A legacy of Blues
Guy Davis plays old music. More importantly, he plays forgotten music, the acoustic blues, born in the Deep South out of slavery and during share-cropping. It’s a legacy he wants audiences to remember. “I get to play guitars, I get to play a banjo, I play harmonicas, I try to tell stories, and I like to make the blues feel alive to people. That’s how it feels to me. It’s what I seek to do,” he said.
Davis plays at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Holland’s Knickerbocker Theatre in a fund-raiser for the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance. It’s a continuation of a series which last year included Sapphire, the Uppity Blues women.
“Every year LEDA intends to hold a musical fund-raiser,” said LEDA executive director Gail Harrison. “It only raises about $6,00, but it’s a way to bring in some great talent and expose the community to some blues and some music from different ethnic groups that might not otherwise be available, as well as to provide some funding to a really important program. “And it’s just fun, to have a good time. There’s so much fund-raising and projects and work, it is great to get out and have a good time.”
Singer/songwriter Davis has previously offered his song “Let’s Be Friends” to the Southern Poverty Law Center for its Teaching Tolerance program. Race often informs Davis’s music and view of the world. His parents, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were writers, actors and activist in New York at the height of the civil rights movement.
Currently, he said, much of the discussion on race ignores a few points. “At this point, it’s all to less popular to treat minorities badly-you can’t get away with badmouthing Hispanics and blacks like you used to could do,” he said. “But there are a lot of issues still not being addressed that have to do with jobs. Historically, since slavery ended, the black man has had to scramble harder than anyone else to keep a job. A lot of it’s to do with education, the enforced lack of it, form way more than a century ago.
Race is being talked about, but there is vast room for improvement when it comes to economics.” The aftermath of that time, and especially the terrible times before it come through on Davis’s newest album, “Legacy.” He plays songs of the early 20th century, along with his own work, grappling with the soul of the blues, sparked in tragedy.
In a small comic book in the album’s liner notes, illustrator Guy Davis (no relation) plots the singer’s attempts to sell his soul to the devil to save the blues. As the devil points out, only 2 percent of his worldwide audience is black, and its tragedy has been transformed to personal, not cultural tragedy. The futility of reclaiming the music from its commercial footing is emphasized, so Davis just starts playing his guitar and singing some more.
Besides playing the music of a bygone era, Davis has used his love of the acoustic era as the basis for a one-man show, “In Bed with the Blues: The Adventures of Fishy Water,” in which he plays a fictional bluesman. But Davis freely admits his favorite style of music is one which could have died without the efforts of a few obsessive fans, many of them white.
“Thank God for John Fahey, thank God for Alan Lomax, even though I disagree with the decision to put his name in the credits of a song by Leadbelly, thank God, because I might never have heard some of these tunes,” Davis said. “This music might have died way the heck back then (without them).
Though spreading tolerance and provoking thought on where the country is and has been in race relations are a part of what Davis does, but he says he never preaches about it. “I’m hoping to teach in the gentle, maybe whispering kind of way. I sure don’t have a claim on anybody’s credibility or morality. I don’t think I’m qualified to be the guy wagging the finger,” he said.