Guy Davis: An Ambassador Of The Blues
When Guy Davis plays the blues, he doesn’t want you to notice how much art is involved. “It takes work making a song that’s simple, and playful, and easy to do,” he says. “And I don’t want people to see that. I want to uplift and create something that causes delight. And I want some little eight-year-old kid in the front row to have big eyes and say, ‘Hey, I want to do that!’.”
Davis’ much-praised 1995 debut, Stomp Down the Rider on Red House Records, marked the arrival of a major talent, earning acclaim for his deft acoustic playing, his well-traveled voice and his literate, yet highly accessible songwriting. He’s barely rested since then, taking his music to television (the Conan O’Brien and David Letterman shows) and radio (A Prairie Home Companion, Mountain Stage, World Cafe, E-Town), as well as performing at theaters and festivals. And he’s played the four corners of the world, with a recent tour taking him from the Equator to the Arctic Circle. He played the Ukraine in summer of 2014, just a week or so before the statues of Lenin were torn down. He even played for the visiting Queen of Denmark when he performed at a children’s home in Greenland.
“I feel like I’ve only hit three corners of the world, with a lot more to go,” he says. “I seek to communicate no matter where I go. When I play in non-English speaking countries I play more of the classics—Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell. And I may tell fewer stories, but sometimes I can get away with it because the words sound like music.” Above all he’s looking to bring people together through music. “With the world falling apart it’s up to all of us to be ambassadors and to spread the music everywhere we can. There’s nowhere that I don’t want to play.”
His parallel careers– as a musician, an author, a music teacher and a film, television and Broadway actor—mark Davis as a Renaissance man, yet the blues remain his first and greatest love. Growing up in a family of artists (his parents were Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis), he fell under the spell of Blind Willie McTell and Fats Waller at an early age. Guy’s one-man play, The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed With the Blues, premiered Off-Broadway in the ‘90s and has since been released as a double CD. He went on to star Off-Broadway as the legendary Robert Johnson in Robert Johnson: Trick The Devil, winning the Blues Foundation’s “Keeping the Blues Alive” award. He followed the footsteps of another blues legend when he joined the Broadway production of Finian’s Rainbow, playing the part originally done in 1947 by Sonny Terry. Along the way he cut nine acclaimed albums for the Red House label and three for his own label, Smokeydoke Records; and was nominated for nearly a dozen Blues Awards.
So it’s no wonder that Davis is reluctant to define himself simply as a bluesman. “To me, a bluesman is somebody who has to carry a knife or a gun and enter dangerous situations and sometimes fuel it with alcohol—That’s not who I am. I call myself a blues musician, and to me the blues is a broad title. I include some ragtime, I make a nod to New Orleans, and a nod to the fife and drum players. And I always include things that make you want to dance.”
All that and more can be heard on Kokomo Kidd, Guy’s twelfth studio album and his follow-up to the stripped-down, critically acclaimed 2013 release “Juba dance”, produced in Italy by Fabrizio Poggi. As always he combines modern with traditional blues, the somber and the celebratory. And for him it represents a jump into new territory. “It’s the first time I’ve produced myself,” he points out. “I stepped up to the plate, put the cash on the barrelhead and said ‘Let’s make this happen.’ What I‘m showing here is a side of me that’s deep inside. It’s needing air and light, and here it comes!”
The rollicking title track, featuring Ben Jaffe of New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band, might be called a short story that you can dance to, featuring a rascal character who starts as a bootlegger and winds up a Republican advisor. “It’s sort of a demented celebration of corruption,” Guy says. “The Kidd represents all the forces that operate on the margins of society. That song says something about who I am, because I just don’t follow blues musicians, even though they’re very dear to me. But another one of my influences is someone I’d consider America’s modern Shakespeare, and that’s Garrison Keillor.”
The song’s New Orleans connection harks back to a formative visit he made to the Crescent City in 1979, a trip that convinced him to follow his muse as a performer. “I was playing the streets and Al Jaffe [Preservation Hall founder and Ben’s father] came out and saw me. Not only did he take me inside to meet all the players, he gave me the official Preservation Hall uniform tie, which I have to this day. And I ran into [legendary jazz bassist] Milt Hinton, who’d been my professor at Hunter College. He saw me playing on the street and thought, great—I’d finally made something of myself!”
Another of Davis’ mentors, folk legend Pete Seeger, inspired a song of loss, “I Wish I Hadn’t Stayed Away So Long.” He explains, “I was on Pete’s last official tour in 2008, witnessing with my own eyes something I’d heard since I was a child. Folk music was the doorway that I came into the blues from. And I want people hearing the song to know that life is precious, and that the road is not always an easy place to be.”
Other songs cover the more familiar territory of love and sex—or in the case of the sly “Blackberry Kisses,” both at once. “God knows I’ve written plenty of double and even single entendres about the sexual side of love,” he notes. “But the kiss is something different, that’s what elevates and energizes you—and I wanted this to be very elevated and energized! And I don’t know a lot of blues songs that break into waltz time in the middle.”
The most surprising of the album’s four cover tunes has to be “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” the slightly trippy Donovan hit from 1967. “I loved that song back when I was a kid, and I wasn’t even sure why—It wasn’t especially rhythmic, more on the acoustic psychedelic side of things. Growing up as an African-American, for me it was always about James Brown, soul music. So it comes from a more courageous part of myself to show how much I love that song. Same with the Bob Dylan song, ‘Lay Lady Lay’– There was a time when I wouldn’t have had the self-confidence to do a song like that.”
Closer to home is “Little Red Rooster,” the Willie Dixon classic first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf. The song teams Davis with another old friend, harmonica ace Charlie Musselwhite. “I play the harp myself when I do that one live, but Charlie brings something special to it. In his blood he feels the harmonica and its sound, just as they did in the days of Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf.”
Continuing his mission to spread the blues around the world, Guy has lately been doing more teaching. “I’ve had beginning and intermediate students, and I try to give them enough of the basics that they can go into a jam session, and create more licks out of the ones they know. And I try to give them a bit of my philosophy. To my mind you can treat these songs as recombinant DNA, you can own it and you can create something new with it. And I didn’t sign any papers, but I can claim an ownership to the blues.”