Mavis Staples & Levon Helm, Carry Me Home, ANTI-Records
Mavis Staples and the late Levon Helm recorded the songs on Carry Me Home at Helm Studios in Woodstock in the summer of 2011. It was to be one of the final recording sessions for Helm before he died the next year.
The pair are icons of Americana and roots music, Levon Helm, the drummer and one of the lead vocalists of the Band, and Mavis Staples, celebrated gospel and blues singer and civil rights activist. Both performed their music for more than 50 years, from the early sixties on through the heydays of rock’n’roll and rhythm and blues.
Carry Me Home is something of a masterpiece, it would not be too bold to suggest, a celebration of friendship, mutual admiration and faith. You can’t help but be moved by both the poignancy of the selection of songs and the pair’s performances, now knowing that Helm was to pass shortly after and that Staples is now in her 83rd year.
“It never crossed my mind that it might be the last time we’d see each other,” says Staples. “He was so full of life and so happy that week. He was the same old Levon I’d always known, just a beautiful spirit inside and out…
“…we hugged and hugged and hugged. I just held on to him. I didn’t know it’d be the last time, but in my heart and in my mind, Levon will always be with me because I take him everywhere I go.”
But even aside from that, this is simply a great set of songs, a wonderful collection of blues, gospel and Americana. The music, powered by Helm’s and Staples’s combined bands, is compelling, with everyone sounding like they are having a fine old time of it.
The album kicks of with a Curtis Mayfield’s This is My Country, a protest song from 1968, deeply embedded in the Civil Rights movement:
I’ve paid three hundred years or more Of slave driving, sweat, and welts on my back This is my country
Staples sings it with considerable gusto and passion, several years in to the Obama presidency with the right beginning to flex its muscles. More than ten years on, the song still sounds relevant for America – more’s the pity. Musically, as the album’s opener, you know you’re in for a treat, with horns, organ and ooh-ooh-oohs from the backing singers ushering you into things.
Trouble in (My) Mind is a rockin’ version of the old blues standard, Staples’s raw vocals and the bluesy piano driving things along. After This is My Country, this feels like another defiant assertion that no matter how bad things are and might be in America, there are surely better times ahead – “sun’s gonna shine in my back door some day.”
Staples performs Farther Along, an old gospel song, unaccompanied, apart from some gorgeous harmonizing by Amy Helm and Teresa Williams and others. It’s another poignant one, with the lyric “When death has come and taken our loved ones” coming with slow-tempoed clarity.
It’s a song of faith, however, and despite the song musing on loved ones passing while “others prosper, living so wicked year after year,” it asserts “we’ll understand it all by and by.” Staple’s faith led her to comment about Helm, “Some sweet day, we’ll be together again.”
Faith shines out of this album. Nothing frothy or glib; but faith that has been tested and tried and remains defiant. That’s been Mavis Staples’s experience – remember, she was once arrested at gunpoint by the police after a racially charged incident at a gas-station in Memphis and has lived the recent history of black America from the Civil Rights movement on.
The songs, even when packing a punch like Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free, have a positive, upbeat feel, as if the very force of Staples’s faith and positivity would make all the changes she longs for. The horns, harmonies and Mavis’s vocals, combined with the gospel chords, make for a thoroughly uplifting listening experience.
There are a couple of songs regularly performed by Levon Helm, When I Go Away and Buddy and Julie Miller’s Wide River to Cross have a thoroughly traditional feel about them and fit right in to the set. In the latter, the lyrics seem to have a dual meaning, referring to both the individual journey of life and the struggle for equality that Staples has been engaged in for so long –
I’m only halfway home, I’ve gotta journey on… I’ve come a long, long road but still I’ve got some miles to go I’ve got a wide, a wide river to cross.
There’s a great version of You’ve Got to Move. The harmonizing vocals and Larry Campbell’s guitar work is superb and once again the two-sided nature of the lyrics becomes apparent. As a traditional gospel blues song, it’s about the Christian hope of resurrection – “when the Lord get ready, you gotta move,” in, as another song has it, “that great gettin’ up morning.” But whether you’re “high or low”, there’s a hope for the present as well that the Lord might move things in the right direction.
The penultimate song is Bob Dylan’s gospel classic, Gotta Serve Somebody. It’s fitting of course, to include a Dylan song, given Staples’s history with him (she has said Dylan was “the love that I lost”). Staples adds her own faith assertion to the song – he’s (God is) my doctor, he’s my lawyer, he’s my friend.” “Whether you got faith or you got unbelief,” as Dylan might have put it, the song has always been a powerful one, and Staples does it more than justice, making it her own, as she sings convincingly, “I got a royal telephone and the line is never busy.”
Mavis Staples pretty much handles the vocals throughout, with Levon Helm adding colour here and there with harmonies. His drumming, however, is stamped all over things. Helm does weigh in on the final song – fittingly The Weight. Mavis Staples, of course, had shared the vocals with Levon Helm when the Staples Singers accompanied the Band for the song in the Last Waltz in 1968. Staples’s voice is a little deeper and raspier, but it’s still powerful and more than capable of sending shivers down your spine. There’s a quirky, but rather wonderful what sounds to me like a tuba solo in the middle of the song.
This is simply a glorious album of songs to challenge, encourage and inspire. It’s a fine tribute to Levon Helm, and another reminder of the immense talent and force that is Mavis Staples. I saw her perform in London just before the pandemic and it was an evening that left me with a smile on my face for a week afterwards. At 83 she’s on tour again, along with Amy Helm, Levon’s daughter, and if they are anywhere near you, don’t hesitate. And get yourself a copy of Carry Me Home – you won’t regret it.
Dedicated Men of Zion – or let’s use the more cool abbreviation, DMZ – is band with a powerful combination of soul and gospel that will make your day brighter, your smile broader and get your feet dancing. It’s infectious, inspirational stuff, packed full of tight harmonies and funky rhythms. The music is traditional in many ways, with a clear heritage in 1960s and 70s soul and gospel, but it’s got a very contemporary feel. It’s music for today. It’s what Music Maker Relief Foundation co-founder Tim Duffy calls “sacred soul.”
And that’s what Bruce Watson of Fat Possum Records recognized three years or so ago, when he signed DMZ to his new Bible and Tire label. [check out our interview with Bruce Watson here.] The band recorded its first album Can’t Turn Me Around, in Watson’s Delta-Sonic Sound studio backed by his all-star band, in Memphis in 2019 and have followed that up now by The Devil Don’t Like It. Like the first album, it’s bursting with positivity, gospel truth, beautiful harmonies and sweet lead vocals.
DMZ emerged in 2014 in eastern North Carolina, a region renowned for its musicality and gospel harmonies. The music made in rural Black churches for many decades has, in fact, been the foundation for so much of the commercial music we’re familiar with. DMZ taps into the deep roots of gospel which its members have experienced in the church, as well as classic sounds of soul and R&B.
Anthony “Amp” Daniels is the eldest of the group, and he’s had a successful a career in R&B down in Atlanta, backing up the likes of Bebe Winans and Toni Braxton, and producing records.
The other vocalists in the band, all fine singers, Antwan Daniels, Dexter Weaver, and Marcus Sugg, are all related by blood or marriage.
I got talking to Anthony about DMZ, the new album and making music. Our conversation sparkled with joy. I asked him first of all, about his musical background. He told me,
“My family was very musical and from a small child, that’s what we did. As a small boy, it’s just music and singing. My mother, she taught me to sing. It’s always been a very serious thing in my home, singing. My mother was more serious about singing than my education! Later she started being more serious about my education, but singing was just so important to her. It came from her father and then from her to my brother and sister and me. So it’s just something we always did.”
I assumed that the singing was really fostered in church but Anthony said that, although he sang in church, it was really his home environment that was his training ground and where his love of singing was nurtured.
“It was a home thing and it was something that we had to do every day. My mother would come in and we would have to sing. In fact, we had to talk in harmony as children! That’s how it was.
“But we started out in the choir, church choirs, and just traveling to other churches and singing. And even when I visited with my grandmother, she would have my brother and my sister and me sing for her all the time. It’s just singing, singing, singing. I love to sing though. So, it wasn’t a problem. I loved it. And I love to sing now.”
Anthony is a talented guy, not only a terrific singer, but an experienced keyboards player, having played in church and then for years with his mother’s group, the Glorifying Vines Sisters, a longstanding Farmville gospel institution. He’s also had a career as a record producer, producing recordings for the Glorifying Vines and also for R&B and pop music artists. His nickname is “Amp,” which I assumed had some association with amplifiers, but Anthony told me he wasn’t entirely sure how he got it.
“As a child I grew up with that. I guess it’s an abbreviated kind of thing. Sometimes it might be hard for children to say “Anthony” and they’ll say “Amp” instead of a “Ant.” It’s a Southern thing. People give you a nickname!”
How, I wondered, did DMZ get started?
“Well, back in 2014, I was working with a relative of mine on his project and it fell through. His guys started leaving his band so I began to recruit some guys that I knew, but the band fell apart. But the guys didn’t wanna quit, so the group became the Dedicated Men of Zion.”
DMZ consists of four singers – Anthony’s son Antoine, his sons-in-law Marcus and Antwan, and Dexter Weaver, his nephew in-law – and four musicians. They perform far and wide in the United States, but Anthony wants to get the band to Europe.
“I performed in Switzerland with my parents and I’m just ready to get back. I’m ready to get back in the UK. I love that. I just want these guys I’m with now to get an opportunity to just experience that. They’ll love it.”
I asked him how the relationship with Bible and Tire, Bruce Watson’s label, came about.
“We actually met Bruce through Tim Duffy of the Music Makers Foundation [check out our interview with Tim Duffy here]. Tim put us together and it was like a great marriage, man. It was fantastic. I love working with Bruce. We just have a great relationship. I mean we’re talking about a third album already.”
Both albums are brimming with musicality, groove and inspiration. They are obviously gospel, but the description “sacred soul” seems to nail it.
“I think so, because sacred soul music is music for the soul, you know. It’s gospel music and sacred soul is like a division of that. It’s very similar to gospel, but I guess it’s just focusing a little bit differently musically. But I love the name sacred soul. I think it describes it really well.”
When people think of gospel music, they often think about a certain musical sound, certain piano chords and a certain feeling from the music. But I wondered, does it need to be more than that? How important for Anthony is the lyrical content?
“It’s very important. Music is good but the message is important. A good song to me has a message. You can have instrumentals, like, for example, a jazz instrumental and all this kind of stuff, and people still call it a song. But to me, a song should have a good lyrical content, a good story, a good message. And it helps if it’s therapeutic. Sometimes you hear music and it’ll take you somewhere, take you back to another time and place in life. You could be in 2022 and you could hear a song and it’ll take you back to 1985 or something, you know? And it’s just a really good feeling.”
Anthony went on to sum up the message in DMZ’s music: “I guess I would say that the message is positive. We want to give a good positive message, we just want to sing something that will lift your spirit and be encouraging.
“We want it to be encouraging, uplifting, inspirational. Just therapeutic. You know, just help to bring people through – sometimes we need that. You can have a bad back and you have to go to the chiropractor, but where do you go when you’re feeling down? When you need to be uplifted, when you just want to get away and free your mind from some other things. We have a lot of things that we go through – people have bills and they’re dealing with sickness and death, but sometimes a good old song will lift you up, make you feel better. Inspire you. So those are the kind of things we want to get across with this music. And make people smile just for a minute anyway.”
I wanted to know about the faith component of the music. You can have a nice song that has a nice feel about it that might make you feel good. But DMZ songs are more than that, there’s a faith component to the songs.
“Well, yeah, there’s definitely a faith component, we’re dealing with faith and belief. But it gives hope and it’s still encouraging and it still can be uplifting [to anyone]. It’s a feel good. When we were in Switzerland playing, some people didn’t speak English, but they were still saying it felt good. One woman told us, my daughter doesn’t speak English, but she wanted to tell you that she really enjoyed it. So sometimes you don’t have to understand it and it still feels good.”
I asked Anthony about the new album, The Devil Don’t Like, which is very, very good, the levels of production, song arrangements and musicality all very high. It was the band’s second experience of working with Bruce Watson of whom Anthony has said has “a way of pushing an artist to get the best out of them without the artist ever knowing that they are being pushed…the guy is just extraordinary as a person as well as a producer. Trust me when I tell you an outstanding band and a great producer can really bring the best out of an artist and a song. Bruce’s vision of preserving the originality of sacred soul music is educational, unique and inspiring.”
On song selection, Anthony said, “Bruce sent us songs and asked us to select ten. So we listened to them and selected songs that really felt good to us, ones we could really hear ourselves doing.”
Most of the songs, I didn’t recognize, but there’s a great version of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Up Above My Head. I can imagine a congregation or an audience singing along with it and also God’s Got His Eyes On You. I was intrigued by the title track, The Devil Don’t Like It, which funny enough, isn’t very much about the devil. Most of it is about God “putting his hand on me.” You just get that little phrase at the end.
“Yeah. And that’s the ironic part about that song. It’s a very small portion of that song. But I guess it’s a catchy phrase. But when I first heard that song, I said, I’m doing it!”
The harmonies on the album are stunningly good, but so too are the lead vocals – beautiful, modern-sounding singing. I’m Going Home is a great example, where the lead vocalist is to the fore and the harmonizing kicks in here and there to support. Who, I asked, takes the lead vocals?
“Well, mostly we share the lead parts. Everybody in the group can sing lead and everybody has their own style of singing. We’re all different and everybody sings it their way. I love it that variety, you know – it’s one group with multiple talents, so you don’t get so tired of just hearing that same thing over and over. You need to have a variety, you know?”
I was intrigued by A Change Is Gonna Come. We’re all familiar with the famous version by Sam Cooke from 1964, which came right in the middle of the civil rights movement and was clearly about events of the time. So I wondered what DMZ’s song is all about.
“When we heard that song – my son sings that song – and what we got from it, and what we feel with the conditions in the world…to me, it’s about hope, you know? No matter what we’re going through, especially with all the bad stuff – change is coming. And I know Sam Cooke’s version was totally different but it’s still the same message. When we look at the conditions, the bad in the world, the message is don’t worry, don’t give up. Change is coming. It’ll get better.”
As a non-American, someone who doesn’t live in America, I wondered if there was any particular reference to today’s America. Is there any particular change that needs to come?
“I would love to see change in America. Of course there are some things I would like to see changed. No matter how many times people tell you things are equal, things are not equal. If we had more equality, treating everybody the same, instead of, you know, separation, I think that would really solve a lot of the issues that we have.
“Everybody being treated equal, regardless of race, colour or whatever. We should just treat people like people, everybody just as humans. We know that there’s some bad everywhere. It doesn’t matter about ethnicity, black, white color, whatever. You have bad everywhere. But everybody’s not that way. So I would just love to see every person being treated the same. Regardless. You know what I’m saying? That’s one thing I would love to see change.”
Does America need to make a more progress with that?
“Yes, I think so. I really believe in that. I just wish that it would happen. I wish that there was some way that it could. Even with a job application, just as simple as that – why do we have to put our race on a job application? It doesn’t matter – if a person can do a job, then a person can do a job. But there’s just so much division, you know?”
Again, as a non-American, I was intrigued to ask Anthony about the divisions in church life in the United States, where there are black churches and white churches. Would it be better if it wasn’t that way?
“I think it’s historical. It’s just the freedom of religion. But if we’re both in the same belief, in the same faith, why can’t we worship together? Instead of you gotta be over there in that black church and I’m here in a white church. We’re worshiping in the same faith, but we can’t do it together. So much division, so much separation and it would be so much better together.”
Anthony told me that he saw a little bit of movement towards people worshipping together, towards integration, but he sensed that people can be afraid and so division continues.
We finished off our conversation talking about the music. Anthony was enthusiastic about the band that Bruce Watson had put together for the album – really, the backing band sounds superb.
“We had studio musicians working with us and they were fantastic and their attitudes were awesome. Just awesome musicians. And just the greatest guys to be around, that whole band and I love them. Bruce Watson put those guys together. That’s his studio band. We went into the studio and no one wanted to leave.
“You know, studio work is hard work. They want more than you can give sometimes, but you gotta give some more. But those guys made it so relaxed for us. And Bruce had a way of just pushing you without you even realizing you’re being pushed. It’s cool. He’ll nudge you, all smiles, and he’s just trying to get the best out of you. I love it.”
Like most musicians, the pandemic put paid to DMZ performances, but things are picking up for the guys now, with up to twelve dates a month. And Anthony’s raring to go.
Like the music DMZ makes, Anthony Daniels exudes sunny positivity. If you get the chance to go see these guys, don’t hesitate, and in the meantime, go pick up a copy of their two albums. The devil may not like them – but you will, for sure.
Kreg Yingst is an artist, originally from Chicago, but now living in the warmer climes of Pensacola in Florida. He specializes in unusual and rather fabulous portraits of musicians, mostly from the blues, but also from jazz, rock and country. On the wall facing my desk, I have a wonderful wood-based print of Rev. Robert Wilkins, complete with some lyrics from his famous Prodigal Son song.
In his catalogue, blues fans will find work representing Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Son House, Blind Willie Johnson, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon…the list goes on. They are all superb and every blues fan ought to have one of Kreg’s pieces on display.
With art degrees from the Trinity University,Texas, and Eastern Illinois University, Kreg was originally a painter, but has come to specialize in printing carved wooden blocks. He describes himself as a narrative artist, where the story of the person he is dealing with becomes represented in the finished art-piece. Along the way, Kreg ruminates at length on the story, and then produces a sketch which gets transferred to a block of wood or linoleum, which he then will carve, before ink-printing.
As well as his music range of art, Kreg also has a body of work which focuses on sacred themes, ranging from illustrations of the Psalms to Celtic saints to the Passion of Christ. During the pandemic, when he could not exhibit as usual in the art festivals and fairs where he normally sells his work, he was surprised to find that, when his online sales spiked, it was the sacred art that was being sought.
His hand-coloured woodcuts of the parables illustrate Kreg’s concern that faith be grounded in real life. So, in Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan, an African-American man rescues a Ku Klux Klansman, while in his Lazarus and the Rich Man, a beggar grabs for the cigarette butts tossed by a limo rider.
In similar vein, Kreg has published a book called Glory among the Ruins: The Homeless Project, a portfolio of 15-linocut portraits of homeless men, a portion of the proceeds of which go toward feeding programs in the Florida panhandle. He says, “I joined a group of like-minded men and women from various churches to provide food, clothing, and spiritual nourishment for the homeless of our city. Over time, as I heard their stories, I began to know them individually, and not just as a people group. They had names and faces, hopes and dreams, and a past that would play into the situation they currently found themselves in.”
Kreg is soon to publish a new book entitled Black Light. I’m honoured to have been asked to write a forward, and I’ve seen an early copy of it. I can tell you that it is a stunning piece of work. It’s 28 portraits of black gospel blues artists, with a Kreg Yingst image of the each one along with a short introduction/reflection on each. The book celebrates Black History Month, which occurs in February in the US and Canada, hence the 28 portraits.
I got the opportunity to talk to Kreg and ask him about his work and the new book.
First off, I had to ask him about his name – there aren’t a lot of Kregs or Yingsts in my part of the world, nor, I’m guessing in North America. Kreg told me it came from his German ancestors who came to America in the 1700s and got a bit changed along the way from Juenst to Yingst. That settled, we talked about Kreg’s approach to his art.
“Well, I’ve been working with printmaking probably since the mid-1990s. I was always somewhat interested in narrative or storytelling arts and so I connected initially with the magic realists. I just loved their work from the 1940s, 50s, in America – people like George Tooker and Paul Cadmus. I liked the quirkiness about it. It felt inquisitive, there was something very magical to the work.
“In terms of the narrative aspect of my work, I’d go to libraries and fiddle through different books and try to find artists. And I came across two artists who were working with wood cuts at the time, Lynd Ward, an American, and Frans Masereel from Belgium. They had done what were called wood cut novels. You could read these visually no matter where you lived in the world. And I found that really fascinating. The graphics really appealed to me. And so I started moving into doing wood cuts and lino cuts and relief prints.
“Now the musicians, the subject matter – I think part of that was I had struggled with creating people in my art, so I started doing figurative art just because it was more of a challenge. I used to do more cityscapes and I was very good at it, but I felt it was somewhat of a dead end. So I started doing people, which I wasn’t very good at. To be honest, I still struggle with it!
“At some point I might like to get back to my painting, but at this time I enjoy the printmaking for a number of reasons. It’s more affordable art – that appeals to me. I’ve always liked, say, the Mexican socialist artists for making art so accessible for people. I don’t like painting that is only for the ultra-rich or museums. I like this aspect of art in our daily life.”
And what, I asked him, about the music aspect of his art?
“I remember the first piece I did was a Robert Johnson piece and it was just because the story appealed to me, the myth, the legend. So I did it and I thought it worked well. It was on aged paper, it had particles of the bark or the plant still in it, and to me, it seemed like a tobacco paper and it just represented Johnson’s time. I did it very scratchy with my cutting and I liked the outcome. I then started digging into the blues guys – not that I knew many of these people. So, my art became more of a journey into people I didn’t know, areas I don’t know. And something from it evolved into a work of art on my part.”
Kreg has a wonderful gallery of art covering blues artists, but he also has covered jazz, rock and country artists as well.
“The rock came a little bit later and doing that allowed me to bring in colour. And again, I was trying to represent the time period. On a technical level, it was more difficult because now you’re using multiple blocks, you’re using multiple colors. I also dabbled a little bit with jazz but with jazz, I started doing backgrounds with multiple blocks that I would piece together in different ways and I’d use different colors. And then I would bring the face as the last block on top. So, in a sense, I was able to improvise. I was trying to do visually what I was hearing audibly. So, you got the scratchy blues, you got the high key powered colors of rock and you got the improvisation of jazz.”
All of Kreg’s art has a spiritual element to it, sometimes explicitly, often just in the way that he creates, as an artist. But as well as the extensive music-related catalogue, he has a range of specifically sacred art.
“There’s a spiritual line that runs throughout the entire body of my work and I’m looking for that same element, I guess, that John Coltrane would’ve talked about with the audio.
“I’m looking for that with the visual, but that’s, I guess, part of my faith and my faith journey that has been embedded in my work. I did a whole series on the parables quite a while back. At the time I was looking at the German expressionists and they were very loose, and I tried to translate the parables to a modern-day context.
“And then eventually I went to do the Psalms in the same manner, but the Psalms were not narrative, so that proved difficult. And to be honest, I thought I was gonna knock out this project in about a year. But it transitioned into more of my own spiritual journey, where I was reading the desert fathers and a lot of monastic literature.
“And I started to incorporate these visual blocks into my own prayer life. Where I would read through a Psalm and I would take something with me, maybe just a sentence. That’s the sort of thing the desert fathers would do, they’d sit around, they’d listen to the speaker, they would take this line and then they would kind of ruminate on it throughout the day. That’s what I would do. And then I’d find the visual within that. And that whole project took me eight years. So, it became kind of my daily practice, taking the Psalm, embedding it, saying it, speaking it, and then doing it visually.
“And then I did another thing too, after the school shooting at Sandy hook, which kind of devastated me. I had young children at the time and I couldn’t understand how these people could live with that. It happened in December, and I decided the following year that I was going to find a prayer and I was going carve one piece per week until that whole year had gone. My output then became an opportunity to change this darkness into light for me. In my work, you start with a black block, basically, and every mark you make, you’re making white into the block. You’re literally carving light out of darkness. If this evil’s gonna happen, I wanted to have something good come out of it.
“And I like the idea that these prayers that are carved, they continue on in life, in somebody else’s reading. And then I started using these books I’d produced of my work as fundraisers so the profits would go to an orphanage. To support the children that don’t have parents, that did survive somewhere in the world. So, I didn’t want the darkness to win out in this. Like some light’s gonna come out of this.”
As Kreg talked about his approach to his art, it made me think of iconography, the icons that have been done in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, where the painting of those is a spiritual exercise in and of itself.
“The icons are very interesting. I’ve recently finished a series on Mary, in conjunction with a book that’s coming out by an American author who now lives in Ireland, Christine Valters Paintner. Whereas with the Psalms, I was taking a word, this project, with the Mary series, I was taking an image – I would take the image through the day and see then how that was going to be interpreted through my concept of what was going on.
“But I have a couple of icons of my own and it’s a calming thing. I like the idea of it – it isn’t really a cognitive thing. We take in art, we take in music, we take in smells, our senses, directly. And so it is with our experience of God or our communication with God. By doing art this way, you’re making a deliberate act and saying, use this time, and this time is going to be with God. And this is going to be prayer.”
As I look through Kreg’s catalogue of art, it seems to me to have a potentially wide appeal. What sort of people, I asked Kreg, buy his art?
“A real mix. It’s kind of fun to be in the booth selling because you have this interaction with the people that are actually buying. It may be people covered with tattoos that love it for the black and white graphics. Or maybe a little grandmother buying one of the icons – so you get a real mix. And sometimes people will unload on me. I’ve had people come in and buy a piece, say like my Clapton’s Tears in Heaven. And the person’s about to walk out the booth but they turn around and say, this means so much to me, my son just died last week. You get that kind thing.
“Sometimes it has a lot of meaning to them. I’ve seen people laugh. I’ve seen people cry. I’ve heard miracle stories.”
My ears pricked up at that – let’s hear about the miracle stories, Kreg!
“I was doing a show in Texas and one person was buying a piece based on Here Comes the Sun, you know, the George Harrison song. And she goes, ‘Oh, I gotta tell you about this. This piece means so much to me.’ She said her son had been diagnosed with a rare disease and she was supposed to meet with the specialist after the weekend. She’d gone home and was really distraught and she’s praying, just pleading with God. It looked like her son had been given a death sentence basically.
“Monday, she gets in her car ready to leave. And she goes, ‘God, if this is gonna work out well, let Here Comes the Sun come on the radio’! So, she turned on the radio and after a moment of dead air time, the first notes of George’s guitar come in. So, she got to the hospital specialist, and he says, ‘I don’t understand this, we’ve taken the test again, and it’s has come back negative.’ And the doctor said, ‘Do you believe in God?’ And she’s like, ‘I do now!’
“Another lady on that same weekend came in and she’s got two of my Psalm prints in her hands and doesn’t know which one to take. So, I said, get the one which speaks to you more. She asked me if I believed in God and I said yes, I do. She told me, ‘You know, I used to. But my brother got sick and I prayed and prayed but he died.’ I replied, ‘Listen, I don’t have the answers, I don’t know why this happens, but I do know God loves him. And he loves you and he’s always there.
“On my iPad, I had all the psalms and I was going back through them and I was trying to find what prompted the image from the Psalm. I had something highlighted and it said something like, ‘I’ve never left you,’ that kind of thing. And I said to her, ‘I don’t know what this means, but I think maybe this is for you.’ And I turned the iPad round and she read the two highlighted lines, ‘I’ve always been there, I’m not gonna leave you’ whatever the Psalm had said. And she goes, ‘I think that’s for me.’ So, I found it very fascinating that, that weekend there were two diverse but related things. One was a miraculous healing, the other not, and yet both in their own individual way, there was a miraculous encounter with God.”
I was very interested to hear about Kreg’s new forthcoming book, Black Light, the one that celebrates Black History Month with the portraits of the gospel blues artists. What’s the story behind it?
“It kind of developed on the spur of the moment and it was my wife that suggested I do this project. I’d done a lot of black musicians and gospel blues is my real interest. So, I thought, I could do something to take us through black history month. So, I started going back through all the people that I’ve done and, sure enough, I had more than enough images. I like the concept of ‘black light.’ I’m living over here in the thick of it. It’s been some crazy times, these last couple of years over here.
“So, I want to get out the history and what this group of people came through and what their faith did and supported them to get through this. And is still having to get through. And I’ve seen how, even as artists or whatever, people misunderstand black and white. I do graphics of black and white, and we’ve always associated black with evil and white with goodness. I want people to know this is incorrect. So that’s why I call it black light. It’s light, but it’s coming from blackness.
“I like the gospel blues. It’s deals with hard times. It deals with reality. It’s the good and the bad, it’s, you know, on the one hand, why is this happening to me, but on the other, praise God for that. I like how it kind of merges these two things. I mean, your book touches on all of that. [here Kreg refers to my The Gospel According to the Blues.]
“So, you get the highs and you get the lows, whereas sometimes, gospel music is just one extreme and full out blues might go to the other. But the gospel blues deals with both of these issues. And that always intrigues me. Most of the people in the book are gospel blues artists who are fairly obscure to most people, but I’ve also included some people like Marvin Gay and Aretha Franklin who are more well known.”
Take it from me – the book is quite wonderful, and you’re going to want to get yourself a copy. It’ll be printed quite lavishly on heavier, coated paper and will be around 8” by 6”. It’ll be a book you’ll be proud to have in your home, and Kreg tells me it will be available from Juneteenth this year – that is June 19th – and you can order it from his website. Proceeds from the book will go to orphanages that Kreg knows.
While you’re waiting for Juneteenth to come around, head over to Kreg’s site and browse through his catalogue of wonderful and remarkable art. But don’t just browse – find a piece that speaks to you and buy a copy.
Bryn Haworth, slide guitarist par excellence – no, just great guitarist, full stop – has had a stellar recording career with his own albums and as a session musician for the likes of Chris de Burgh, Joan Armatrading, Cliff Richard and Gerry Rafferty. As well as jamming in the 60s with Jimi Hendrix, he has toured extensively with bands like Traffic, Bad Company, Gallagher & Lyle and Fairport Convention.
His career started in the late sixties with “Les Fleur de Lys” a Motown/soul band which became house band for Atlantic Records in England. After moving to California, he became a founder member of Wolfgang, a band put together and managed by the legendary Bill Graham, and appeared on bills with Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, Taj Mahal and others.
In 1973 he returned to England and was signed to Island Records where he made his first LP, Let The Days Go By and followed this up by Sunny Side Of The Street. These are both excellent albums which I bought on vinyl at the time and, on listening to again recently, have stood the test of time. You know how when you put on a record you listened to as a youngster, you know every line and what song follows what? – that’s me with these two albums.
I talked to Bryn a wee while ago and he told me his moving and powerful story about finding faith around this time and then a little of his work over subsequent years, taking his music into prisons around the country. [you can find this here]
He’s got a terrific new album just released, called Ready or Not and I got chatting to him about it. First of all, I asked him about the prison work which is so dear to his heart and which he’s been involved in for a long time, but which had been interrupted by the pandemic. He told me he’d continued sending talks and music videos for prisons to play on their community radio stations, but that recently he’d begun to go back in both women’s and men’s prisons in Surrey and London for their Sunday services, where prisoners are entitled by right to an hour of religious service.
“It’s coming back, but you can’t do big gatherings. I basically take the Anglican service for the hour, but you get people just coming along because they want to get out of their cells and don’t have any particular beliefs, but they’re just wanting to see something, a visitor, see something different, hear some music. And that’s been really creative, in that it starts them off thinking about God and about their lives.
“We have a Post Office box and prisoners can write to us through that. So we’re in communication with various prisoners, and then sometimes, when they get out, if we feel it’s appropriate, we can see them. We’ve seen some really good turnarounds in people’s lives. It’s not big numbers, but people can genuinely turn around in a major way in prison. What we do is a drop in the ocean, but I think it’s like what Jesus said about the woman who gave her offering to him, “she did what she could.” So we just do what we can. We feel particularly called to this work. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but we’ve always felt called to it.”
The new album, Ready or Not is a really fine collection of eleven songs, a couple of rerecorded older songs, some new songs, a great cover of Let’s Stick Together and two nice guitar instrumentals. Bryn is not only an excellent guitarist, he’s a talented songwriter and singer, and this album showcases all of this. And it’s also got a group of very talented musicians contributing. He told me about the making of the album.
“I got the title track Ready or Not and I thought, right, that’s a good title for the album. But just as I was supposed to record it in 2020, Martha Rafferty, Gerry Rafferty’s daughter, asked me if I’d play on an album of Gerry’s she was putting together. [Gerry Rafferty passed away in 2011]. And that was more urgent. So I dropped my own plans and I did Gerry’s stuff. [Bryn contributed guitar work on five tracks on the album, Rest in Blue, which was released to critical acclaim in September 2021].
“So then, I started my own album in November a year ago. I did some live sessions with Paul Beavis [drums] and Dave Bronze [bass], just the three of us together, about four or five tracks. And then it all kicked off after that. I then had rebooked to do some live work in January, but COVID came in and the lockdown happened again.”
So Bryn had to improvise, travelling up and down the country to accommodate various musicians he wanted on the album. People like Henry Spinetti, who played drums in the Climax Blues Band, was previously a member of Eric Clapton’s touring band and played on Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street, and Teri Bryant, another world class drummer who has done world tours with the likes of Faith Hill, Peter Gabriel and Matt Redman. And then he worked remotely with Chris Stainton, long-time keyboard player in Eric Clapton’s band.
So, this album is chock-a-block with top notch English rock musicians and the song arrangements sound like a proper band playing.
It gets off to a great start with the title track with some characteristic Bryn Haworth slide guitar as the song begins. I asked Bryn about this song.
“For me, the whole idea came about when I was playing hide and seek with my niece’s children. You let them go and hide, then you count 20, and then shout “coming, ready or not!” It’s just that whole thing, that you can be doing something, and then you can be suddenly found. And I think Jesus’s return is something we need to be reminded of in the church and the world as well, because to me, it begs the question, am I ready?
“When I first became a Christian, a guy said to me, ‘are you living in the light of his coming?’ And it always stuck with me. It does makes you think. I think generally the album is about that, about that theme – so it’s just that urgency.”
We talked a bit about another song Bryn had written and recorded many years ago, on a similar theme – The Grand Arrival, the title track of his 1978 album. And then I asked him about All I need is a Home, now re-recorded on Ready or Not, which had originally appeared on his 1974 Let the Days Go By album. It’s a beautiful song where you really appreciate Bryn’s singing voice. When I asked him why he decided to include it on this album, he immediately started thinking about his work with prisoners.
“So many people are released from prison and they don’t have anywhere to go. They just end up committing crimes and going back into prison. And there are various homeless charities that we’re involved in as well.
“I wrote that song nearly 50 years ago when I was 23. And that was my experience when I came down to London, then. I didn’t have a home. I slept on buses and bus stations. And then during the day I’d go and try to look for work in music shops, and try and get a gig somewhere, but then I’d go back and sleep on a bench.
“So I know what it’s like to not have a place to live and especially in London, it’s horrible. And I just felt that in the next couple of years, it’s going to be more of an issue in this country, homelessness and people not being able to afford rent, and we’re going to need to do something about it. There are some really good initiatives already going. So I thought recording this song might just help raise the profile of this problem.”
Bryn’s not the young guy he was when he made Let the Days Go By, but here he is still being creative, still making great music, as evidenced by Ready or Not. I wondered what he thinks about getting older and continuing to be creative?
“It’s like the song, Boom, Baby, Boom, that’s on the album. That’s really about this whole thing of getting older. Because when you get older, you feel sidelined, you feel useless, irrelevant, and invisible, and you’re not wanted, but at the same time, you have so much experience from your job, what you’ve been doing and your experience in life.
“And especially as a follower of Jesus, you’ve got so many things you’ve experienced, seeing Jesus working and seeing miracles. I’ve seen amazing stuff happen through prayer. I want to carry that on. Psalm 92 verse 14 says that the righteous will stay fresh and green and they’ll still bear fruit in old age. And that’s what I feel. I mean, as long as there’s something to sing about and something to play, then you keep going as long as your hands are able to play. Boom Baby Boom was about that.”
Boom Baby Boom, a great 1950s style rock’n’roll song with some terrific piano and guitar work, is one of my favourite songs on the album. As I get older myself, I appreciate the positivity here: “You’ve got one life with so much left to give…there’s still time for one more dance.”
When I spoke to Bryn a while ago, he mentioned having problems with his hand, his fingers, so I wondered how that was going.
“Well, you always find there’s a way of playing around it that you can figure out. Bruce Coburn, has problems with his fingers and he’s figured out a way to still keep playing. For me sometimes there’s a way of placing your fingers where you wouldn’t have done normally – you can do it and it still works. You adapt. And I think the thing with slide guitars, it makes it a little bit easier because you’re only playing with a slide, you’re not playing with the fingers so much.”
We Never Thought This Could Happen is a delicious country number. At first I thought it was a song about the pandemic. But as I listened, it seemed to be broader than that – it’s all about the sense of foundations shaking, loss of confidence, “cold hearts and empty eyes” – a hard look at the world as it is.
“I got the idea for the song in a dream ten years ago. In this dream, my grandparents were singing this song, we never thought this would happen, and I thought, that’s really good. And they said to me, don’t you know this song? And I said, no, and then suddenly realized I was dreaming it. And so I better get up and write it down.
“There are two or three songs here that came through dreams. But I think for me how it developed was just looking back in history and it struck me how quickly, how easy it is for the way of life people take for granted to just disappear overnight. And that’s what it’s about. It’s about the things that we take for granted.
“That song’s got many levels, but I think it’s important for people just to think about it. Because it’s not just about the pandemic – although, of course, we never thought this could happen. We never thought our way of life could be disrupted and that’s the weakness that we have.”
I asked Bryn about Enough is Enough, which he released as a single a wee while ago. This is a lovely slice of Americana which starts with Bryn singing over a strummed acoustic guitar and eventually gives way to some sumptuous slide guitar. The song is about our trees being destroyed, which Bryn has been quite vocal about.
“I just changed a couple of lines in this new version. I just think we’re losing so many of our mature trees unnecessarily through the building of houses and roads and railways. The government can say, well we’ll plant more trees, but you know, trees take 150 years to grow. The UK is the least forested place in Europe already, we’ve lost so many mature trees.
“William Blake says, the tree, which moves some to tears of joy, is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. I thought that was really good. To a builder, it just stands in the way. But to some people this is massive. This tree is going to outlive me. And then you start to think how much you need them just to live on this planet. They’re just being felled indiscriminately. So that’s why that song is there.”
There’s a great reworked version on the album of Let’s Work Together, which again has some tasty slide guitar. I only knew the Bryan Ferry version, but Bryn put me straight.
“Wilbur Harrison wrote that in 1969. He was a Black American, one-man-band kind of guy, with a bass drum and a guitar. I remember he supported Creedence Clearwater in the early seventies at the Albert Hall.”
Apparently, Harrison wrote the song as Let’s Stick Together and then changed it a few years later to Let’s Work Together. Bryan Ferry went back to the original title and then Bryn went with Let’s Work Together. All clear?
“I’ve gone to the Canned Heat version [a million seller in 1970) and the Harrison version. I just felt that community is the one good thing that I’ve seen come out of these last two years. Our street has gotten much, much better over these last two years – we have a WhatsApp group and we can look after each other, do people’s shopping for them. And I think in the coming years, we’re going to need that sense of community more and more. So that’s why I put this song on.”
The last couple of songs on the album are Holy Spirit of God, and Doxology, the first of which, within the bounds of a lovely tune, contains a remarkable amount of theology. I asked Bryn if he thought there was enough emphasis on the Spirit and what the Spirit does in the church.
“No, I don’t think there is. Christianity is more than having your sins forgiven, as amazing as that is, and then waiting to die to go to heaven. You don’t really hear much about the fact that we’re called to live a new life and God’s got things for us to do. You know, I love Ephesians two verse ten – it says we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to join him in the work that he does and the good works he’s got ready for us to do. If that’s the case, then I need to be able to recognize his voice because he’s got stuff for me to do.
“And I think the person of the Holy Spirit is so vital to living this new life. I wrote that song just to remind myself that every day, you need to be asking, ‘Holy Spirit, teach me to hear your voice.’ When I wrote it, I just played it to myself. I’m saying it to myself because I just wanted to be reminded. But then I recorded it and I was pleased with the way that it came out.”
The album wraps up with Doxology, a beautiful, finger-picked acoustic guitar piece, which reminds you again what a fine guitarist Bryn is. But more than this, as you listen and begin to think of the words of the Doxology hymn behind the tune, it’s a fitting note of praise on which to complete the album.
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow; Praise Him, all creatures here below; Praise Him above, ye heavenly host; Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
“I have always wanted to help people. I hope this project will energize people and change lives. Where there is light, there is hope; and where there is hope, there is a chance.” Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter is the last original member of The Blind Boys of Alabama and, remarkably, at 87 has released his first solo album, Blind Faith. He told me he wants this album to be “a ray of hope and encouragement.”
And that it certainly is. In nine songs which encompass gospel, blues, country and roots music and yet cohere wonderfully, Jimmy Carter’s positive outlook on life and faith shine through. The music is great, the lyrics and inspirational and it’s one of the albums I’ve enjoyed listening to most this year.
The album was produced by Ron Pullman – multi-talented guitarist, songwriter, music business manager, writer and wood craftsman – who wrote most of the songs on the album, and who says, “I spent a lot time trying to understand what Jimmy wanted; the feel and message, and the overall sound.”
Guests on Blind Faith include Charlie Musselwhite, Alan Parsons, The Mendelson Choir of Pittsburgh and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. They all provide a suitable backdrop to Jimmy Carter’s distinctive and still-strong voice, which is the highlight of the album.
Jimmy Carter has been a member of The Blind Boys of Alabama for forty years and has sung for three presidents, won five Grammy Awards, been inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and collaborated with a who’s who of the music industry, including Willie Nelson, Marc Cohn, Ben Harper, Peter Gabriel, Mavis Staples, Robert Randolph…the list goes on.
Carter was there in 1939, one of the boys at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, when the Blind Boys started out and began to play church engagements, but he was too young to join them on the road. He began singing with them in 1982 and has seen them become the world’s premier gospel group, legendary musicians and hugely respected far beyond the gospel genre.
I had the great pleasure of chatting to Jimmy Carter while ago (check it out), but was pleased to get the opportunity to speak to him again, specifically about this excellent album, along with Ron Pullman.
Jimmy was in fine form, having weathered the storm of the pandemic. “I’ve stayed well. I have all of my shots and I’m doing good.”
From the kick-off I knew this was going to be an enjoyable chat. Before long, Jimmy was joking that “it’s my first solo album and, I mean, I’m beginning to like it!” It helps, of course, that there’s been so much positive feedback for all sorts of quarters, especially ordinary listeners who are finding inspiration and encouragement in it.
Taking over the interview, Jimmy asked me, “what’s your favourite song?”
That’s a hard one, actually, given the quality to choose from. I mentioned Lord Take Me, a gently rocking Americana track, with some rootsy violin by Ryan Joseph and an oh-so-cool guitar solo. The song morphs beautifully into Swing Low Sweet Chariot with the added harmonies of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh. Then again, there’s I Love to Pray, written by Joey Williams, band leader of the Blind Boys of Alabama, which Carter puts across in a very personal way. Jimmy declares, “my faith is strong” and “if it gets rough, I start to pray.”
Jimmy Carter is a man who believes that God answers prayer, and he told me that “prayer is very important to me. When I pray, I think of the verse that says, the fervent prayer of a righteous man does much [James 5 v16]. If someone is connected with God, you can call him and he’ll hear you. That’s what I’ve been doing. I know what prayer will do. I know what God will do, and I know what Jimmy Carter’s going to do. He is going to stay right there with him.”
Talking of favourite songs on the album I wondered if Jimmy had one? “Yeah, I have one. I Am With You Still.”
This is a quite beautiful song, a tribute to Jimmy Carter’s old friend and fellow original Blind Boy, Clarence Fountain, whom we lost in 2018. The song features a choir of young people from the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and the Blind, the school which Jimmy attended when he was a boy.
There’s a great video for the song which shows the young people singing. Said Ron Pullman, “They got to go down and record in a real studio. They got the experience of going to the Sound of Birmingham Studio and it was just amazing.”
Ron went on to tell me that he and Jimmy had gone recently to visit the school again and brought signed CDs for all the students who had performed on the record.
“And it was most touching when Mr. Carter addressed these kids about how you have to stay fast to your faith. And, you know, the things that happened early in his life didn’t dissuade him – ‘I didn’t deviate from my faith!’ I could hear Jimmy calling out in the background – and he ended up performing for several white house presidential administrations and then on every major TV show. And of course, you’ve seen him perform many times around the world. So, it was a most inspiring speech Mr. Carter gave to the students yesterday. It was amazing. I got to tell you, it made me cry, Gary, because Mr. Carter was so inspiring.”
I Am With You Still is an incredibly powerful song about God’s presence with us. Jimmy told me that this is something that is very important to him.
“I was brought up in a Christian environment in my early life. My parents were Christian people, and they told me about God. They told me about Jesus and all of that. And then I had a personal experience with God – I have – and that built my faith. My faith is strong. That’s all I can say.”
The very personal nature of the record comes to a head in the final song, written by Joey Williams, Why Me. It’s a nice bluesy piece where we get some honest reflections on the fact of Jimmy Carter’s blindness.
Ron Pullman said, “In Why Me Jimmy starts out asking God, ‘Why me? Why was I blind? Because all my brothers were all healthy sighted individuals.’ But then at the end of the song, he’s saying to God, how could I have known that you would select me to do God’s work and would give me so many blessings.”
Jimmy added, in a remarkable testimony of faith, “Yeah. That’s what I felt. I felt that I was called to do what I’m doing. You know when I found out that all my brothers could see, except me, I felt all alone. I was blind, but God saw further down the road, he knew what he was going to do. He knew what he wanted me to do. Because I think if I had gotten my sight back, I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing now. He knew that that’s what I needed.”
Ron provided some detail about the recording of the song. “When we got into the studio with that song, we realized the third verse wasn’t written. And so we were trying to come up with writing a quick verse, and finally Jimmy says, how about I just go in there at the chorus and speak? And that’s what he did – we all got chills! And what you hear on the record is the very first take when Mr. Carter sat down in front of the mike and did it. I mean, we all got chills and it was a blessing right off the bat.
And the great Charlie Musselwhite plays on the song. And Peter Levin on Hammond B-3. Just so many people came together on that song to keep that bluesy, gospel feel. But I used to always say. blues is the cousin of the gospel. So we kept that real, real traditional.”
There’s a great song on the album called Dream On, on which the Blind Boys provide the backing vocals. As I listened to it, I love the fact that Jimmy Carter is still talking about having dreams, even though he’s reached a ripe old age. It kind of follows up a line in the title track, Blind Faith, where Carter sings about following the light that God shined for him when he was a boy. He’s followed his dream all these years, despite the difficulties along the way, including his blindness. “Well, you know,” he told me, “I still have a dream and I’m still following it.”
To add to that, however, Ron Pullman said that “Mr. Carter has an amazing dream still, and that is for this album to bring peace and serenity to the world.” Most people at 87 have already kicked back and forgotten about the ills of the world, but Jimmy Carter’s not finished yet.
In addition, there’s one particular dream Jimmy mentioned to me, that he and Ron are currently working on. “There’s one special thing I want to do before I retire, I want to go and perform in Jerusalem on a Christmas Day. That’s my dream right now.”
It’s one thing to dream your dreams when life is easy. But as you look at Jimmy Carter’s life, for sure there’ve been hard times – not least growing up in the Jim Crow South and, of course, his blindness. He remains resolutely positive:
“Well, you know, that’s when my faith comes in. Like I told you before, I have had a personal experience with God. I know what he will do. I know what he has done and know what he will do. All he’s asking me is to keep the faith and I’m going to do that. My faith is very strong.”
This positivity shines through every song in the album. But it’s not positivity for the sake of it, some attempt to make the most of things. There’s an authenticity here, a sincerity and a joy which is just part of Jimmy Carter. He’s a man who has learned, like St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians, “to be content, no matter what happens to me” because of the “great joy of the Lord.”
Ron Pullman spoke movingly of the great blessing it has been for him “to be able to work with an icon like Mr. Carter. It’s just been a life changing experience.”
Blind Faith finds Jimmy Carter in strong voice and ever-hopeful spirit. Ron Pullman has done a fine job of arranging the songs and assembling the perfect set of musical contributors for each song. It’s an album that will appeal to a wide range of listeners and one which will inspire and speak to each one.
Thank you, Jimmy Carter, for your message of peace and encouragement in these dark times.
Jack Ward was a successful Stax recording artist, but, remarkably, has never made an album – until now. At a lively 83 years old, he has released a fabulous album of bluesy, soulful gospel songs, Already Made, on Bruce Watson’s Bible and Tire Recording Co. label.
“I was born in the country,” says Jack, “and I would hear Elmore James, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, all of them guys — and I used to patronize them, and sing like them a little bit, but I came back to my roots. I used to do a lot of blues singing but I broke from that and got into the gospel.”
Jack was the lead vocalist in a 1960s group along with Isaac Hayes on piano and had several hit records with both Stax Records and Peacock Records. He retired from professional singing to concentrate on being a church pastor in Memphis, and although his outstanding singing voice has been heard often in his church, this outstanding release from Bible and Tire gives the rest of us the opportunity to appreciate his considerable songwriting and vocal talent.
Elder Jack Ward’s re-discovery comes as a result of Bruce Watson working with Juan D Shipp on the old D-Vine Spiritual’s back catalogue. On finding some of the artists still alive and active, Watson has had them in the studio, with brilliant results. Elizabeth King’s Living in the Last Days was released to considerable critical acclaim and now we have Ward’s Already Made. [Catch our interview with the remarkable Elizabeth King here.] Produced by Watson and Sacred Soul Sound Section leader Will Sexton at Memphis’s Delta-Sonic Sound Studio, the ten song program features the warmly-recorded winning ingredients that are becoming a trademark of Bible and Tire’s patented Sacred Soul sound, from Ward’s spirited vocals to the crack studio band laying down the grooves behind him.
I was delighted to get the opportunity to chat to Elder Jack Ward about the album, his music and life. I found him justifiable proud of his past singing career, performing and recording in the 1960s.
“I did a recording with Stax, Don’t Need No Doctor. It’s been so long, man, fifty years, but that’s what put me on the top. It was all just about for two years a hit. The Christian Harmonizers, we were with Stax and we went out on the road. I did a lot of writing myself, my own songs. And then I put a group together called The Gospel Four. That’s when we put out, Look Down the Lonesome Road and Change Gonna Come. And that put me in the spotlight.”
When you listen to Jack Ward sing, you hear a soulful tenor voice, with great range and a sweet falsetto. I asked about choosing gospel music rather than blues or soul.
“My mom, she was a singer and, I used to hear her – see, I’m a country boy – she used to pick cotton in the country and drive tractors and mules and she would sing songs. She was the one that kept me in the church whenever I was a lad of a boy. I was the only son and I had two sisters.”
Jack was singing from a young age, better, he said, than the “white boys” he knew, who would get him to sing for them in Moorhead Mississippi. “They heard me sing and I was I think about 10. I’d say, ‘Come on, who you want to hear?’ I used to do Earnest Tubb’s Walking the Floor Over You, Hank Williams and all of that. And they would give me a dime, fifteen cents.”
Jack left his home on the farm and came to Memphis when he was 18 – “I had it in mind to make me a hit record.” He went back and forth for a couple of years, but settled, he told me, when he was 21 and has been in Memphis ever since.
“And I had my mind set to come to Memphis to sing blues or rock ’n’ roll.” But some school friends said to him, ‘Look, man, we need you to sing gospel,’ so he joined the Christian Harmonizers, making a number of successful gospel records before going on to form the Gospel Four in 1968. The Gospel Four had an altogether different sound and style than the Christian Harmonizers, as exemplified by the gripping testimonial The Last Road and the mid-tempo, minor-keyed A Change Is Gonna Come.
“That was something that I enjoyed in my heart,” Jack told me, “and maybe this stopped me going to rock and roll and the blues and I’m glad that I turned around and got into the gospel.”
He earned the moniker “Jumping Jack Ward” around this time, “because, you know, I had a little jump from the singing. It was no outstanding thing, it just made me feel good. And I just do my little thing and they called Jumping Jack Ward.”
For the last fifty years, though, Jack has been Elder Jack Ward. He had started pastoring before his professional singing career finished – “I was doing evangelism and so on” – and went on to found the Earth Temple Holiness Church, which he has led for the past 57 years, although he started to “pass things back” a while ago.
Jack is clearly – and justifiably – quite delighted about the new album and the opportunity to get on the road. “Now this would be my first album [as opposed to 45 singles]. So this is where I am now at this time. I plan to do some traveling as soon as we get everything lined up. I’m an 83-year-old man!”
Watson feels that Already Made is one of the best albums he’s ever produced – given some of the albums he’s worked on at Fat Possum, that’s saying a lot. It is, indeed, very, very good, with Ward’s soulful vocals beautifully backed by both his daughters and Bible and Tire label mates the Sensational Barnes Brothers. Guitarists Will Sexton and Matt Ross-Spang add a little magic to the mix, adding variety to the songs, from the distortion on He’s Got Great Things to the cool reverb of Shout Trouble’s Over to the shimmering vibrato of God’s Love.
God’s Love is a lovely song, with Ward’s tender vocals giving a great sense of somebody who has personally experienced God’s love and care over the years, despite life’s difficulties.
“When you weak, he will make you strong, when you’re lonely, he would never leave you alone. So that was a comfort to me a whole lot. I didn’t drop out. I just kept doing what God had gave me from birth. I love that one, God’s Love.”
Other songs, like Someone Who Is Greater Than Me, Lord I’m In Your Care and God’s Got a Hold of My Hands, all convey the same positive message of Ward’s experience of faith in the nitty gritty of his own life and those of the many people he has pastored over the years.
He’s someone who knows about hard times – not that he’ll be forthcoming in complaining in any way. I asked him, for example, about his early life, and he told me about life in a family of sharecroppers in rural Mississippi in the first half of the last century. Life wasn’t easy, to say the least.
“We was raised up on a farm. I had to work on the farm, my family and I, and my two sisters. And we had to chop cotton, pick cotton. When I turned 17, I was working with my father and some men that he had hired. And we cut wood for cross ties that goes on the rail road. So I was working, doing, the job that men was doing. I was pretty apt to catch on.
“And, as I just come up through the years, I applied to use a one row planter. You had to put the mule on the row with the planter, and you had to walk on the top of it, one road planter, and man, it was hot. We was in the sun. 85 or 90, sometime they would get up there to 105. My head, it was black in the sun! I’ve done some bogus work. I’ve done everything, drove tractors and drove mules and baled hay.”
Sharecropping is a system where the landlord allows a tenant to use the land in exchange for a share of the crop. Mississippi tenant farm families were often kept severely indebted. The landlord would extend a line of credit to the sharecropper while taking the year’s crop as collateral. The sharecropper could then draw food and supplies all year long. When the crop was harvested, the harvest was sold and the debt settled, but with no added benefit for the sharecropper.
“Sharecropper,” Jack mused. “But you would get nothing out of it. You wouldn’t get anything out of that because the boss man, he tell you, ‘Well, Jordan’ – that’s my daddy’s name – he said, ‘y’all just come out, outta debt.’ And so daddy said, outta debt? He said, ‘well, we’ll loan you some money and go through the winter.’” Jack chuckled as he recounted this.
Remarkably, he remembers the good things about those days. His family never went hungry – “because, we raised vegetables and water melons, sweet potatoes, corn, popcorn. We hunted rabbits and stuff like that. And we never did get hungry.”
“I mean, back in the old days, it was pretty good, because, we didn’t have no responsibility like, lights and all of this, ‘cause we didn’t have lights. During that time we had to use kerosene, paraffin, stuff like that, and when the boss man put lights in our house, man, I tell you, I was just so happy.”
“You know, you was in the country. You didn’t have nothing too much to worry about. You had to work hard and they pay you little money. So from that point, yeah, it was tough. But, people was not sick. Like a lot of people now. See, we had chickens, geese, mules and all of that and hogs. Getting close to wintertime, dad would kill a hog. We was in the field and didn’t get sick because you would get out in the heat and sweat all that stuff out. You didn’t have no high blood pressure. They didn’t have no headaches and diabetes.”
Jack remembers being able to dress up once in a while, putting on his best shoes and a suit. “Looking back, we was taken care of. We just did so much hard work, bogus work. I call it like that. You didn’t get no pay amount to anything. I’ve chopped cotton for a dollar and a quarter a whole day. We moved on from that, but, you know, I thank God for how he kept me and I didn’t get sick and a lot, but I just thank God for this time.”
Elder Jack Ward has an incredibly positive attitude to life, and thankfulness is clearly a mark of the man. You just have to listen to He’s Got Great Things Waiting You, to get a sense of the way his faith gives him confidence in God, no matter what life throws at him. “Dry your eyes, and don’t you cry, your blessing is so nigh.”
At 83, Jack knows the road ahead is shorter than what’s behind, but his sense of gratitude, his faith and his enthusiasm for life as inspirational. “I know we all got to leave here, but a whole lot of my friends, they are gone. So I’m thankful. I thank God for just keeping me alive. And I’m doing pretty good and my ministry and then my singing career – I love both. I love singing. I love preaching. I love teaching and that’s me.”
The album finishes with Ward’s favorite, I Feel Better Since I Prayed. When I asked him about it, he got on the theme of thankfulness again.
“We do pray the prayer of Our Father, but perhaps you want to thank God for what he has done and how far he has brought you. And you look back and you see a lot of your friends and your school mates in the singers, they are gone and we are blessed to be here. Now, I’ve got a song called You’re Blessed to be Here, with the Sunset Travelers. You’re blessed to be here. And I tell people without God, we are nothing because he wakes us up in the morning. We have a lot to be thankful for.
“And I thank God every day. You know, you don’t have to be screaming, hollering, you can just pray in your spirit. When we leave home and go places, when we get ready to get out of drive, my wife prays and I’m driving. God has brought us through a lot of things. So I just take a step every day. I don’t worry about what tomorrow would bring. The Bible tells us that the morrow will take care of itself. And, we just go one day, when you wake up, you’re thankful that you are alive. I tell people when you wake up, you sit up and you get up!”
“You can give God praise, you got to tell him, thank you for another day, you kept me, you kept your arms around me.”
He may have just recorded a terrific album in Already Made, but there’re no sense of Jack Ward resting on his laurels. He’s looking to the future with a thankful heart and an optimistic spirit. “I tell people there’s a whole lot to be done and a little time to do it. So I got a message. I got a message I’m going to do on that. It’s a whole lot to be done, but a little time to do it.”
A look at the history of this powerful song and some of the bluesier arrangements. “That’s a song that gets to everybody” – Marion Williams.
I stumbled upon an album the other day that brought a smile to my face as I listened. Its title is Amazing Grace and it was released in 2020 by those great folks at the Music Maker Foundation. As I listened, I realized that Amazing Grace is not just the title of the album, but that every song is a version done by a variety of roots musicians, including Guitar Gabriel, Guitar Slim and Cora Fluker. It’s raw, it’s honest and it serves to show the power of this old hymn to connect over 200 years since John Newton penned the lyrics.
Piedmont bluesman Guitar Gabriel, who contributes a couple of versions to the album, was once arrested for stealing a package of bologna and a bottle of wine from a supermarket. When he appeared in court Judge Freeman asked him if he did it. Gabriel replied “Yes sir, I did, and I am ashamed.” Noticing that Gabe had brought his guitar into the courtroom, the judge asked if he could play Amazing Grace. “Yes, sir,” Gabe answered as he picked up his instrument and began to sing. As the last notes of the song resonated, the judge pronounced Gabe “Not Guilty” and he was carried out onto the streets by a cheering crowd. Amazing grace indeed!
There are a lot of great, bluesy versions of the song. Here are two of my favourites: the first by ace Austrian slide guitar Gottfried David Gfrerer on his resonator; the second, Brooks Williams, who hails from Statesboro, Georgia, now resident in England, with another stunning slide guitar version.
Gottfried David Gfrerer
John Newton was a notorious slave trader in the eighteenth century, who mocked Christian faith, and whose foul language made even his fellow seamen blush. In 1748, however, his ship was caught in a violent storm off the coast of Ireland, which was so severe that Newton cried out to God for mercy. After leaving the slave trade and his seafaring life, Newton studied theology and became a Christian minister and an ardent abolitionist, working closely with William Wilberforce, a British MP, to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, which was achieved in 1807.
The song clearly references the struggles of Newton’s own life and the remarkable change that had taken place in him.
The tune we know now for the song was composed by American William Walker in 1835 and became popular in a religious movement called the Second Great Awakening which swept the US in the 19th century. In huge gatherings of people in camp meetings across the US, fiery preaching and catchy tunes urged the thousands who came to repent and believe. Amazing Grace punctuated many a sermon.
Walker’s tune and Newton’s words, says author Steve Turner, were a “marriage made in heaven … The music behind ‘amazing’ had a sense of awe to it. The music behind ‘grace’ sounded graceful.” Walker’s collection of published songs, including Amazing Grace was enormously popular, selling about 600,000 copies all over the US when the total population was just over 20 million.
Here are the Holmes Brothers with a passionate and soulful version
Anthony Heilbut, writer and record producer of black gospel music has noted the connections of the song with the slave trade, saying that the “dangers, toils, and snares” in Newton’s words are a “universal testimony” of the African American experience. Historian and writer, James Basker, chose Amazing Grace to represent a collection of anti-slavery poetry, saying “there is a transformative power…the transformation of sin and sorrow into grace, of suffering into beauty, of alienation into empathy and connection, of the unspeakable into imaginative literature.”
Here’s the Blind Boys of Alabama’s version, this time to the tune of House of the Rising Sun.
The song was popularized by Mahalia Jackson, who recorded it in 1947 and sang it frequently. It became an important anthem during the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War.
The song has been recorded by a great many artists over the years, those with faith and those without, such is the power of the song. These include Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, The Byrds, Willie Nelson, and of course, Judy Collins, whose 1970 recording, which I remember well, was a huge hit in both the US and the UK. Collins, who had a history of alcohol abuse, claimed that the song was able to “pull her through” to recovery.
The song’s long history and its evident power to touch everybody, whether with Christian faith or not, is evident, summed up by gospel singer Marion Williams: “That’s a song that gets to everybody.”
Two final versions: the first in the hands of acoustic guitar maestro, Tommy Emmanuel, here accompanied to excellent effect on harmonica by Pat Bergeson; the second a short moving version on harmonica at the site of Rev. Martin Luther King’s grave in Atlanta, by Fabrizio Poggi.
Bruce Springsteen and his Seeger Sessions Band kicked off their tour on April 30, 2006 at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, with a stirring version of Oh Mary Don’t You Weep. It was a mere eight months after Katrina had devastated the city and, in a performance hailed by a local critic as the most emotional musical experience of her life, Springsteen sought to inject some hope into the city with his collection of spirituals and roots songs.
This opening song is an old spiritual, a slave song, that heralds the theme of liberation and new beginnings. The recurring phrase “Pharoah’s army got drown-ded” recalls the Old Testament story of the children of Israel escaping slavery in Egypt in the Exodus. This was a story that had captured the imagination of people who were enslaved or disenfranchised (it was an important song during the Civil Rights movement). Black slaves resisted the bondage they suffered in a whole range of ways.
One of these was the sort of religion they developed, a Christianity that was not just that of their masters. Theirs was a faith where freedom and liberation were vigorously affirmed and one where black humanity was affirmed, despite everything that slavery and white people said. The songs sung were often coded messages of hope and resistance. Their God was the God of history, who works and intervenes in our world to bring change and transformation. A God who brings life from the dead.
The other recurring phrase in the song is “Oh Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn,” which for me refers to Mary Magdalene, who stood weeping at the tomb of Jesus that first Easter morning. She had lost her friend and his body was nowhere to be found. Her weeping and mourning is dispelled, however, by meeting someone she thought was the gardener, but who turned out to be Jesus, risen from the dead. It’s remarkable, that in a world where a woman’s testimony was thought unreliable and not viable in a courtroom, the gospel writers were willing to record the women as the first witnesses of the resurrection – not something you’d do, if you were trying to pass off a story.
The resurrection is right at the heart of Easter, and at the heart of Christian faith. In fact, there’s no point in faith at all, if it’s not. If it didn’t happen, as Paul, Christianity’s first exponent and himself a witness of a risen Jesus, said, then, we might as well just eat, drink and be merry. Christian faith doesn’t make any sense without the resurrection.
But with it, suddenly there are possibilities. Christian faith says that, because Jesus is risen, there is to be a new creation – the evil and the injustice we see in our world is not the last word. Pharaoh’s army got drown-ded all right; the challenge is to find the promised land, to be people who bring life from the deadness around us by living out, and seeking the love, peace and justice of, God’s new creation right now.
Finally, here’s Kenny Meeks’s great Easter song, which draws out the personal hope of Easter, which stretches beyond this life.
“Her words have a clear message, but her deep feeling could move anyone.” VICE Magazine
Photo: Houston Cofield
Elizabeth King is a remarkable woman. She was the female lead of a successful, previously all-male gospel group, The Gospel Souls, in the 1960s and 70s, which had a significant gospel hit on the D-Vine Spirituals label, I Heard the Voice.
She quit singing professionally to raise her children, and now, after a hiatus of nearly 50 years, she has gone into the studio to record a fabulous new blues-tinged gospel album, Living in the Last Days, on Bruce Watson’s new Bible and Tire label. [check out our interview with Bruce here]
Her powerful vocal performance on the record, reminiscent at times of Mavis Staples, is supported by a top-class band assembled by Watson (Will Sexton and Matt Ross-Spang (guitars), George Sluppick (drums), Mark Edgar Stuart (bass), and Al Gamble (organ)) and features the excellent harmonies of Christopher and Courtney Barnes from The Sensational Barnes Brothers. It’s a funky, blues, soul-filled pot of rich gospel fare.
Down at the Crossroads called Ms. King at her Memphis home, and asked her about making the album. She said first of all that this album was her debut solo album and it’s been forty-seven years since she stopped singing professionally. She told me that she was “just sitting at home one day,” when Pastor Shipp, the founder of the 1970s D-Vine Spirituals label, who had recently started collaborating with Bruce Watson, called her up. “And he asked me, did I want to record again? I told him, yeah. That’s how it came to be.”
From initial call to getting into the studio was very quick – “Yeah, no time for rehearsal or nothing,” said Elizabeth.
I asked her about the songs on the album, all terrific, positive songs. She told me that there are some that she has been singing for many years, and some that Bruce Watson brought to her. “And then there are a couple of songs on there I did myself that I have been singing from when I was, you know, a child growing up. The song Walk with Me, my mom used to sing that to me. And then, I got a song, Blessed Be the Name, I kinda got most of that out of the Bible.”
She sings this song unaccompanied on the album, a quite spine-tingling performance. The song tells the story of Job, perhaps a story that not a lot of people are familiar with these days. Job is a character in the Old Testament book of the same name, who suffers tremendous loss, including his family and all his possessions, but somehow is able to say, “God gives and takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
“To me,” she told me, the story “means that we can be blessed, in that God gives us a thing, and he has a right to take it away. And, I take the role of Job to just be patient. And when things are going good, or going bad, you just have to be patient.”
That’s a lesson that Elizabeth King has learned through the ups and downs of life. “Well, I kind of learned it mostly through my lifetime. And when I was a child – because my mom, you know, would tell me she gonna give us something, but you got to wait for it. So, as I got older. I found out that if you really want something, just wait, it’ll come.”
Elizabeth King was born in 1944 and grew up in Charleston, in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. Life wasn’t easy, with the young Elizabeth having to help the family pick cotton before going to school each day. Positive person that she is, she had nothing negative to say about that.
“Well, to me it was fun, I guess, because that was all I knew. And we had to walk a long way to school and I would get tired walking, so my brothers would carry me because I was younger than they were. But it was a lot of picking cotton and chopping cotton. I loved to chop cotton. It really wasn’t so hard for me because I guess I was the only girl in the family and my brothers kinda spoiled me a little bit.”
I mentioned one of the songs on the album to her, Testify, which is a rocking, upbeat number. I wondered if, looking back over the years, this song of a testimony to God’s goodness and God’s guiding hand, reflects her own experience?
She told me that she had recorded a version of this song back in 1970, but was keen to have it on this new album, though rearranged somewhat. “It’s been a part of my life, because I’ve gone through quite a bit. I got fifteen children, and I’ve gone through three accidents. So, I do have a testimony.”
Elizabeth King quit recording music in the mid-seventies to concentrate on family life. She told me she has fifteen children, 57 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren. And she is proud of every one of them, including some of her grandchildren who are now recording artists in their own right.
“When my children were small, I stopped. Let’s see, what year was that? It’d be around, 1970, maybe 1972, and an opportunity for travel overseas came. But my children, my older two, were small and I didn’t want to leave them. So, I stayed at home to raise my children. Everybody said ‘you won’t get a chance to do your dream if you have to wait until your kids get grown.’ But I still have an opportunity. I just still believe I would have an opportunity to sing, you know?”
And here she is, all these years later, having just made this wonderful album. Not that she had quit singing entirely – for many years she has been singing in her church choir and singing solos. But “the only music and singing I know is a spiritual song and they call it a gospel song.” She was never interested in sing the blues or R&B.
“I guess because my heart just wasn’t in it. I didn’t like going to parties and stuff like that when I was young, I just didn’t like it because I always was afraid of drunk people.”
I asked Ms. King why music is important to her, and in particular, why gospel music is so important to her. She told me that it was her way of communicating with God and the source of God’s power in her life – to help her “be a better person. That’s what inspires me.”
And what does she think is at the heart of gospel music? The music, the feeling, the words?
“The words mostly would count for me. The music is good, don’t get me wrong. But it’s the words that carry the message for me. Because you know, you got some songs that they call gospel songs but they really don’t have too much of a meaning. But when you sing songs like Precious Lord or Amazing Grace, when you sing songs like that, it touches people’s heart. If you do it from your heart it’s going to reach the heart of any man, whether he’s saved or unsaved, and you can connect to that spirit.”
She had mentioned the accidents that had affected her life and I asked in particular about the one back in 1969, that was very serious.
“That one was a serious accident. I worked for a florist at the time, and a man hit me head on. I stayed in the hospital, I think, around 17 days. I really couldn’t remember anybody coming to visit me, but there was this one priest in the hospital that would come in every morning and ask me, ‘My child. Can I pray with you today?’ I would say, Yes. And so, when I came to myself, I was asking the staff, you know, the nurses about him. And they said that they didn’t have anybody on their staff like that. So, I said, who was this? Now I never could see his face, so I just described his body and what he had on and all of that. And they said, ‘we don’t have anybody like this on the staff.’ So, I just started praying and I just knew it was God. I knew I was in bad shape. I really was; I had to learn to walk all over again.”
With her remarkable recovery, Elizabeth King said she “dedicated my life to God, to my singing and to try to encourage people. My job now is just try to encourage people…when you’re going through something, just turn to God. If you don’t know him, get to know him.”
I wondered how Ms. King had got on with the musicians when she’d gone into the studio to make this record, and how had she learned the songs so quickly.
“Oh, they had the music all lined up for me and I don’t know, I just sing to the music! I used to be real fast learner when I was young, but the process of learning now is quite a bit slower, as I get older. But it wasn’t hard for me to adapt to the music because, you know, I never stopped singing. I’ve been singing all the time. I just hadn’t recorded.”
The album finishes with a very cool, bluesy version of one of my favourite songs, You Got to Move, famously recorded by Mississippi Fred McDowell and then, of course, the Rolling Stones on their Sticky Fingers album. I’ve always thought of that song as a resurrection song. When the Lord gets ready, you gotta move – it always reminds me of Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones. Elizabeth agreed and said, “I would say no matter what nobody tried to do to keep you here, when it’s time for God to say you got to move, you got to move. I just love it.”
I asked her about another song on the album, A Long Journey, another one about Christian hope which talks about going home to get your crown. Elizabeth said, “My mom used to sing that to me when I was a child. Now that was a long time ago because I’m 76 years old! And that song has been with me all these years, but she used to tell me that I’m gonna leave you one day. I’m going on a long journey and I won’t be back. And I tell you, that song, it has stayed with me in the heart, and anytime I record an album, A Long Journey going to be on there.”
We finished up our conversation by talking about Elizabeth’s faith, which is clearly central to her life and being. She told me, “It’s been important to me because of the things that I suffered, things that happened to me, a lot of things that I had to go through. My faith made me strong about suffering, that’s what made me strong.” Life has not been easy for her, but she is certain that it was God that kept her going in the hard times and it was her faith that sustained her. “I believe in God, God gives me strength. And that would keep me going.”
Elizabeth King is a remarkable woman. She is positive, upbeat, ready to take on the next challenge and opportunity in life. She is a breath of fresh air. Here’s what she finished our chat with:
“Every day I get up, I thank God. Just let me be able to just take care of myself you know, and I just thank him. And I’m going to keep on trusting him until the time comes when he says that you gotta move!”
Living in the Last Days is testimony to Elizabeth King’s remarkable spirit and faith. Not only that, it’s a top-notch album, full of great songs, music that touches you, and Ms. King’s powerful vocal performance. It’s a gift for us all.
Bob Dylan called him “one of the wizards of modern music.” His biographer, Ian Zack, called him “one of the world’s greatest, if not the greatest, of all traditional and ragtime guitarists” And for Alan Lomax, the folklorist, he was “one of the great geniuses of American instrumental music.”
We’re talking about Rev. Gary Davis, the blind son of dirt-poor sharecroppers in South Carolina, who went on to exert a major influence on the folk scene of the 1960s and the early rock scene of the 70s. Yet for most of his career, he refused to perform blues music publicly until the latter years of his life.
He was remarkably musically gifted and his guitar virtuosity was an inspiration to people like Jorma Kaukonen, Bob Weir, Stefan Grossman and many others. Davis was born in 1896 in the Jim Crow South Carolina, became blind as a small child, and was abandoned by his mother. Raised in poverty by his grandmother, it was a thoroughly unpromising start. But she made sure young Gary went to church where he sang in the choir. He took up the guitar early, playing spirituals in earshot of his grandmother and other songs learned from traveling minstrel shows when she wasn’t listening,
He began to have real success as a musician in his late teens at picnics and in string bands, then playing on street corners for nickels and dimes, eventually adopting the rambling lifestyle of the wandering bluesman. But, at the age of 38, when his mother was dying, Davis experienced a vision, where an angel, appearing as a child, called him to God. Right there, he says, he “surrendered and gave up. Gave up entirely.” He soon was ordained as a Baptist minister.
He now harnessed all the musical skill he had amassed in playing ragtime, jazz, blues, and minstrel music and his considerable creative energies in composing and playing spiritual songs in pursuit of his new calling in life. There had been a great change.
One of Gary Davis’s song which reflects this is simply called Great Change Since I Been Born, and I got to thinking about it, when a good friend of mine, Gary Bradley, an Irish musician, sent me a recording he had made of the song for use in the book launch of my new book.
The reason I wanted the song is because my book, Paul Distilled is about the thinking of the apostle Paul, whose letters form part of our New Testaments. He, too, experienced a great change – from a man of violence to a man promoting love and peace, because of his own encounter with God. Specifically, meeting the resurrected Jesus on the famous Damascus Road. In his letters, it’s clear that he thought the epoch-shattering event of Jesus’s resurrection meant the possibility of transformation – both personally and for the world. A transformation based on love. These short thirteen letters of Paul dropped a depth charge of thought into the ancient world, whose effects are still being felt in the world. Can love really change the world? According to Jesus, and the greatest exponent of the meaning of his life, Paul – a resounding Yes!
Gary Davis eventually made has way to New York City, where his incredible skill and talent became appreciated and where he was eventually persuaded to perform more than just spiritual songs in the 1960s Though his faith was still intact, the good Reverend clearly struggled with alcohol and was known to be pretty foul-mouthed and angry at times. As Bob Dylan observed in Solid Rock,
“It’s the ways of the flesh to war against the spirit
Twenty-four hours a day, you can feel it and you can hear it”
He was reflecting, of course, St Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he talks about doing the things he doesn’t want to do and not doing what he knows he ought to do. We’ve all been there. The good news, is that a great change is possible. A life empowered by the Spirit of Jesus “is life and peace.” The secret is, in Gary Davis’s words, to “surrender and give up. Give up entirely.”