So here we are in the eighth term of the Reagan administration, in the middle of a heat wave, in the middle of the hottest year on record, in the middle of a likely mass extinction event.
It’s not quite time to say good-bye to your friends and family. It would be time to have a general strike, except nobody’s doing anything, so it’s hard to get jazzed about the prospect of overthrowing the corporate state. Doom is almost certain, yet not imminent enough for focus. What to do until there’s focus?
Me, I’m going to play the guitar. After many years of practice, I still kinda suck. I’m maybe a B-level fingerpicker. There are probably 50 children under the age of 5 on YouTube who play better than I do. That gets really discouraging. But I plod along. Nothing gives me a sense of satisfaction like learning a new move on the guitar neck.
Most of my repertoire consists of songs by John Fahey and the Reverend Gary Davis. Both were Christian mystics, Fahey through several levels of irony and existential philosophy, Davis a pure Pentacostal. Both created astounding, eerie worlds of beauty by absorbing and reconfiguring just about everything in American music in the first half of the 20th century. Both had difficult lives, Fahey struggling with addiction and inability to deal with the onerous details of normal life, Davis traumatized by blindness, racism, poverty and homelessness. Fahey lived from 1939-2001, Davis from 1896-1972.
I’ve been listening to Fahey since college. I could hear him from the first note. Davis has been a more recent acquisition. I didn’t get him for a long time because of his singing, which borrows heavily from his preaching, which is to say that he bellows and roars a lot. It takes a little getting used to. I did not really understand how great his musicianship was until a brilliant guitarist named Ernie Hawkins put out five sets of DVDs teaching a portion of Davis’s huge body of composition. I bought them all because I knew from his other DVDs (teaching Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb and Blind Willie McTell) that Hawkins was one of those very rare birds who can both teach and play. There are a lot of guitar teachers wandering around out there in the digital wasteland, and most of them aren’t all that useful. Hawkins really has figured out how everything fits together on the guitar neck and how to explain it. Even more important, his love and gratitude for Davis’ music pops though the television. You can’t help but get swept up in it.
At some future date, I’m going to write something about John Fahey in this space. In the meantime, the place to get started listening to Davis is an album called Harlem Street Singer, which is available on iTunes or Amazon.
Davis has many wonderful disciples out there in the acoustic steel-string guitar subculture, most prominently Jorma Kaukonen (in Hot Tuna and solo), Woody Mann, Roy Bookbinder and Stefan Grossman. Hawkins is probably first among equals there. The guy plays amazingly pristine renditions of Davis, plus other songs done in the Davis style, often called “Piedmont blues.” Hawkins’ singing is a little bit of an afterthought—he gets this beatific look on his face when he’s nailing it all over the guitar neck and it seems like he doesn’t want to interrupt all that virtuoso fingerpicking with mere vocalizing. But who cares? The guitar is transporting, both for him and the listener. If Davis were the Messiah, then Hawkins would be St. Peter, Jorma the Apostle Paul.
“No one plays Rev. Gary Davis better than Ernie Hawkins,” says Stefan Grossman, a direct student of Davis back in the 60s.