Episode 6: At Newport (Reverend Gary Davis, 1967)
The 1965 Newport Folk Festival was the site of Bob Dylan’s fabled performance that ruptured the folk scene—so the story goes—with his newfangled electric guitars and such. But there was another performer playing the festival that selfsame summer day who, uncontroversially and drawing no ire—just doing his thing—completely tore the walls down: a fiery-fingered guitarist and singer whom Dylan himself, not four years earlier, had daydreamed was the ideal person to preside over his wedding ceremony should he marry—a nearly seventy year old blind Baptist minister by the name of Reverend Gary Davis.
At the time of this performance, released originally in 1967 as At Newport and re-released with two bonus tracks in 2001, Davis had only recently been introduced to wider American audiences, swept up to record starting in the mid '50s by the waves of folk revivalism after two decades living in virtual obscurity in Harlem, busking on the streets and preaching to storefront congregations; honing his powerful voice and sharpening his prodigious picking style.
At Newport opens with a thunderous, thundering rendition of "Samson and Delilah," one of his best-known songs—one he’d at least partially learned from a 1927 Blind Willie Johnson 78. As with many of Davis’ versions of older songs, though, his joyful guitar arrangements popped with an unmatched bounce and vitality.
The fourth track on the album, "Twelve Sticks," also lengthily known as "The Boy Was Kissing the Girl (And Playing Guitar at the Same Time)," here played on a 12-string, was another staple in Davis’ repertoire, aimed not only at showing off his ridiculous time and harmonic sense, but also his signature move of tapping out tunes with just his left hand while his right beat out rhythms on the body of the guitar, or, as the alternate title suggests, while his right arm wrapped around the body of a girl, as her mother’s head was turned away.
Throughout the album, Davis accompanies himself in a way that is unbelievably fresh and powerful, even 50 years later, commenting on his vocal with buoyant, complementary, and often complex counter-lines, sometimes providing, with thumb and forefinger alone, such a full background that you’d swear—as he did, when he first heard the sound of a guitar as small child—there was a full band by his side.
On the track “I’ve Done All My Singing For My Lord,” Davis accompanies himself masterfully with harmonica and stomping foot, pulling out of thin air a deeper-than-you-can-imagine zydeco groove as he damn-near overpowers the close microphone, shouting through false teeth real truth about dedicating his life to his god.
I leave you with one of my favorite tracks on the record, an instrumental called “Buck Dance” —“a tune he’d play when he wanted soup,” recalled a former student—which leaves *me* grinning like an idiot every time I hear it.
I'm Josh Rutner, and that's your album of the week.