Ian Zack, Say No To The Devil, Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015
Ian Zack’s biography of Reverend Gary Davis is an outstanding work – meticulously researched, thoroughly engaging and readable and written with great affection and sympathy. Zack clearly recognizes the enormous talent that Davis was, noting with some disappointment and incredulity that Rolling Stone magazine had no room for him in its list of 100 greatest guitarists. The omission beggars belief, given the personal influence that Davis had on a generation of guitarist through his teaching, and the way that his songs were covered by major rock groups like the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead.
Zack notes the comments of blues singer Larry Johnson after Davis’s death in 1972: “I admired him most for, first of all he being born blind, in the South, black, had everything against him. Everything. Nothing did he have in his favour. And he managed to become a master musician. And then he managed to influence other musicians from here to England. And I think for him to do that, even to keep a mind good enough to do that, is something else.”
Zack carefully traces for us the contours of Davis’s life from his early days in South Carolina to the streets of New York City, where he was eventually to be recognized for the musical genius that he was. Davis stayed faithful to his calling as a minister of the gospel until he died and only in the last decade of his life was he persuaded to sing blues songs publically. Zack does not ignore Davis’s failings or the inconsistencies with his Christian ministry– his drinking, his periodic womanizing or the lewd lyrics of some of his blues material (mostly privately sung). But at the same time he doesn’t dwell on these and focuses instead on the enormous generosity of Davis and his wife, Gary Davis’s insistence for most of his life on being first of all a minister of the gospel and his immense musical talent.
It is, at times, a heart rending story, as we see Davis cope with his blindness, battle poverty virtually all his life and struggle to be appreciated during his lifetime for the amazing artist and guitarist that he was. It is inspiring as well, though as we come to understand, with one of his pupils, Larry Bezer, that “He faced adversity eyeball to eyeball and never blinked.”
Ian Zack has given us a wonderful gift in this biography – it deserves to be widely read and acclaimed. He sums up Rev. Gary Davis as follows:
“In truth, Davis was uncommonly giving, spiritual, tenacious beyond the most usual conceptions of the word, funny, charming, quick-witted, and, or course, profoundly gifted. But he was also cocky, competitive, sinful, and at times unfaithful to the religious virtues he sang about so mightily. His music, one might say, was profoundly aspirational, and if he sometimes fell short of a commandment or two, the only one he had to answer to was God.”