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,
"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
Congregation Church, 55 Walnut Lane, Princeton, 609-799-0944. $12
at the door. Friday, May 15, 8:15 p.m.
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