Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Film Notes: Harlem Street Singer - The Rev Gary Davis

Harlem Street Singer is a 2013 documentary film about the life of Blues guitar legend, Rev "Blind" Gary Davis. Davis (1896-1972), was by anyone's estimation an extraordinary man, who lived a quite remarkable life - one which is well worth celebrating with a film like this. While there is extensive archive footage of Davis used throughout the film; the bulk of the material is contemporary interviews, performances and anecdotes about the man from the generation of younger folk, blues and gospel players who Davis knew, taught and inspired.

Davis was a hugely innovative and talented, self-taught guitarist, whose large and powerful hands attacked the strings and frets with percussive force, as he ranged through folk, blues, jazz, gospel, rag-time and spirituals. In his early years in Durham, N. Carolina, he played in bands, and would perform different styles of music, to suit the range of audiences who would pay him. With employment opportunities being limited by both his skin colour and disability, Davis became an adept performer, earning his way by pleasing audiences of whatever type; playing spirituals for funerals or entertaining the workers, farmers and traders who gathered at Durham's huge tobacco warehouses.

A significant change occurred in 1937, when Davis attended a Christian revival meeting. Here he committed his life to God's work, was ordained as an evangelist; and restricted his repertoire almost exclusively to spiritual music. The mid-century 'great-migration' of African Americans from the 'Jim Crow' (segregated) States of the old Confederate South, to the North was an acceleration of a movement that had begun as a trickle of people in 'the underground railroad', and become a mass-movement a hundred years later. This movement of people was driven by negative forces in the South (segregation, discrimination, physical threat, judicial persecution, economic exploitation, and fear); and by the positive fact that after WWII opportunities for Black folks in the North were beginning to open up. Davis was swept up in this movement, which tended to move people along long-established railroad routes; and he found himself in Harlem, New York - living in dreadful conditions and earning his living playing guitar on New York's streets.

In New York, Davis' exceptional playing gained him a considerable reputation, and lead to a secondary career as a guitar teacher. A remarkable number of young guitar players sought Davis out, and studied under him - and it is these guys who made this DVD possible. People as well known as Bob Weir (Grateful Dead), Jorma Kaukonon (Jefferson Airplane), John Hammond, as well as a host of folksters like David Bromberg, Stefan Grossman, and Woody Mann, talk candidly about days spent studying guitar at Davis' flat. Alongside Davis and his long-suffering wife, Annie, players like Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Brownie McGhee would appear and jam. A massive breakthrough for Davis came when Peter, Paul and Mary covered one of his songs which generated his first reliable income and enabled him to buy a small house. This house became a musical centre, and the place from which Davis would set out across the city to gig, busk, and preach. 

The thing about this DVD is not just that it is a good story; nor that it is full of wonderful music. The most special thing about it is the massive love and affection with which it is made. The players who talk about Davis talk about him with a huge amount of love, respect and joy- he was clearly a father-figure to many of them. Long after some of the details of Davis life story, or the details of the 1965 festival footage of Davis, have faded in my memory - I will remember the genuine love so many people had for The Reverend Gary Davis. 

Davis was a huge talent, a hard man, a genuine eccentric (beware of a blind man who is ready to fire a pistol!), recordings of whose spiritual music still moves the soul to this day. This DVD is a charming labour of love, which is both highly educational in its content, and utterly captivating in its tone. And don't miss the DVD extras either - 'Wavy Gravy' will make you laugh and laugh!

No comments: