‘Harlem Street Singer’ Davis to live on
by Jim Boyle
Woody Mann made an encore appearance Sunday at Union Congregational Church in Elk River to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
The world-class acoustic guitarist and songwriter/storyteller from New York, who performed last year on the eve of the Martin Luther King holiday, put down his guitar in the sanctuary to present the world premier of the “Harlem Street Singer.”
The “Harlem Street Singer” is a documentary about the Rev. Gary Davis who, despite being born blind in 1896 in Laurens, S.C. and growing up in abject poverty, became a master ragtime, blues, folk and gospel musician.
Mann, the brother of Union Church’s the Rev. Dana Mann, co-produced the film, which had its first official screening Jan. 25 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.
Dana jokingly asked her brother on a long-distance phone call about having it premiere at Union Church, thinking it would be impossible. Woody said, “Why not?”
The event at Union Church builds on the body of work that church has done, which has been inspired in part by MLK performances of the Twin Cities Gospel Choir two years ago and Mann’s show last year. Airing of Davis’ documentary is expected to further enhance the church’s work.
Tracing his journey from the tobacco warehouses of the rural South to the streets of Harlem, Mann’s film is a revealing portrait of an artist who impacted the musical landscape of folk music and endeared himself to groups like The Greatful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, as well as individual performers like Bob Dylan, Jorma Kaukonen, Pete Seeger, David Bromberg, and Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey and Mary Travers of Peter Paul and Mary.
Mann received his first musical training at the age of 12 in Davis’ living room. He and others have spent parts of the last five years assembling a documentary on what little is known of this man’s extraordinary life.
“I wish I had interviewed him,” said Mann, who took lessons from Davis for nearly five years before his death.
Davis was revered more by the guitarists who tried to emulate his ability. As for Davis’ fan base, it wasn’t until late in life that his music began to reach the masses.
He was OK with that, and he took any fame he accumulated in stride, too. He was all about preaching and he viewed his littlest and biggest audiences as congregations to share his works of the Lord. He sang of suffering in this land and crossing over to a better life. People say he had a sense of joy about him.
Davis learned music on his own, starting with a harmonica given to him by an uncle and making instruments out of kitchen items like pie plates that he turned into guitars.
As an 11-year-old he played with a recording artist named Blind Willie Walker.
Davis was sent to a home for the blind at the age of 14, but it didn’t work out for him. He claimed the food was the basis for mismatch. Others suggested it was too restrictive for his free spirit. He found a way to make it on his own.
“Here’s a man who overcame some amazing things,” said guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. “I never saw him being down about anything. He (offered) just a joyous message.”
As a young man Davis made his living on the streets of New York as a street musician and music teacher.
His technique and style was so unique, he captured the attention of his students and his peers in the music world. Many have tried to imitate his style but none have succeeded, the documentary states.
“He always felt he was doing God’s work,” musician, photographer and filmmaker John Cohen said. “And I think that might have been what held him together.”
It was at a 1937 Washington, N.C. revival where he became ordained as an evangelist. His entire life changed dramatically when God took over his heart.
The blues music he migrated toward as a young man he now considered sinful.
He credited his creator with teaching him the guitar. And as for the songs he wrote, those were revealed to him by God.
He led congregations with his music, his guitar serving as both piano and guitar. His preaching took him from one sanctuary-less burg to the next.
“I didn’t know a guitar could sound that way,” Mann said upon first hearing him play.
Mann complemented Davis’ tutelage with formal training at New York’s celebrated Julliard School. In addition, he completed a period of intense study with noted Chicago-born pianist, Lennie Tristano.
Mann has performed with blues legends Son House and Bukka White, British great Jo Kelly and fingerstyle wizard John Fahey.
Mann has pursued a rich and diverse career that has included playing with jazz great Attila Zoller, accompanying songwriter Dory Previn, giving guitar lessons to recording artist Paul Simon and performing in more than 15 countries and recording 11 albums.
His latest project, the documentary on Davis, includes clips from more than 100 hours of footage and archival material.
Davis reportedly played in a way that musicians could tell he didn’t want everyone to know how to play what he played. But he also gave to the point that it was clear he didn’t want it to die with him, either.
“The idea of the film was to tell his story so at least his story is told,” Mann said.
It was the folk revival that got Davis admittance to perform in clubs. Gradually word got around of his skill with a guitar.
Eventually he performed on both coasts, in Canada and even in England on more than one occasion.
He made a number of albums in the early 1960s, not only gospel but also ragtime, novelties and folk exposing the breadth of his repertoire.
His popularity gained momentum, but the concerts paid little and record sales were slow.
His first big money came from a song that was revealed to him that he wrote for Peter, Paul and Mary.
He was able to buy a house and live out his years in relative comfort. That time, however, was short-lived. He died in 1972.
“I was devastated,” Mann said. “It felt like I lost my center. I felt like I lost my father.”
Davis claimed many of the guitarists he taught as sons.
He once told an audience that he had no children. “But I have sons,” he said.
Those sons like Mann and others carry on Davis’ music and message, and it’s coming to a television, DVD or theater near you.