Gary Davis was only a few weeks old when he lost his eyesight. He said it was for the best. From what he knew of the Jim Crow south, it was better for him not to see. So instead of watching the world, he learned to listen to it. And sing about it.
By age seven he’d built his first guitar. Out of a pie pan. By age 20, Gary Davis had developed one of the most complex finger-style techniques of all time. You see, a once badly broken left wrist allowed him to play chord patterns no normal fingers could. And his right hand? It’s crazy – he used just his thumb and index finger!
In 1937, Blind Gary Davis was ordained a Baptist preacher. He pretty much gave up secular music, but never stopped playing the guitar. And we can thank the lord for that. Reverend Gary Davis would go on to inspire the likes of Dylan and the Dead. And he personally taught such young guns as Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and Jorma Kaukonen.
Hey…you know what? It’s his birthday today. In honor of that, here’s one of his best. An early track. From the Reverend Gary Davis, “Cross and Evil Woman Blues.”
Gary Davis was born April 30, 1896 in Laurens, South Carolina. The only one of his mother’s eight children to survive to adulthood, Gary managed to overcome a difficult childhood. Blinded as an infant from chemicals applied to his eyes as a medicine show prescription, he turned to music at a young age to help cope with his blindness. He taught himself to play guitar, a rudimentary instrument he fashioned from a pie pan, by singing in church, listening to records and reworking Sousa marches. His deeply personal style developed further after a badly broken, and badly set, wrist gave him the ability to play unusual chords patterns not accessible to normal bones. Soon he was touring as a street singer and an itinerant preacher, crossing paths with such notable songsters as Blind Boy Fuller and other musicians in the Piedmont tradition.
His exposure to music in church contributed both to his strong religious convictions and his particular relationship to song. By 1937, Gary Davis had moved to New York City and was ordained a Baptist preacher. Davis had made a few recordings in the 1930s but it was then and there that his recording career began in earnest, but it wasn’t until the 1950’s that he began to receive his due recognition. The blues folk revival opened up the Reverend to a whole new audience, and suddenly casual listeners and students alike began to show up at his doorstep in Harlem and request his presence at folk festivals at home and abroad. In addition to the influence his music would have on the next generation, the Reverend Davis would go on to personally instruct a vanguard of young titans, like Ry Cooder, Bob Weir and Dave Van Ronk. The work of Gary Davis inspired everyone from the Grateful Dead, to Bob Dylan, to Jefferson Airplane.
He died on May 5, 1972 and is buried in Rockville Cemetery in Lynbrook, New York.