Corrections or additions?

This feature by Richard J. Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

May 13, 1998. All rights reserved.

Guy Davis: Bluesman with a Stage Presence

Growing up the son of two well known thespians, the

young Guy Davis knew the stage was for him. The question was not whether

he would go into show business, but rather what form his show business

career would take. After doing some acting, some directing, and trying

his hand at writing plays, Davis finally decided to become a full-time,

traveling bluesman. But Davis is still not your typical bluesman.

The son of actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Davis sought his own means

for creative self-expression. He found it when he began writing blues

songs and playing guitar in his teen years. Along the way, into his

20s and early 30s, he got jobs as an actor, playing parts in soap

operas and films to supplement his income as a bluesman, which was

paltry in the early years.

Asked how it was he settled with blues, Davis replies with a question:

"Who’s to say I’ve settled with blues? I’ve got this schizophrenic

life," says Davis, who turned 46 on May 12. "There’s so many

things that I do, there’s a lot of people who don’t know these other

sides of me, they just know me as `Guy Davis, bluesman.’ "

Davis’ live blues shows are compelling: he utilizes many of the theatrical

devices he learned almost by osmosis from his parents. He tells great

stories in between songs, uses humor to get the audience’s attention,

and sings in a deep, ragged, expressive voice that is all at once

reminiscent of Tom Waits, Howlin’ Wolf, and Son House. He has that

ability — increasingly rare for a solo performer — to get

the entire audience singing and clapping along with his music.

Combining his vast knowledge of folk music and blues, he writes songs

that have taken the blues idiom into previously uncharted waters.

Taking his cues from such artists as Leadbelly and Pete Seeger, Davis

writes memorable songs. On his latest album, "You Don’t Know My

Mind," just out on Red House Records, Davis sings, "If You

Love Somebody," a poignant blues with a sing-along chorus that

captures the essence of life’s fleeting, fragile nature.

Another song, a humorous blues, "Home Cooked Meal," draws

parallels between lovemaking and the art of cooking — not a new

theme in blues music — but Davis makes it refreshing. He sings:

"I dream about her cookin’ and it really does me right, sometimes

I wake up / moaning in the middle of the night… / Jump over all

you pretty women, to get home before suppertime."

Davis’ two previous mid-1990s albums, "Stomp Down Rider" and

"Call Down The Thunder," brought him to an international audience,

and he has toured Canada and Australia and criss-crossed the U.S.

several times. Davis’ earlier acting work includes his self-penned

one-man play, "In Bed With The Blues, The Adventures of Fishy

Waters," and the title role in an off-Broadway play, "Robert

Johnson: Trick The Devil."

Scholar, actor, playwright, director, singer, songwriter, guitarist

and storyteller, Davis could well be the next Paul Robeson, only perhaps

without Robeson’s social activism and leftist politics.

"I do my best work laying on a hammock, watching the clouds go

over my head," Davis says. "There I can come up with the grist

for whatever it is I’m going to create, whatever it is I’m going to

be doing. So I write, I direct, I act, it’s all just in me to do,

growing up the son of entertainers."

Tagging along with one or both of his parents as a kid, Davis recalls

meeting the poet and activist LeRoi Jones, now Amiri Baraka, the Weavers,

and Pete Seeger, going with his father to the Barry Farber radio show

in New York, and meeting dozens of other actors, writers, directors,

and musicians.

"I grew up in a situation, and my two sisters felt the same thing,

pressured that something was expected of my behavior because I was

the son of well-known parents," he recalls. "Music was a way

for me to step away from what they were doing, which was acting and

dramatic readings. Eventually, the music led me back around to where

I am now, acting and writing and directing and all these other things."

Davis recalls his mom and dad gave him some great advice about the

nature of the film industry. "They warned me, `Don’t ever be caught

sitting by the phone waiting for Hollywood to call you, ’cause you’ll

die of starvation or old age.’"

Raised in Westchester County, New York, and now living in Harlem with

his wife and young son, Davis began playing the banjo as an eight-year-old

when he attended a summer camp run by Pete Seeger’s brother. "That’s

where I got exposed to the fullness of folk music, music from people

like Pete Seeger and Leadbelly," he recalls.

"Leadbelly is that common link between folk music and blues who

has enchanted me more than any other performer, perhaps," he adds.

Several years passed after he put down the banjo before he picked

up the guitar.

At another summer camp, he got to see Buddy Guy and Junior Wells.

"There we were, teenagers, and I’m sitting there seeing Buddy

Guy bend strings like I’d never heard before. It looked like he was

just going to break the guitar apart," he recalls.

"I decided I wanted to play electric guitar. I’d had an acoustic

guitar that my sister picked up somewhere. Eventually I got an electric.

I was loud in those days. I wasn’t good, but I was loud! I’m surprised

my parents didn’t bury me alive in the basement or export me somewhere,"

he says, laughing. Eventually, his electric blues guitar studies led

him to Taj Mahal, an acoustic blues guitarist and singer.

Since his debut album for Red House was released in 1995, Davis has

spent much of the last three years on the road, bringing his carefully

crafted sets to audiences at coffee houses, bars, blues festivals,

and folk festivals around the U.S., Europe, and Canada. At home and

on the road, Davis is writing another play, which he says is about

a hobo who meets up with a woman and her son.

To encourage radio airplay — blues music is still pretty much

confined to college and public radio outlets here — and for a

variety of other reasons, Davis is accompanied by other musicians

on "You Don’t Know My Mind" and "Call Down The Thunder"

albums. Touring, however, he works as a solo act. Accompanying himself

on guitar and harmonica, telling engaging stories in between songs,

and using hand claps and foot stomps, Davis effortlessly gets his

audiences to sing along, clap along, and stomp along.

"What I like about solo performing is the sound of the music itself,"

he says, "but also, I don’t have to wait for a bass player or

the drummer to show up for the gig. It’s just me and I’m there and

I do the job!"

— Richard J. Skelly

Guy Davis, Princeton Folk Music Society, Christ

Congregation Church, 55 Walnut Lane, Princeton, 609-799-0944. $12

at the door. Friday, May 15, 8:15 p.m.


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