For Guy Davis, bluesman and son of actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, the blues wasn’t something he grew up with or naturally gravitated to. But it found him, and when it did, Davis was hooked.
Davis’ family had Southern origins. His father was originally from rural Cogdell, Georgia, and his mother’s family was full of colorful characters. Davis says his grandmother’s Southern way of speaking and her sayings continue to stay with him to this day. But it wasn’t until he went to summer music camp at the age of 16 in Vermont and heard John Seeger, brother of Pete Seeger, play the blues, that Davis actually thought about taking up music himself.
“It took me a while to realize that the blues even belonged to black people,” says Davis, 59. “There was a time that I thought it was something that was played by white college boys . . . It wasn’t that my parents were trying to hide the blues from me — it’s just that that wasn’t the music we were hearing around the house.”
A couple of years after the Vermont summer camp, Davis says, he was attending another music camp, and the young musicians went to a show in Cambridge, Mass. “We took a trip to see Buddy Guy and Junior Wells,” says Davis. “Buddy Guy was there with his lead guitar. They played some pop songs, but when they played the blues, I felt like a grown up. I was this little teenager in summer camp, but I was sitting there on the edge of my chair waiting for Buddy Guy to break the strings of his guitar, he was popping them so hard. I’d never seen anything like that before. And Junior Wells was sucking the air out of the room. He was bending notes on that harmonica like I’d never seen before. It set me on edge. I said, ‘this stuff’s incredible!’ That experience woke me up.”
Davis will appear in his one-man show, “In Bed With the Blues: The Adventures of Fishy Waters,” at Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, for a 10-day engagement beginning Thursday, February 16. The show is being directed by Crossroads artistic director and playwright Ricardo Khan.
“The show was written just about 19 years ago. I had gotten a New York Foundation for Arts grant after submitting that play,” says Davis in a phone interview from his home in New York City. “I needed to do it. Years ago, I was understudying in a play called ‘Mule Bone’ on Broadway. It was written by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, two of my heroes. As I sat night after night in the green room and hearing those actors’ feet above me, I felt I could do those roles better than those people could. So while I was down there night after night, I would bring my guitar with me and books about African American folklore.”
In the style of Hurston, Davis says, Fishy Waters, a character he created, is a bluesman who tells stories — lots of tales, lots of tall tales. “These stories are designed to reach into your heart and touch you. There are also horror stories — stories about the Ku Klux Klan, and whatnot. It came about as part of a desire to be on stage, performing.” The music of Taj Mahal, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, and countless others have combined to influence Davis’ work on 12-string guitar, 6-string guitar, and banjo. The performing style and personality is all Guy Davis.
Davis performs “Fishy Waters” only a few times a year. He has performed the show in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and in a few areas of this country. And he has taken his blues shows farther away, even playing a couple of gigs in the Galapagos Islands. “‘Fishy Waters’ is a lot like what I do at my concerts. I tell stories and play music. During the play, I tell stories and play music. But here, I can focus more on the stories and get deeper into them. I like to think of myself as sort of the Garrison Keillor of the blues,” Davis says.
Growing up in the 1960s, Davis had a front-row seat to history, American and African American. In addition to being pioneering stage and film actors, his parents were activists. It was Ossie Davis who gave the eulogy at the funeral of Malcolm X. The couple was also deeply involved in the civil rights movement; Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, and countless other people who fought for freedom were frequent guests at the Davis home.
His father died in 2005 at 87; his mother, who has won an Emmy, a Grammy, and has been nominated for an Academy Award, will turn 90 this coming October. Davis says she continues to be active on the stage and screen, but, predictably, Dee doesn’t work as hard or as actively as she used to.
“My mom’s still hopping around. She’s still active,” he says. “She still works sometimes, reading poetry. I even back her up from time to time, and there’s an occasional film role sometimes.
“Me and the sisters (Nora and Hasna), we’ve just about put our foot down and don’t let her do something as intense as, say, a play, because that just takes up too much energy. The energy she’s got left, we want to see her put it to good use.”
It’s not a surprise — considering who his parents are — to say that Davis has also done some acting. The 1984 movie “Beat Street,” directed by Harry Belafonte, focused on a then-new form of expression that combined rapping, break dancing, graffiti art, and other forms of cultural expression. The art form was known as “hip-hop” — you may have heard of it. Davis played a DJ and MC named Kenny “Double K” Kirkland. As you can imagine, Kenny/Davis was the quintessential 1980s “B-boy.”
“I was about 32 years old at the time, and my character was supposed to be about 19 or so,” Davis says. Davis’s 21-year-old son, Martial, saw the movie on Netflix recently and never let his dad hear the end of it.
“He could have gotten a gun and just shot me,” says Davis, who also has appeared on the soap opera “One Life To Live.” “I know he was thinking, ‘What is that old man doing on that screen trying to act like a teenager?’ My son needs for me to be an old wise dude. I think he eventually forgave me.”
Throughout history, the blues often reflected the pain and travails of people who have lived a hard life. As the son of two prominent, iconic actors and activists, Davis, who was born in New York and grew up in affluent suburban Westchester County, cannot honestly say that he has lived a hard life.
“I am blessed and privileged to have been allowed to take on this music, and by force of will and love and talent, to continue to play it,” says Davis. “Blues is best when it’s shared. It’s great to hear on record, but it’s best when it’s shared between people.”
He can also say that he is proud and honored to be a conduit through which a noble African American musical tradition flows from an older generation to a younger one. “The blues occupies each age that it enters,” says Davis, whose grandfather once served on a chain gang. “There will always be the voices of those who survived the hardest of the hard times. We must be humble enough to remember where the blues came from, and that’s how we’ll make sure the blues will continue to survive.”
“In Bed with the Blues: The Adventures of Fishy Waters,” Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Thursday, February 16, through Sunday, February 26. Guy Davis in his original one-man show. Through songs and storytelling, the blues singer and guitar player recounts the life and adventures of a fictional bluesman and his travels across America. Ricardo Khan directs. $40 to $50. 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.