“Guy Davis is an authentic and spell-binding bluesman, with an incredible voice and a great sense of humour.”
Guy Davis is a hugely talented blues artist, who delights his audiences with his snappy guitar work, gritty vocals, humorous monologues and impressive stage presence. He’s been on the road and making records for more than twenty years and is a past winner of the Blues Foundation’s “Keeping the Blues Alive Award,” which was presented to him by Robert Cray at the W.C. Handy Awards ceremony.
Guy toured the UK recently with Statesboro native, Brooks Williams, giving audiences an outstanding evening of good-humoured entertainment, as well as a master-class in acoustic blues guitar. Down at the Crossroads caught up with Guy recently, ahead of a few gigs in the south east of England.
DATC: Guy, you’ve been touring England with Brooks Williams. Tell us a bit about it.
Guy: Well, my manager has been a friend of Brooks a long time. He got us together playing a while ago in upstate New York, and then came up with the idea of us doing a tour together. While I was getting some photos done for my last CD, Kokomo Kid (http://nodepression.com/album-review/ghost-pete-seeger), Brooks happened to be in New York, so we did a series of photos together before we even had a tour. I don’t recall having met Brooks before that. I wasn’t really familiar with his music.
DATC: Brooks is a nice guy and a terrific guitarist.
Guy: Oh yes, not only that, but what a voice! His presentation carries so well, the audience loves him!
DATC: So how has the tour gone?
Guy: It’s been going very well. We each take it in turns doing a few songs, one night I’ll open, he closes, then he’ll open the next night and I’ll close. It’s a friendly kind of tour, and at the end of the show, whoever’s on last invites the other on stage to do a few songs together.
DATC: I understand you have a new album coming out before long?
Guy: It is an album that gives a nod to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, the folk-blues duo, from many years ago. The album is with a fella named Fabrizio Poggi. Fabrizio and I have worked on at least 2 of my CDs. He’s on one song on Kokomo Kid and on the album before that, Juba Dance, he’s on a lot of the songs, and produced the album. On this latest one, he’s half of the picture.
DATC: So why did you decide to focus on Sonny and Brownie?
Guy: Well, it was actually Fabrizio’s idea. Sonny Terry, the harmonica player, is a hero to both of us. I wasn’t sure Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s music really need covering, but Fabrizzio – I guess his love for the music was stronger than my ability to say no!
So I went in the studio with him, and I played guitar and some harmonica and he did all the rest of the harmonica, and we covered some of the songs.
DATC: Sounds great. There’s been a lot of the older blues artists have been covered in some recent albums by various artists, but I can’t recall something covering these two. So I’m sure it’s going to get a lot of interest. Thinking about my own interest in the blues, which goes back some 40 years, one of the first blues albums I listened to, which a friend let me borrow, was Sonny Terry and Brownie Magee, and that was one of the albums that got me hooked on blues music.
Guy: Very good. You know, I got to meet both those guys back in 1981, saw them perform. And then in the 1990s, Brownie actually came to a performance that I did, in Oakland, California. I got to shake his hand then, too.
DATC: Fantastic. Now Guy, as well as being a musician, you’ve done lots of other things – you’re an author, you’ve been an actor – what are you primarily, a musical artist?
Guy: I think I’m all of the above. A performance artist most of all, and music is the closest thing to me. But I write for theatre, I write stories and I like to tell stories. They say I tell stories so good, I should be a politician!
DATC: You’d do pretty well just at the minute!
Guy: Yes I would! I’ve got a lot to say – they’d have to shoot me in the first week of my government!
DATC: And do you think of yourself primarily as an entertainer, or do you have something to say or convey in your music?
Guy: I do it through my music. I’m a very, very good – excellent – entertainer!
DATC: Yeah, we’d agree with that!
Guy: And modest. But yes – crafting words and a message.
DATC: And what would you say that was? A lot of what you do is blues based – what is the enduring quality of that music, why does it still resonate, what does it convey?
Guy: The blues is the kind of music that conveys the truth, even if the words you use are not factual. The blues to me is kind of like a religion. This music is my way of being in the universe, of being able to communicate the way that I feel.
The blues reflect an important part of American history – it’s not just black music. In some ways it’s a cautionary tale about some of the hurt, harm and danger that is in my own country of birth. It tells history.
DATC: The blues grew up in that period of terrible suffering and discrimination that was the experience of the black community in the Jim Crow era, but you’re suggesting that it has a broader historical resonance than that?
Convicts who violated the Black Codes
Guy: I’d risk saying yes. Jim Crow was a symptom, a small part of a greater sickness. In the time after the Civil War, there was a period when black people could be part of government, but that didn’t get the support it should have and consequently we got the Black Code laws – so, for example, if a black and white man went before a judge accused of the very same crime, the black man would do more time, because in prison, his labour could be used to build the country.
That has a lot to do with the formation of our country and even some of the difficulties that the American people are facing today. Including the divided emotions in our election. And blues continues to tell this story. It’s not all love songs.
DATC: Yes, when you look at the blues, the majority of songs are about relationships between men and women, but underlying it is this howl of protest and lament about the unjust social situation in which the back community found itself in that period.
Guy: Yes, blues is more complex than people give it credit for.
DATC: Does it have a healing force as well? It tells a story, yes, but does it have potential to do more than that?
Guy: Healing – yes, very much so. Blues can make us laugh, can make us laugh at things that are ridiculous, or refer to some things that are truly cruel, but to hear a man or a woman singing from their heart that they have been robbed, that they’re crying out for justice, I think this has the potential to heal us all.
There are a lot of voices that can stand and accuse one another of many things, but there are also voices that can bring us together, that can make healing possible, make crying possible, make belief and deep breathing possible.
DATC: Guy, you were born and raised in New York City. So why did you gravitate towards blues music? Presumably there were a lot of other influences.
Guy: I gravitated towards the blues because that was what was in me. My body was born in New York City but my soul is not from New York City. I first heard blues music and folk music and such at a summer camp when I was a young child. It was run by Pete Seeger’s brother – Pete Seeger, the great environmentalist and folk singer who knew Sonny and Brownie, Big Bill Broonzy and Leadbelly. So that reflects a lot more of whom I am than the fact that I was born in New York City. It’s my home, but it’s not where I’m from.
DATC: You teach as well, Guy – can you tell us a bit about that and why you do that?
Guy: Teaching music – I guess it comes as part of the territory. I enjoy that, I think it’s in my family’s DNA. Both my sisters have been educators; my grandmother studied with W.E.B Du Bois [American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, educator, author, and editor of the 1st half of the twentieth century], who was a black revolutionary and who was partly responsible for the NAACP. He knew Frederick Douglas [the great nineteenth century African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman]. And my father also knew W.E.B Du Bois. So teaching is kind of in my blood.
DATC: And is there an urge to pass on this legacy of music to a new generation?
Guy: I can see that perhaps in the future. Right now I’m primarily an entertainer. Being in front of people and showing what I do, passing along is gonna come out of that. Right now I’m just thinking of creating fresh and new things that are inspired by the blues. But, yeah, at some point in the future, I’d like to think more about passing on the legacy.
DATC: Guy, do you find that you get in your audience people from different age ranges; do younger people find a resonance in your music, in blues music?
Guy: Yes, but I also find a lot of people who are older who want to hear some of the things they heard when they were younger – people like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee! So I get college students at my gigs; but also people bring their children with them. I always got something, you know, to delight the children. They can get interested in the same way that I found delight when I was 8 years old, sitting down the front of an auditorium looking up at someone making magic with just a guitar or a banjo.
DATC: Guy, thank you very much.