Rory Block & Guy Davis: Keeping the Music and the Community Alive
Story by Don Wilcock
They met more than 50 years ago at a summer camp run by Pete Seeger’s brother, John. She was a white, teenaged daughter of a Bohemian sandal shop owner from Greenwich Village. He was the African-American son of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, two famous actors-directors-activists from Mount Vernon. Neither one fit the mold of an acoustic blues guitarist, but half a century later, Rory Block and Guy Davis have both become lauded acoustic blues singer-songwriters destined to jam together in concert this Sunday night (July 19).
Block has 33 albums to her credit and is preparing to release A Tribute to Bukka White, her fifth in a mentor series that includes incredibly versatile renditions of classics by Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Son House. Guy Davis’ credits include playing the title role in the award-winning Off-Broadway production of “Robert Johnson: Trick The Devil.” His Legacy CD was named one of the best of the year by NPR, and his songwriting and fiction are influenced by everyone from Elizabeth Cotten to Harry Belafonte, Zora Neale Hurston, Garrison Keillor and his grandmother, the late Laura Davis, who died at age 105.
On Sunday night (July 19), Rory Block will emcee a concert in Chatham by Guy Davis, and while she’s not officially on the bill, Davis intends to invite his old friend and promoter of the show up on stage with him. “That’s the kind of stuff that happens almost without planning,” he says. “We’ve been on the same stage before, but I don’t think we’ve ever gotten to jam together.”
The concert is the latest in a series of events at ChurchLIVE, an 1849 Methodist Church two doors from Block’s Chatham home that she’s owned since 1978. “Sometimes there’s the feeling that I really need to plant my feet in the ground and stop rolling,” says Block about her purchase of the church. “After 34 years, I just felt like it might be a really good time to try to do something based at home again, even if it’s just for a year. We don’t have a crystal ball. Everything is so uncertain in the world.”
By narrowing her focus to a local home base, international blues traveler Block has actually broadened her horizons. Like other artists who have matured in their art, she finds grounding in her community to give her life balance, meaning and a fulfillment that complements her career as a musician. She performed herself at ChurchLIVE in June and has opened it up to other community events including “Conversations” on topics that include grief and aspirations. And there are two musicians-networking meetings planned for Sundays, July 26 and August 30.
Block long has had her eye on the church next door. While she’s old enough to remember when the blues was considered the devil’s music not suitable for a church setting, she herself has a history of attending an AME church in Chatham. “I really learned a tremendous amount about spirituality at that (AME) church. That is one of the most beautiful churches, and they’re totally inclusive. I wondered if it was OK to go, and their response was that everyone is welcome. The doors are open. I began to sing with the choir, and it was such a powerful experience. I wrote about it in my autobiography (“When a Woman Gets the Blues”). So when I bought the church, the first people I spoke to was the AME Church, and I said, ‘If you need this building for any reason, think of it as your other church.’”
Davis also has community and church roots. “I grew up in a town called Mount Vernon in New York, downstate from where Rory’s doing her church thing, and my family was very community oriented. There was a church there we used to go to. Interestingly, my dad used to teach Sunday school, but he wasn’t so much into religion. My dad was a subversive. He was just trying to get us to read. He wasn’t so much proselytizing for Christianity or any other faith.”
Davis’ website biography admits, “As a child raised in middle-class New York suburbs, the only cotton he’s picked is his underwear up off the floor.” He told me in 2004, “The first place I heard the blues was from white college boys. Hell, I thought they invented it. At that time (the 1950s and ’60s) it didn’t make sense to try to recreate that in a progressive home. Folks were looking forward to much more social acceptance, as opposed to getting off into our own thing. The blues that I heard being sung by the Caucasian musicians was ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’,’ and I only vaguely remember it. I think it might have been at the summer camp where I got my first dose of live folk music.”
So, while Davis, a black man, was being introduced to African-American music by Caucasians, Block, a white woman, was taking guitar lessons from the Reverend Gary Davis, the most iconic African-American musician in New York, and exchanging licks with the black Delta bluesmen whom she later would pay homage to in her masters CD series. That said, Guy Davis’ grandmother proved to be the biggest influence on his original Delta blues songs, while Block’s originals bear little resemblance to her southern mentors.
“My grandmother was the link more directly to the country than my father was,” says Davis. “She was the direct route to southern culture, southern stories, southern speech, the smells of the trees and the soil. She lived a life that was hard-scrabble, but she and her husband managed to make it. It was my grandmother whose voice sounded like the soil, rivers, the mud and the dirt.
“She used to tell stories about the hard times and family struggle, crazy things like grandfather having to sit and fan flies off a dead body at a funeral. That dead body sat up, and there were two doors. Some people ran out the door on the left, and some people ran out the door on the right. And one of those doors led to a bonfire, and the people who went on that side got burned up. Fortunately, my grandfather ran out the side where there were no fires.”
Block, on the other hand, has always found it difficult to write originals like her mentors. “I still pretty much stand by that,” she says today, “but what’s happened now is something I wasn’t expecting to happen. I don’t think I’m writing like the blues masters, but I’m writing about the blues masters in a way that I’m thoroughly enjoying. Ever since the Fred McDowell record (2011’s Shake ‘Em on Down: A Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell), I started trying to leap outside myself and do something I never thought I could do which is tell a story that isn’t about me, but it’s about someone else. So I started on the Mississippi Fred McDowell record with “Steady Freddy” and other songs about him, and it was so inspiring I thought, ‘Hey, I’m having fun with this. I like where this is going.’
“So I’m doing it again with this Bukka White recording that we’re working on, and I really feel energized by this. It’s a completely new process. I couldn’t possibly have predicted that this would open as a different direction as a songwriter, specifically about somebody’s life and how exciting it would be to write songs about someone else’s life.”
As a music journalist, the longer I write about American music the more common threads I find. Pete Seeger is a particularly strong and long one. Not only did his brother’s summer camp bring Rory Block and Guy Davis together, but the thread goes back much further than that. It was when she was working on “When a Woman Gets the Blues” that Block pulled on one of those threads.
“There was a rumor in our family that my mother had auditioned for the Weavers before I was born, and she was going to tour with them, but then she decided not to go on the road. so we all grew up with that. We didn’t think about it every day. It was just one of the many things that we had in our backlog of stories, memories and all of those things you grow up with in Greenwich Village where everybody’s a musician. So I called Pete Seeger, and he filled me in on stuff that was happening before I was born. And it was unbelievably eye-opening.”
Two people from different races and cultures are brought together by their mutual interest in music, and 50 years later join to jam on “the devil’s music” in a house of God that is open to all. “I met Rory 50-some years ago in summer camp and am totally fascinated by her, a tremendous voice and talent,” says Davis today.
“That sense of community abounded in summer camp where I met Rory. I realize now looking back, every kid (at the camp) had a voice. Every kid was allowed to stand up and say what he was doing and how he felt. That was one of my earliest sources of community for me.”
For Rory Block, the church next door gives her a sense of place. “We wanted to keep it historically correct. So that was a big motivation. It was quite an interesting, long and winding road to get to the point where we actually had closing on it. There were people who outbid us. There were people who changed their minds. The bank did a few weird turns along the way. But everything finally turned out after three or four strange and nerve wracking months, and we actually purchased it knowing that we would be able to keep the doors open at the church.”