahey struggling with addiction and inability to deal with the onerous details of normal life, Davis traumatized by blindness, racism, poverty and homelessness. Fahey lived from 1939-2001, Davis from 1896-1972.
I’ve been listening to Fahey since college. I could hear him from the first note. Davis has been a more recent acquisition. I didn’t get him for a long time because of his singing, which borrows heavily from his preaching, which is to say that he bellows and roars a lot. It takes a little getting used to. I did not really understand how great his musicianship was until a brilliant guitarist named Ernie Hawkins put out five sets of DVDs teaching a portion of Davis’s huge body of composition. I bought them all because I knew from his other DVDs (teaching Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb and Blind Willie McTell) that Hawkins was one of those very rare birds who can both teach and play. There are a lot of guitar teachers wandering around out there in the digital wasteland, and most of them aren’t all that useful. Hawkins really has figured out how everything fits together on the guitar neck and how to explain it. Even more important, his love and gratitude for Davis’ music pops though the television. You can’t help but get swept up in it.
At some future date, I’m going to write something about John Fahey in this space. In the meantime, the place to get started listening to Davis is an album called Harlem Street Singer, which is available on iTunes or Amazon.
Davis has many wonderful disciples out there in the acoustic steel-string guitar subculture, most prominently Jorma Kaukonen (in Hot Tuna and solo), Woody Mann, Roy Bookbinder and Stefan Grossman. Hawkins is probably first among equals there. The guy plays amazingly pristine renditions of Davis, plus other songs done in the Davis style, often called “Piedmont blues.” Hawkins’ singing is a little bit of an afterthought—he gets this beatific look on his face when he’s nailing it all over the guitar neck and it seems like he doesn’t want to interrupt all that virtuoso fingerpicking with mere vocalizing. But who cares? The guitar is transporting, both for him and the listener. If Davis were the Messiah, then Hawkins would be St. Peter, Jorma the Apostle Paul.
“No one plays Rev. Gary Davis better than Ernie Hawkins,” says Stefan Grossman, a direct student of Davis back in the 60s.
I recommend Hawkins’ latest album Rags and Bones (iTunes or erniehawkins.com) as an entry point among his many albums. If you’re a guitar player, or if you just want a great lecture on why Davis was one of America’s most inspired composers, you can check out The Gospel Guitar of Rev. Gary Davis, a 4-DVD set (guitarvideos.com) where Hawkins teaches 14 of Davis’ catchiest tunes. If you’re playing mostly in the first postion, it’ll get you moving up the neck in whole new ways.
Sometimes I think that if I had my life to do over again, I’d do what Hawkins’ did: Finish that last class of high school and move to New York the next day to take guitar lessons from the Reverend Gary Davis. Since that isn’t possible, Hawkins’ teaching DVDs are the next best thing. I mean, what’s the point of journalism if we’re doomed anyway? I’d rather be playing Davis’ “Oh Glory How Happy I Am” on the guitar, because it indeed makes me happy in the middle of our mass extinction event.
So, anyway, I love how Ernie Hawkins plays the guitar. He gets those old blues guys completely. He doesn’t try to show off, he just sits there and puts all the notes in the right place. Born in 1947 in Pittsburgh, he’s also the only guitar player I know with Ph.D in phenomenological psychology.
CHARLES M. YOUNG: You hit puberty right at the peak of the folk boom in the late 50s and early 60s. What did that have to do with your musical awakening?
ERNIE HAWKINS: It was more than an awakening for me. In high school I was totally lost, didn’t know what the hell was going on and hated everything. When I was 13 in eighth grade I got to be friendly with a great musician and bones player who worked on my uncle’s farm. I was interested and found myself an old banjo and started plucking away on old fiddle tunes. Suddenly I was in a whole new world of people who had nothing to do with high school. I was hanging out with players, mostly adults and college people that I could relate to because they were throwing themselves into the same thing that I was. I found out quickly that I had a facility for it.
So it was a matter of meeting the right people in Pittsburgh, as opposed to seeing the Rooftop Singers on Hootenanny?
It gave me an identity that had nothing to do with high school. I barely graduated. But when I was about 16, I opened a coffee house with a friend of mine. We found a little building on the lawn at the Center for the Arts and enlisted our girlfriends and got card tables and coffee machines. People from all over the place were coming to this little coffee house. One day a guy from Antioch came through, and he knew all the players at Antioch, and he gave me a Reverend Gary Davis album, Harlem Street Singer.
I had already picked up the guitar at that point, and I thought of myself as a pretty good fingerpicker. The banjo had been a new world for me, but the guitar was a new, even more expressive world. I borrowed guitars for a while, then bought a 1919 Martin in perfect shape for $80 from the aunt of a friend of mine who had it in her attic. I was learning songs from any old blues record I could find in those days. When I heard Harlem Street Singer, I heard it all immediately. It shook me to the core of my being. It was like hearing Beethoven for the first time. Just amazement and awe at first listen.
It’s still my favorite record of his. The depth, the command of the guitar, his singing, his timing. If I’d known how long it would take to learn that music, how many years, I don’t know whether I would have walked down that path, but I had no choice. I was the kind of guy who would jump in a car or go hitchhike anywhere to find a guitar player. When I was 17, the summer before my senior year of high school, I hitchhiked to Georgia trying to find Blind Willie McTell. I had $35 in my pocket. I got as far as Atlanta and I went broke, had to play in drive-through hamburger joints to make money. Nobody I could find had even heard of Blind Willie McTell. Years later I found out that he had died in 1959, and he’d been playing in drive-through hamburger joints to make money.
So that was 1964. The next year, I graduated from high school. I didn’t go to the ceremony or anything. I just waited until the last class was over and moved to New York the next day. I got a job at Bond’s Clothing making $52.50 a week as a clerk. And I called up the Reverend Gary Davis on the phone.
What did your parents think of this?
My mother told me later, “I didn’t know what the hell to think of you. I couldn’t control you. You were all over the place. I just hoped that if something bad happened, I would be able to help.”
What did they do?
My father worked in the steel mill. My mother was a housewife. I grew up like a weed. My father was always working. My mother had serious health problems, so no one was keeping track of me, for better and for worse. I hated school but I knew I was smart enough. I loved to read. I had my passions.
Rock & roll passed you by?
It passed me by. I’d never heard Led Zeppelin, except in passing on the radio. I could hear blues players, like Clapton, and know he was great, but it was another world. I was zeroed in on acoustic fingerpicking, any kind Piedmont blues guitar. but especially Gary Davis.
So it’s 1965 and you just call him up?
He said, “Come see me.” He was in a little storefront in Queens then. He was asleep and I walked in on him. I didn’t know what to do, so I touched him and he jumped and started shouting and he exploded and I ran outside. He was yelling and yelling, and nobody was in there with him. Finally, from the street, I said, “Reverend Davis, it’s me, Ernie. I called you. And I’m here for my guitar lesson.” And he said, “Did you bring your money?” And I said, “Yup.” He calmed down, and I came in. I asked him to show me “Oh Glory, How Happy I Am” which he hadn’t recorded yet, but I’d learned from a guy at Antioch who had taken lessons from him. I didn’t know the words, so he dictated the words and I wrote them down and we sang it. That was a good start. I already knew “Slow Drag” and a few other songs. He knew I was serious. As I look back, we hit it off well.
At some point he moved into a house in Jamaica, Queens, and I started going over there. He had a white Ford and I would drive him around. I drove him to that Pete Seeger talk show the you can see on YouTube now, where he did “Oh Glory” and “Children of Zion.” I watched the whole show off camera, this 18-year-old white kid from Pittsburgh. It was like sitting in front of the Old Testament, like meeting Moses or Homer. The history of everything was there in this guy. He was born in 1896 and grew up when all that music was starting to brew. He played in a string band with the very best players from the Carolinas. He just absorbed all these songs as a teenager. He matured through the jazz age, though the twenties, and you can hear Louie Armstrong in his playing, plus the church he grew up in. He was a genius, fully formed by about age 30, and then he survived the Depression and the war years. He wasn’t alcoholic or anything because of his faith. He told me that when he was growing up, a new record would come out and they’d be playing it on the street with those primitive speakers, and he’d stop and learn it. And he did that every day. He had a photographic memory, which blind people sometimes develop, so he learned every song and he could play it in every key. Folk, jazz, country, gospel. He was a walking encyclopedia of American music, and there he was sitting in front of me in 1965.
Was his knowledge of the guitar technical or intuitive?
I was just playing by ear back then myself. I didn’t know enough to ask him, “How do you understand this?” But when I look back, he knew how to navigate the neck in every key everywhere. He could walk through every kind of arpeggio, so he knew how all the chords fit together. And he had the most economical system of playing with his left hand that anybody ever devised. If you watch his left hand, almost nothing is moving. He could play almost everything while moving almost nothing. It was absolutely brilliant, and it made perfect sense. It was like water running downhill, just the shortest distance between two points. When you listen to his improvised blues, he was moving lines in and out, changing the timing, without ever missing the chord change, just like a jazz player, like Art Tatum did on the piano. He was another blind musician.
Did blindness have something to do with their genius?
I’m sure it did. Blindness changes your other senses and perceptions so profoundly. Our major sense is sight. When you take that away, you live in an auditory world. All the blind people I know remember everything. You tell a bind person a phone number, they remember it forever. They have to. I also think Gary Davis would have been a brilliant musician even he weren’t blind.
If you’re not seeing the neck, you almost have to figure out the most efficient way to get around.
Not necessarily. Other blind players didn’t figure out what Gary Davis did. Blind Blake very rarely moved up the neck. Blind Boy Fuller only played with a bottle neck until he met Davis and Davis brought him into standard tuning. Blind Lemon Jefferson knew the guitar neck cold, so he was like Davis, able to play anything anywhere. Or look at Blind Willie Johnson. Brilliant slide player, the best ever, but the few songs he did without a slide, he was just basic. He had nothing, nothing, nothing like Gary Davis. So it’s not just any blind musician who can do what Davis did. He had a huge gift to begin with, and being blind deepened it. Way deep.
Blind guys also have their own sense of rhythm.
Davis had an uncanny sense of rhythm. No doubt about it. It was all in his right thumb. When I play along with him on record, I get the sense that I’m playing along with piano player with a drummer, but it’s all his thumb. After 50 years of playing his music, I still discover more depth. There are so many songs that I just don’t know what he’s doing. You think you’ve got somewhere, you learned all this stuff, but there’s always way more. You can never get to the bottom of it. He said to me once, “I can imitate anybody. I can play like Blind Blake, any guitar player.” But nobody could play like Gary Davis. He was the best and he knew it.
What kind of a guy was he personally?
Very complex. Very smart. Very tuned in. Very very very playful. He made deep jokes. Wherever he was, whoever he was among, he was entertaining. In a second he could turn everyone else into his audience. When I came back to college in Pittsburgh, we did a couple of blues festivals. All these old blues guys were there. Mance Lipscomb, Fred McDowell, everybody. And when Gary Davis walked in the room, they all formed a circle around him. He was the master of ceremonies, telling jokes and getting everyone to laugh. He could pull everyone together like a great preacher or entertainer would.
It seems like a lot of the best acoustic players today took lessons from Davis back then, guys like Stefan Grossman and Woody Mann. How aware were you of his other students?
I met Stefan. He was teaching at a music store, and somebody told me to go meet him and learn how to play “Dallas Rag.” Stefan had already spent most of his time with Davis. Woody came later and I didn’t meet him. I never met Roy Bookbinder. Most of Gary’s students couldn’t play anything. Maybe a few songs, but you could tell they weren’t ever going to learn. I was possessed. I’d work eight hours, take the train to his house and spend as much time as I could with him. I’d spend all my weekends with him.
Is this little group of Gary Davis disciples united in the common cause of his music, or is there territoriality?
No territoriality. Everybody is united in the common cause of Gary Davis. For sure. We all love each other. Most of the people playing his music these days never took lessons from him. Jorma Kaukonen, Ari Eisinger—great musicians but they didn’t know Gary.
On your teaching DVDs, you often mention that Davis was “deeply inspired.” How did that manifest itself?
Songs would come to him in dreams, or right in the moment when he was possessed by the spirit. When he was preaching or playing, he’d just get hot. And you know what’s funny? He comes to people in dreams himself. All the time. Many of his students talk about him showing up in dreams playing songs. He’s still around, visiting lots of us.
How long were you in New York?
Almost a year. I got restless. I hitchhiked to the West Coast. I wandered around. I moved back to Pittsburgh. I went to New York to see Gary. The last time I saw him was 1970. I got married and we brought him in to perform the ceremony.
Is there any relationship between your study of phenomenological psychology and your music?
I have no idea. I was just interested in stuff. My grades were terrible in high school. I went to Pitt in the 60s. In those years, they let anyone in, because they wanted a mix of races and classes to get educated. Tuition was nothing, so I enrolled. I discovered that I was interested in philosophy and could read it. I fell in love with phenomenology and existential philosophy and Kant. There was a closely related movement in psychology, phenomenological psychology, and I got interested in that. I was good at it. Got a scholarship for graduate school at one of the two places that taught it. Then five years at the University of Dallas.
I was googling around this morning, and I couldn’t figure out what phenomenological psychology actually is.
It took me five years to figure out what it is. Do you know anything about Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau Ponty? It has more to do with…um…just immediate experience and trying to find the meaning in immediate experience, which brings you into the history of ideas, how reality is shaped and formed and conditioned. That led me to Jungian psychology and archetypal psychology. It’s hard to explain.
Were you planning to go on in psychology? Did you want to be a professor or psychotherapist?
I didn’t want to be anything. I just wanted to go to school. I didn’t envision myself as a therapist or clinician or teacher. There was no place to teach this kind of thing, and I wasn’t prepared to teach regular psychology. It didn’t appeal to me. I just enjoyed studying history, mythology, literature and the history of ideas.
You were playing in the Dallas blues scene?
A little bit. Most of it was electric. The T-Birds would come to town, and I liked them.
Texas blues bands all talk about Lightnin’ Hopkins being an influence. Is that where you picked up on him?
Yeah. I went to see him. Mostly I picked up on the Texas acoustic scene from a great musician named Art Eskridge. He was working in Dallas for the Santa Fe Railroad, came up in the 50s in Oklahoma City where he learned to play a lot like Mance Lipscomb and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Art was a great, great player. Great fingers. Listening to him was a window into Texas blues. Mance Lipscomb was pretty accessible to me, but I could not figure out Blind Lemon Jefferson. It wasn’t until I saw Art play that I understood what Blind Lemon Jefferson was doing. I still talk to him. He’s a wonderful guy.
What happened after you got your Ph.D?
Just wandered around. I didn’t know what to do with my life. For years. I wound up playing electric guitar in different bands. I didn’t know what else to do. Country bands. Blues bands. In 1985 or so, I moved back to Pittsburgh. I don’t know why. Ended up playing for years in blues bands. All kinds of things happened. People lived and died. In the early 90s, I was still playing acoustic just on my own, and I started thinking, “Man, I have this legacy from Gary Davis.” And I was afraid that I might be losing it a little bit. So I quit the electric band and recorded an acoustic CD that, as I look back on it, was terrible. But I started playing acoustic guitar more seriously. I just decided, “Hell, I’m not making any money doing anything else. I might as well do this thing that I’m uniquely good at.” I was a decent electric guitarist, but nowhere near as deep as my acoustic playing. I just tried to find myself, give myself to it.
Is it possible to make a living playing acoustic blues?
Between the DVDs and the guitar camps, I’ve been managing. My wife helps out a lot. She’s a business person. If it weren’t for her, I’d be sleeping in the gutter. When we met each other and she said, “You don’t seem happy being in these bands.” I was getting home at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning and I was getting old. She said, “This is what you love doing, so you ought to just do it and not worry about it.” So her confidence gave me a lot of support.
As Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss.”
Yes, because that’s who you are. When I look back on my life, that’s what I did. I followed my bliss. I never made any money. I never had a career. I just followed the guitar. I hitchhiked wherever my bliss led me. And now I’ve found a slot for myself. I’m so grateful because I can sit and work on this stuff and play this stuff. I’m healing. It feels good. One of the most fun things I ever did was arranging “Potato Head Blues” by Louis Armstrong for the guitar. I’m working on a lot of stuff like that, music so entwined with Gary Davis, his spirit, his life, what he taught me. This style, the so-called Piedmont style, is perfect for almost anything: standard pop tunes, jazz, African. I feel like the luckiest guy in the world, passing along this gift that Gary Davis left for us all.
It seems like there’s an army of guys out there who are playing this kind of music instead of golf. They appear to communicate with each other by putting videos of themselves playing on YouTube.
Not an army. More like a battalion. One thing that gives them cohesion is the guitar camps, like Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio. There are maybe a dozen or 15 of them around the country, probably fewer in the coming years because of the economy. The camps keep us in touch with our audience. I’ve seen a lot of people go from knowing not much at all to really playing this kind of music and even making records.
What happens at these camps?
You stay for four or five days and live in a some kind of dorm. You get three meal a day and sign up for classes that go on all day and then you jam with your buddies at night. A lot of the same teachers go from camp to camp. The students are mostly men who loved the the folk scene in the 60s, then had a normal life. They’ve had their careers, they have some discretionary income, so they buy a nice guitar and try to learn to play it better.
Many younger people?
Some, but not many. It’s very encouraging when a teenager wants to learn fingerpicking.
I have a hard time imagining you as a teenager in 1965, so consumed by the Reverend Gary Davis that the whole rock & roll revolution didn’t penetrate. Even the Beatles passed you by?
Noooo. I loved them. The Beatles were different. They did it for everyone. You couldn’t avoid the Beatles or the Stones. But what the Who and Led Zeppelin were for most people, they weren’t to me. Gary Davis was that to me. Many, many people found themselves in rock & roll. I found myself in Gary Davis.
You weren’t moved by the blues-based British bands at all?
You’d get high at someone’s house and the Stones would be on the stereo. They were great. But if somebody showed me the new Yardbirds album and said, “Isn’t this unbelievably great?”, I’d be like, “Yeah, but I have this Muddy Waters album that kills your Yardbirds album.” I was going to the same sources as the Yardbirds, as Eric Clapton, as the Rolling Stones. I preferred the sources. I felt like I had a full time job with Gary Davis.
CHARLES M. YOUNG is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening, the new independent, collectively-owned, journalist-run online newspaper.