BWW Interview: Guy Davis Forges Path Through Music, Theater & Beyond
He sits across from me, serious and focused. His voice is measured, each word enunciated. When Guy Davis speaks, that voice rises and falls with the emotion behind the subject at hand. He puts his points across to one person, the same as from the stage, no matter a concert hall, an outdoor venue or the Broadway stage. It was not until the recent Spring Gulch Folk Festival that we finally met.
Under the eaves, while above us performers practiced, prepared and walked about, Davis brought me up to date on his current tour. "We're not so formal in what we call ourselves in terms of regular band, (or) touring band," he explains. Most of the music this night was from 2015's Kokomo Kidd, with a nod to the latest, Sonny and Brownie's Last Train: a Look Back at Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, recorded with Italian harpist and bandleader Fabrizio Poggi.
The enthusiasm for this project rises in Davis immediately, when I ask how its reception. "It's coming off good," he says, "and here's what surprises me: it's not bad work, when I look at myself as an artist, but I had less than 24 hours recording time in a studio. You know when you're doing various takes of a song, plus rough preliminary mixes, and things like that. If it had been up to me, I would have had at least another week in the studio, just to record and redo. But given that short amount of time, I think that we did a good job, and people are receiving it as some of our better work, okay? If they say so," he finishes, "then I'm gonna let it be that."
Folk or country blues, it matters not what you call it. There are standards from Terry and McGhee's catalog, such as "Louise, Louise," and "Hooray, Hooray, These Women is Killing Me." Field songs such as "Take This Hammer" are featured, and a version of "Midnight Special," a bit of license taken by Davis, and done in the same style.
The recording in Milan did not leave much time, but the session, while loose is one of familiarity between musicians and those they pay tribute to. "We didn't put songs like 'Key to the Highway,"' (on the album) Davis explains, "because they are so much associated with that. We wanted to stretch it out a little bit, songs that I don't hear so often. I actually hadn't heard Brownie McGhee's (version of) "Evil Hearted Me..."
He sings a few bars under his breath, and continues with increased verve, "It's a crazy song, but I wanted to share that one 'cause it got right into my bones. And Sonny and Brownie were sociable musicians, you know, you heard them with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Big Bill Broozny and Leadbelly. So when Fabrizio and I were touring, we were doing stuff also that's not on the CD. We were doing like 'Pick a Bale of Cotton,' which is one of my favorite tunes. So I did a version closer to the Leadbelly original, where the song almost competes, you get the audience singing along with you, and you get 'em singing a lot of words in a short amount of time, it's a fun kind of tune."
Why a recording such as this, at this time? "I think it was my love for Fabrizio that got me to record this CD," Davis says. "That is because I personally didn't think Sonny and Brownie needed covering. What they did, man, they did the classic version of just about everything they did, with the exception maybe of "Freight Train" by Elizabeth Cotten. But Fabrizio was so on this, and I can't turn him down--he has not only appeared on some of my CDs, he produced two of the last three. So it was at his urging; once I was in the studio, man, I was there to give it all. And I find as a performer in retrospect, that when I give all, it pays off...it pays off in people's attention, and it's a tremendous reward that we do get, and that we have gotten thus far on this CD."
How did this odd musical pairing meet? "He says we met up in the Italian part of Switzerland," Davis recalls, actively searching his mind as he replies. "I thought we met down in Italy, and this would be close to ten years ago, and I think he was appearing with his band Chicken Mambo...and either he and I jammed together onstage as a duet, or he let me in front of his band to maybe lead a song, I don't remember how it started. It's hard for me to pinpoint it."
This leads to the question of how an Italian such as Poggi was infused and inspired by American blues? "Fabrizio has a profound love of the blues that is not just musical," Davis explains. "He also happens to be a scholar, and has written at least two books about the history of the blues, about the history thereof, the music, the culture, the musicians. They're in Italian, so I could not say I've read them, but I do know that he is in fact a scholar of the blues and knows something about Italians being imported into the US to work in the Mississippi Delta."
Davis's discography goes back to 1995's Stomp Down Rider, and through his own songs there are the classics, made over in his own hands. "With me, it is part of my mission," he explains, "but it did not start off to be a mission at all. I play this music because I loved it, and still do, and if I couldn't get a job doing it, I would do like I used to when I was starting off before I got gigs. I would take my guitar and hang out in people's kitchens and play house parties. I've been in schools before there was a Blues in the Schools program, singing blues, folk songs, folk blues, I mean any kind of variation. I think entertaining is what I do, that is what my spirit is called to do, and the blues is kind of like my salvation. It was a form of music that I felt like it was in me. It doesn't mean I'm some great, great blues icon; no, I follow people who are that; but it is in me to do. It is in me to communicate. My way of keeping the blues alive isn't so much to play the songs note for note, as written as performed. I can do that; I like to interpret it my way, I want people to hear and see what the blues has done for me.
'When I was a kid, eight or so years old, I remember being in the front (row) of some auditorium, looking up at a performer onstage. He had a guitar, and to me it was magic, that piece of wood with steel strings on it. But this person took those objects and told me stories, and stories I guess are what I am about."
"The blues," Davis pauses to think, then continues, "is it my mission to bring the blues, support the blues, spread the blues in the world? Yes, it is...the blues, whether or not I like it, it is an endangered species. Whether or not they have international blues days, it's still an endangered species. The people who invented the blues way back a hundred years ago or whatever, they sang music by black people, sang it to black people, often about black people, and that was when it was a very kind of sequestered, parochial, I don't know what the right word is but it was kind of living in one community of people, but it has spread out, and for evidence of that you just go to New Orleans and listen to Louis Armstrong's playing way back in the day. It's not an accident that jazz started off kind of sounding like the blues with the basic changes. And in its earliest form I'm told the instruments were meant to echo and support the voice, and the solos were not as extensive, but then the musicians realized they could do so much more than a simple human voice without having to memorize any words. And they began to take solos that were more effusive and more arched and went further from the mainstream and then back."
Davis goes on: "And I think jazz got its start from the blues, that's my opinion, and jazz got its start from the blues. So yeah, the blues is in need of support. I guess to restate what I was saying, the blues is not all one thing, just in the fact you've got a Delta style of blues you got the Piedmont east coast style. You could say there is a New Orleans style, a Texas style Kansas City style, west coast style...but if you listened to what they played in the Mississippi Delta style..."
He sings the slow, simple, universal blues riff, and continues, "the same sound that Robert Johnson made popular was the sound that Muddy Waters took up the Mississippi, up to Chicago, and with Muddy it became electrified, and he did more of what the guitar could do. The guitar became louder, it got more of its own voice, not just support but also lead, and you also heard the same (riff), but you add a little juice to it, and you get the T-Bone Walker and Kansas Joe McCoy (influence). If you run it forward into the late fifties, early sixties, you get the Beatles (riffs faster)...there was so much going on. I wish people were alive like Jerry Ricks, he had like this encyclopedic knowledge of who taught what riff to whom, and he could tell you that stuff. So me saying I want to spread the blues, yeah it's my version, my understanding, by doing that I think I can support all of the blues."
It is no surprise, having Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as parents, that Part of Davis' support has translated to the stage and screen, including a turn in the film Beat Street, and a role in the soap opera One Life to Live. More to the point, a play about the last days of Robert Johnson, Trick the Devil. "The play was a cast of five or six people," he says, "and it was a fictional account of the last day in the life of Robert Johnson, where he shows up at a juke joint, and starts flirtin' with a woman... before the second act starts her husband shows up and he indeed in this play poisons Robert Johnson. It took a lot of liberties with the actual story, but the best part of that play was when Robert gets to explains...what happened at the crossroads."
Davis leans in, and takes on a cryptic tone: "Yeah, man, what was that all about?"
He then answers: "He tricked the devil, but he didn't beat him by his technical musical skills and ability. He beat him by playing the truth, the truth as he felt it. He talked about that truth coming from listening at the knee of his elders, when he was much younger, and they would tell the stories about the slave times, and about the hard times, and the lynchings and the death and the destruction. He said that by incorporating that into his music, that is what tricked the devil, that is what made the devil give him those abilities, It's just a way of looking at it.
'When we did this play more than twenty years ago," Davis went on, "less was known about Robert Johnson then. So to play the part I borrowed the personality of a well-known bluesman who was constantly in trouble with women. That was essentially was what killed Robert, he got to thinking he was bulletproof and he could hang with any woman he wanted to, which is fine up to a point, until somebody decides they're gonna kill you," he finishes with a laugh.
The experience led to Davis exploring the blues in his own play, The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed with the Blues. "I wrote this play backstage during my first stint on Broadway...I was understudying four different characters in a play called The Mule-Bone, written by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston (author of Their Eyes Were Watching God). Taj Mahal composed the music, Kenny Neal played the bluesman."
From where we sat, you could hear exactly what Davis experienced. "The Green Room was right under the stage, and you could hear the actor's feet right overhead every night. And Zora Neale Hurston is somebody whose work I was familiar with from ten years before that. My mother (Ruby Dee) decided it was one of her missions to bring alive the work of Hurston and to stage it. So I've been in stuff by Hurston. I have been onstage playing the guitar, either telling the stories or acting in them.
"I thought to myself when I listened to those footsteps above me, 'Man, I could say that line better than him." So I started thinking about stealing, composing stories based on other stories, stories I collected from anthologies of Negro folklore and I composed some of my own songs, and I took other songs that were already here like "Candy Man" and "Dust My Broom," and this play came out of that experience backstage just me wanting to have a vehicle of my own. And that's exactly what it got me, in fact I got a Gregory Millard Fellowship, which is one of the New York Foundation for the Arts awards."
"I think my gift is with dialogue," Davis says, "just a sense of people talking and having that conversation-tell stories, have it kinda go somewhere, and the ideal for me is the way Garrison Keillor would do it. He is the kind of artist who uses just the right words so he can see the picture. He is America's Shakespeare.
'My way to get to tell stories," he continued, "and tell 'em I did! Here we had several silly stories, tall tales like gigantic mosquitoes and talking silkworms, things like that, mixed in with stories of a more dramatic nature, one was the story of a lynching that the protagonist in this play came across in his travels, and he tells that story. The main story is the story of how he grew up listening to his uncle play, this uncle who had been a hobo, listening to his uncle play and tell stories sitting on the porch. By the time that uncle dies, he has gotten some of his basic guitar skills, and he sets out on the road. And thinking' he's gonna go either to Nashville or to Memphis, but in his travels he runs across a group of hobos over a campfire, and that meeting changes where he's gonna go, that's what gets him sent off to Chicago, that's how the play ends, catching a different train than the one he's gonna catch. It's not a brilliant story, nor is it brilliant storytelling, but it's good! It is good and it moves and it's the kind of thing I an grow in. I wrote this more than twenty years ago and I'm better suited for it now twenty years later."
At the time of this show, Davis was headed right back to New York, where he preparing a new play. "The more I talk about it," he admits, "the less it gets done. The working title is Sugarbelly, and it has to do with a wide community of people, some of it reflects the people that my father grew up amongst, railroad people and working people and communities. Some of it reflects some of what was going on in Storyville, like in 1917, but Storyville is not the center of it, it's just that kind of activity. There is love, and there is murder, and there is death. There's gonna be a lot of storytelling, and I'm thinking maybe use less of the stage as an actor and more as a storyteller. I used to see Spalding Gray; I watched that man sit in front of an audience for 90 minutes at a desk, like a little school desk, and talk. There's nothing prepossessing about the man, and he didn't affect any dramatic tones, he just talked. He told the story of how he wrote Swimming to Cambodia, and for 90 minutes I was riveted! So I would like to tell the story of Sugarbelly and have guitars nearby to tell it with."
My last question was not meant to catch Davis off guard...how do you want to be remembered?
"I don't even think I've gotten to where the heck I want to go so I can get remembered," he exclaimed. After thinking on it, he then replied, becoming more serious as he went, "I want to be remembered as somebody who overcame his fear of the unknown...somebody who scraped the very bottom of his own barrel and found at last some courage. And stood up and showed the world. Now it doesn't take courage for me anymore to play a guitar or just to sing, but I know that there's more in there. These stories I'm telling have to do with it...so the real magic for me is going the whole hog...I just know that there's more in there...I'm just beginning to find some of it.
'But since my mother's death, and my friend Pete Seeger's death, I have found in me stuff that is worthy , I feel like, of their ears. I used to get up in front of my mom and dad with some horses that I'd thrown together, and they'd be nice and acknowledge it, but they knew and I knew it was horses. ...But there's more in me, and I see it there, I have found some of it but there's more to go...so somebody who scraped the bottom of his own barrel and found enough courage...that's how I'd like to be remembered."
(Photos by Joseph A. Rosen)