An evening with Guy Davis
Guy Davis: An Ambassador Of The Blues
Guy Davis once said, I like antiques and old things, old places, that still have the dust of those whove gone before us lying upon them. Blowing that dust off just enough to see its beauty is something Guy has excelled at for over twenty years of songwriting and performing. Its no wonder his reverence for the music of the Blues Masters whove gone before him has been evident in every album hes ever recorded or concert hes given.
Guy has had his musical storytelling influenced by artists like Blind Willie McTell and Big Bill Broonzy, and his musicality from artists as diverse as Lightnin Hopkins and Babatunde Olatunji. However, theres one man that Guy most credits for his harmonica techniques, by stealing and crediting from him everything that he could, and that man is the legendary Sonny Terry.
Guys new album, Sonny & Brownies Last Train A Look Back at Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry is an homage to these two hugely influential artists, not only on Guys career, but to thousands of musicians around the world. One such artist is the Italian harmonica ace, Fabrizio Poggi, who collaborates with and produced this recording.
Recorded in the summer of 2016 in Milan, the album features the original, title track song written by Guy Davis, songs by both Sonny and Brownie, as well as songs known to have been recorded and performed by the famed duo written by their contemporaries, such as Libba Cotton and Leadbelly.
Guy and Fabrizio have a relationship going back a decade in which theyve performed together on tour in Europe and in the United States. In 2013 Fabrizio produced and played on Guys highly acclaimed recording, Juba Dance, which was number one on the Roots Music Charts for eight weeks. And Fab also performs on Guys last album, Kokomo Kidd.
Guy Davis has spent his musical life carrying his message of the blues around the world, from the Equator to the Arctic Circle, earning him the title An Ambassador of the Blues. His work as an actor, author, and music teacher earmark him as a renaissance man of the blues. What music and acting have in common, he explains, is that I dont like people to see the hard work and the sweat that goes into what I do. I want them to hear me and be uplifted.
When Guy Davis plays the blues, he doesnt want you to notice how much art is involved. It takes work making a song thats simple, and playful, and easy to do, he says. And I dont want people to see that. I want some little eight-year-old kid in the front row to have big eyes and say, Hey, I want to do that!.
Davis much-praised 1995 debut, Stomp Down the Rider on Red House Records, marked the
arrival of a major talent, earning acclaim for his deft acoustic playing, his well-traveled voice
and his literate, yet highly accessible songwriting. Hes barely rested since then, taking his music to television (the Conan OBrien and David Letterman shows) and radio (A Prairie Home Companion, Mountain Stage, World Cafe, E-Town), as well as performing at theaters and festivals. And hes played the four corners of the world, with a recent tour taking him from the Equator to the Arctic Circle. He played the Ukraine in summer of 2014, just a week or so before the statues of Lenin were torn down. He even played for the visiting Queen of Denmark when he performed at a childrens home in Greenland.
I feel like Ive only hit three corners of the world, with a lot more to go, he says. I seek to communicate no matter where I go. When I play in non-English speaking countries I play more of the classicsRobert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell. And I may tell fewer stories, but
sometimes I can get away with it because the words sound like music. Above all hes looking to bring people together through music. With the world falling apart its up to all of us to be ambassadors and to spread the music everywhere we can. Theres nowhere that I dont want to play.
His parallel careers as a musician, an author, a music teacher and a film, television and Broadway actormark Davis as a Renaissance man, yet the blues remain his first and greatest love. Growing up in a family of artists (his parents were Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis), he fell under the spell of Blind Willie McTell and Fats Waller at an early age. Guys one-man play, The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed With the Blues, premiered Off-Broadway in the 90s and has since been released as a double CD. He went on to star Off-Broadway as the legendary Robert Johnson in Robert Johnson: Trick The Devil, winning the Blues Foundations Keeping the Blues Alive award. He followed the footsteps of another blues legend when he joined the Broadway production of Finians Rainbow, playing the part originally done in 1947 by Sonny Terry. Along the way he cut nine acclaimed albums for the Red House label and four for his own label, Smokeydoke Records; and was nominated for nearly a dozen Blues Awards.
So its no wonder that Davis is reluctant to define himself simply as a bluesman. To me, a bluesman is somebody who has to carry a knife or a gun and enter dangerous situations and sometimes fuel it with alcoholThats not who I am. I call myself a blues musician, and to me the blues is a broad title. I include some ragtime, I make a nod to New Orleans, and a nod to the fife and drum players. And I always include things that make you want to dance.
Sonny & Brownies Last Train comes out on the heels of Kokomo Kidd, Guys twelfth studio album and his follow-up to the stripped-down, critically acclaimed 2013 release Juba Dance, produced in Italy by Fabrizio Poggi. As always he combines modern with traditional blues, the somber and the celebratory. And for him it represents a jump into new territory. Kokomo Kidd was the first time Ive produced myself, he points out. I stepped up to the plate, put the cash on the barrelhead and said Lets make this happen. What Im showing here is a side of me thats deep inside. Its needing air and light, and here it comes! For this new album, I let Fabrizio take charge as it was really mostly his idea.
Continuing his mission to spread the blues around the world, Guy has lately been doing more teaching. Ive had beginning and intermediate students, and I try to give them enough of the basics that they can go into a jam session, and create more licks out of the ones they know. And I try to give them a bit of my philosophy. To my mind you can treat these songs as recombinant DNA, you can own it and you can create something new with it. And I didnt sign any papers,but I can claim an ownership to the blues.
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