A FEW MINUTES WITH… Guy Davis
By Don Wilcock
“I suppose if you’ve got to lose to somebody, the Rolling Stones ain’t bad,” says Guy Davis, who appears Saturday at The Eighth Step at Proctors’ GE Theatre in Schenectady. Last year, he faced off with the Stones for the Blues Album of the Year Grammy with his latest album, Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train, “I could go political on ya. The industry as we know, is not some pristine body. It’s about making some money, and the notoriety of the Rolling Stones is undeniable, but I do know one thing. I became an acquaintance of Bill Wyman, the bass player from way back in the day. He came out with a coffee table book and mentioned me a few times in it.”
Among the myriad of Guy Davis’ talents as multi-instrumentalist, actor and singer is an ability as a songwriter to capture the essence of the black experience in an historical context. His music is a time machine that takes us back in some songs more than 100 years to paint a tableau of life in a culture that too often is written about in blues as simply painful and problematic.
Davis’ world does not often dwell on the horrors of racism or heartaches of a repressed minority. And when he does, it’s tempered by a folk perspective evident in original songs that are influenced as much by Woody Guthrie as they are Howlin’ Wolf. And yet his guitar playing is as emotive as Wolf’s, and he covers “Little Red Rooster” on his 2015 album, Kokomo Kidd.
Guy’s parents are the late Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, stalwarts of the Harlem Renaissance. “I guess both of my parents had talents. My dad had talent as a writer, and he associated with and was taught by some well-known scholars. At Howard University there used to be a man named Alain Leroy Rock. That was one of my dad’s teachers, and another teacher of my dad was Sterling Brown, the black poet.
“Both of my parents were friends of Langston Hughes, the poet and writer. My mother’s mother was a teacher, and she was a student of W.E.B. DuBois. So, my parents had links to W.E.B. DuBois, to Paul Robeson, to scholars going way back, and both to them were really good students. Both of them were voracious readers, and
I’d say their talents combined with the skills taught to them by their mentors and teachers helped to get them where they got to.”
Like many youngsters, Guy rebelled against his parents’ musical interests. “I did rebel against what my parents were listening to. What they were listening to was some very calm, smooth kind of jazz music on the radio. We didn’t have blues in our home. Rock and roll, I heard it maybe when the babysitter was over.”
His grandparents were bigger mentors, at least musically. “Both of my grandfathers, my mom’s dad and my dad’s dad, were railroad men, and my dad’s dad was the head man of a team of track liners, and the kind of music he came up with is the kind of blues that came out of work songs. My mother’s father was a city boy, and he used to
be a waiter and a cook on the pullman trains that ran between New York and Cleveland, and so his identification with music would be more from the city. So, I think I got some of both of them.”
Folk icon Pete Seeger was probably Guy’s biggest influence. He promises to sing Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” on Saturday night. “Pete Seeger and folk music, I think, is where my folks and I intersected best. Pete Seeger was a friend of both of theirs, and I got sent to a summer camp run by Pete Seeger’s brother, and the older I get,
the more I’m in love with the songs I learned in the ’50s and ’60s.”
Seeger and Davis are both colorblind when it comes to music in black and white. Davis refers to an incident with African American bass baritone singer Paul Robeson. In 1949 Robeson gave a concert in front of 10,000 people in Peekskill. When the crowd left the field where the show was held, the cops led them down a certain road. Their whole convoy of cars was stoned by racists as the police looked the other way.
Seeger called the incident “an inoculation for America.” In a 2013 interview, Seeger compared it to a small pox vaccination. “The rest of your body gets alerted and does not get smallpox, and this is exactly what happened. Peekskill had a case of fascism there, but the rest of the country saw the pictures – on TV and in local newspapers – of mothers with babies in their arms and blood streaming down, and it was not a pretty picture. The rest of the country said, ‘We don’t like this.’”
“I would agree with that, that it was an inoculation,” says Davis. “It becomes Americanized. Those signs they had, “Wake up, America. Peekskill did.” Pete was first hand on the receiving end of that as was Paul Robeson, as were so many other activists. Pete took one of the stones that was thrown into his car. He had it put into the fireplace of his cabin, and he said that if the final riot comes and there was stones being thrown and death being dispensed, then he was going to take that stone and use it.”
His parents’ academic influence on Guy Davis is matched by that of Seeger’s Everyman attitude toward humanity. “I’d like to think that my music makes some difference, and all I can say or that I tried to do with my music is to make it very inclusive on a human level. I don’t try to minimize the hate and the damage and the hurt and
the harm, but I try to make people look at it through human eyes.
“Also, I borrow a page from Pete Seeger’s notebook. There were songs that I do where I try to get people singing together. In fact, Pete’s greatest gift to the world was not his musical genius, his ability to compose, but it was to walk into a room full of strangers, have them sing together. When he walked out, everybody was friends.
That was his gift. So, in my own way I try to continue that. I don’t think I’ve come up with anything measurably revolutionary or ground breaking, but hopefully I’m on the path of making the world a better place.
“When people pay their hard-earned money to come see me perform, I owe them everything. I owe them every bit of energy in me. I remember my dad never told me how to comport myself, but I watched him and my mother carry themselves over the years, and this is what I learned from them. You owe to the people who’ve supported you.”
WHO: Guy Davis
ACCOMPANIED BY: Professor Louie on keyboards and Christopher James on mandolin and electric guitar
WHERE: The Eighth Step at Proctor’s GE Theatre, Schenectady
WHEN: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $27 in advance; $29 at the door; $45 Gold Circle