On the evening of Jan. 29, 2003, Jorma Kaukonen, former guitarist for classic rock bands Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, walked onstage at The Handlebar on Stone Avenue in Greenville.
Before he settled in to perform an evening’s worth of traditional acoustic folk and blues, Kaukonen mentioned that he’d spent part of his day in the Upstate looking for the birthplace of the Rev. Gary Davis.
Kaukonen, along with a host of other artists, looked to Davis, born in Laurens, South Carolina, on April 30, 1896, as a massively influential figure in blues music. Davis, blind since infancy, developed a lightning-quick fingerpicking style on guitar, using his thumb and forefinger to pick out layered, complex melodies, and he possessed a wounded, weather-beaten voice that seemed to cry with both pain and joy.
On tracks like “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” “Samson and Delilah” (also known as “If I Had My Way”), and “Cross and Evil Woman Blues,” Davis spun out startlingly spry acoustic guitar rhythms and vocals that could ascend from the deepest well of torment to a joyful gospel shout with ease.
With his spiritual yet primal style, Davis seemed to have the blues in his bones and salvation on his mind. But the fact that one of his first-ever public performances was in a Baptist church in Gray Court, South Carolina, was a harbinger of where he was headed. In 1937, Davis largely turned his back on blues and concentrated on gospel music when he became an ordained Baptist minister.
Davis released a small string of albums in the late 1950s and early 1960s like “Pure Religion and Bad Company” and “Say No to the Devil,” but he might have remained a historical footnote had it not been for the revival of folk and blues music that swept the country in the early 1960s.
His songs were covered by popular artists like Peter, Paul and Mary (“If I Had My Way”), Bob Dylan (“Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”) and The Rolling Stones (“You Gotta Move”), and Davis returned to the blues to great acclaim. And he actually gave lessons to a wide range of guitarists who would shape modern folk and rock music, including David Bromberg, Ry Cooder, Janis Ian and The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir.
But the mournful joy in Davis’ voice and his layered guitar sound spread far beyond the musicians he actually taught. Jackson Browne, Nick Drake, Janis Joplin and Taj Mahal are just a few of the artists who loved Davis’ music and wove his sound into their own.
And his influence only expanded in the years following his death. In fact, the majority of recordings that have been released under the name Rev. Gary Davis came out after he died of a heart attack in Hammonton, New Jersey, in 1972.
Albums like “Blues and Ragtime” (released in 1993) and “A Little More Faith” (reissued in 1999) brought Davis’ music to new generations of blues, folk and gospel players, including Patty Griffin, who included a raucous, passionate version of “If I Had My Way” on her 2010 gospel album, “Downtown Church.”
Though he might not be as much of a household name as B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf or Leadbelly, the Rev. Gary Davis is a revered legend of blues, folk and gospel music, a man from right here in the Upstate who shaped generations of guitarists and singers.
- In the 1940s, Davis preached and played on street corners in Harlem.
- During his lifetime, Davis recorded for venerable record labels like Folkways and Riverside.
- In 1965, Davis reached a popular peak when he performed at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island
- In 2003, Rev. Gary Davis received a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award from Folk Alliance International, one of the largest music conferences in America.