“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 forty years and is a Grammy nominee, an Emmy-winning actor and author, a multiple Blues Music Award winner, and a past winner of the Blues Foundation’s “Keeping the Blues Alive Award.”
He’s a talented guy who has at times juggled several careers, including author, teacher, and actor on Broadway, film and TV – but it’s as a musical artist and exponent of the blues that he is best known. Although he was raised in New York City, Davis grew up hearing accounts of life in the rural South from his family, especially his grandmother, all of which has inspired his music making which is rich in story-telling. He taught himself guitar and learned by listening to and watching other musicians, becoming a fine country blues acoustic guitar picker.
He’s just released his 19th album, Be Ready When I Call You, released on the M.C. Records label. In some ways it’s what you’d expect of a Guy Davis album – great songs, featuring Guy’s distinctive, growly vocals and rhythmic guitar work, good humour and engaging stories. In another it’s quite different, both musically and lyrically, most of the songs having a strong social commentary.
I was delighted to catch up with Guy to ask him about the new album. How different does he think it is from previous Guy Davis albums, musically or otherwise?
“Well,” he told me, “it’s more World music and more Americana than it is strictly blues. Blues is, I guess, what I specialize in, but some of these other songs were in me and they had to come out! Musically you’ll hear, well, some of the same instrumentation I’ve been using with Professor Louie and those guys, but my arrangements, some are almost orchestral, some have a little Middle Eastern something to them.”
You can definitely notice the blues influence here and there in the album, but as Guy says, it’s musically quite varied. Looking back through his extensive back catalogue, his previous albums have been mostly Davis on acoustic guitar, playing his own style of country blues, but on Be Ready When I Call You, there are songs with a full band. I asked about the band and recording with the other musicians.
“The reason I choose to record so regularly with the guys that I use is that I trust them. I trust them for the way they handle my music, even when I go beyond the blues. I’ve played with them on stage, of course, which is the best way to play with a band. But a lot of the music I created on my own, and when I brought my creations into the studio, I didn’t know all of what these gentlemen were going to do. I would say, I have this idea for so-and-so, and that idea for this song, but they brought something of their own to it. Ultimately, I would approve or not, but more likely I did than not. It made me feel so good.”
Davis wrote all the songs on this album, apart from Howling Wolf’s Spoonful. That suggested that the last year with the pandemic and all of that had been conducive to Guy’s writing process.
“Oh, yes. I have been writing and writing and writing. I have no excuse not to! At the moment I’m down with my daughter and with my girlfriend, but I’ve spent most of the time up in the Bronx, New York, and I had no excuse to not write. So I’ve written a bunch of things that are not on this CD, I’ve got newer stuff than is on here.”
Which sounds like we can look forward to much more good stuff from him before long.
The album has a very interesting range of songs, a number of which address issues in the United States and indeed around the world. One of the stand-outs of the album is God’s Gonna Make Things Over, which addresses the Tulsa Massacre, a horrific incident that took place which took place from 31st May 31 to 1st June, 1921.
In one of the worst incidents of white on black violence in US history, a white mob, many of whom had been deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked the vibrant and prosperous Black Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, reducing it to rubble. In an unspeakable orgy of violence, residents, homes and businesses were subjected to machine gun fire, bombing from the air, arson, looting and beatings. Hundreds were killed and thousands left homeless. Shamefully, there was a news blackout about the event, followed by decades of deliberate cover up – the history was hidden, distorted, and deformed by conspiracy theories or attempts to both-sides it.
It’s the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, so Guy’s song is fitting. The song focuses on the story of a doctor who was accosted and, despite raising his hands up high, was shot dead. Guy told me that he had been at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, and had read a moving account of this doctor who was saving lives. I asked him about the song and the need to deal with the past.
“Well, yeah, to deal with the past, but there is a message from the past, which is that people need humanity, that is, to be treated as humans in order to live. And that is a message for all people. And this particular example shows the tenuous lives of so many black people, especially back then, and it reflects on them now. Humanity is not exclusively an African-American proposition or any one group of people. So hopefully in the midst of pointing out this piece of history – and all of our pieces of history need pointing out – people will recall that this is for all of us. American history in a black perspective.”
The song seems to become personal. The lyrics say, “watch my body, burn me from a tree.” And I wondered if that reflects a sense of the ongoing trauma that African-Americans feel to this day?
“There is indeed a sense of ongoing trauma – the past continues into the present. That was a deliberate choice to switch from the third person to the first person. I decided not to restrict myself in this song and in other songs on this album – they were my impulses and I’ve become willing to take more chances. I am exercising a quality I don’t exercise enough. That is, courage to stand up and say what’s in my heart honestly. And in this song, it was to point at it in an objective historical sense and then to bring it into us.”
That begged the question from me about how important Guy thinks it is for artists to be aware of, and to reflect upon the stuff that’s going on in the world today. How important is it for musical artists to do that?
“I believe it is of paramount importance. But art is informed by the facts of historical reality, and then artists are free to bend it, to stretch it, to do what they need to do. You take, say, Garrison Keillor or even William Shakespeare. What they wrote about was fictional, but just because it wasn’t “true” did not mean that it did not tell the truth. It is an artist’s job is to be able to take the truth and find a new way to express it. That might not be just stating the facts.”
The last song on the album Welcome to my World, which sees Guy in rapper mode, is pretty hard hitting and explicit about America. “You’re rotten to the core, took all we got and you still want more than is due to you.”
He told me that this was how he was feeling at the moment he wrote the song. But, he admitted, “a person my age shouldn’t be involved in rap music probably! Nonetheless I will, because this modern rap has been around for a long time, making up rhymes about what’s going on around us. So welcome to my world! There’s some bitterness in the song, there’s some sarcasm. It’s my attempt to expose things that are true, at least true as I perceive them.”
The lyrics go on to say, “no more, you’re running out of time. You’ve got to toe the line or we’ll make you”, and “you made the movie, but we’re making the sequel,” which is a line I loved. What, I asked Guy is his sense of the possibility for change and for things improving?
“Oh boy, change is a very touchy kind of subject! The one thing I know about human nature is that men and women do not learn from history; we say we do, but we don’t. So, I have to chalk up change as an evolutionary process. Real change happens incrementally with struggle over time. It is the 2020s and we still have to make sure that there’s voting legislation that is in place and that is constitutional – and it’s still a struggle. There are always people who will choose just what is expedient. So, it’s going to take time and a lot of struggle. Change is on the way, but it’s an ongoing process that is slower than it looks like.”
Having said that, as we look at what happened during 2020 with the George Floyd and other murders, I wondered if Guy thought that had accelerated any sort of change?
“It has accelerated all of our recognition of the need for change. There are some people still who are intractable and they think what’s important is money and conservative ethics. Change takes a lot of nurturing, but now our knowledge that change is needed is greater. And so that makes me feel good. And this new generation coming up. They are much more about change, much more willing to change.”
There are a wide range of important issues in Guy Davis’s sights on this album – there are songs addressing refugees, asylum seekers, the poison water in Flint, unemployment, and poverty. He wasn’t holding back!
“No, I’ve never really held back, but these things are so much at the forefront of my consciousness, as well as what’s going on in the world. These are the kinds of issues that would be discussed when I sat at the supper table with my family – the political injustice, the racism, all sorts of things that the world needs to deal with.” Guy went on to say that the music reflects this expansion of his lyrical horizons, in that it goes beyond his normal boundaries in the blues to World music and Americana music.
In terms of World music, there’s a song on the album with a Middle Eastern musical feel to it, Palestine Oh Palestine. Listening to this at the moment is very poignant because of the flare-up of the conflict there. But Davis does the song quite sensitively – important, because obviously that’s a conflict where opinions can be very polarized and there’s been a lot of suffering. He told me that the song was arranged so that the voices representing the two enemies sing on top of each other in such a way that it is ultimately harmonious.
“And that’s my way of saying, everybody needs a voice in this process. The one voice I’m not hearing is from the Palestinians. I want to hear from Palestinian people. And even my song is not a real Palestinian voice. It is just my voice interpreting the situation.”
There is one traditional blues song on the album, is Spoonful, written by Willie Dixon and first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1960. It’s a great version with Guy and the band rockin’ their way through it. He told me that it’s a song he really likes, and although it’s a Howling Wolf song, it kind of reminds him of Muddy Waters and has a good feeling to it.
Once Guy gets out playing again, it’s a number that is sure to down very well. I asked him about getting out and playing these songs at some stage.
“I’m looking forward to it. I’ve done a few minor outings in the past weeks. But I’ve forgotten so much about the automatic way I do things when I go somewhere! I don’t know which wire to put where, which box to put here. I have to recreate all of this. People who are my dear friends, we’ve all been vaccinated, but when I went to hug them, I automatically turn my face to the side. I just don’t know what to do anymore!”
Be Ready When I Call You is on the M.C. Records label, the fourth record they have released together. His previous release on the label was the 2017 Grammy-nominated record with Fabrizio Poggi, Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train.