Album Review

The Ghost of Pete Seeger

Guy Davis - Kokomo Kidd

The ghost of Pete Seeger is present throughout Guy Davis' new album.

Davis hits all the high marks on Kokomo Kidd, releasing his best album to date, to my ears. Casting an eye over his shoulder, he finds the juice to move forward with a batch of songs that represent the breadth and depth of his remarkable career, showcasing his strength as a songwriter, performer, and producer. Davis is in full storytelling mode here, with compositions that paint portraits of  politicians, dealers, victims, and lovers. A few of the numbers unfold like scenes from a movie -- you can see the secret late-night dope drops, watch the heartbroken son hang his head and weep over the loss of his mother.

This is Davis’ first attempt to produce himself and the result is extremely rewarding.  Enlisting a cast of seasoned players, he makes the most of the opportunity, and the original material flows seamlessly alongside covers of Dixon, Donovan, and Dylan. To boot, throughout the album, Davis is never far from his beloved banjo, and that is a very good thing.

The proceedings kick off with a humorous tale about the Kokomo Kidd, a black bootlegger and dealer in contraband who supposedly kept Washington politicians supplied with a variety of amusements during prohibition and beyond. Acknowledging that the legend of the Kidd may or may not be true, Davis takes liberties expanding the myth in his first real shot at a rap.

In a recent interview, Davis said he has tried to learn about rap from his son Martial. “On that song I think my son may hear the closest thing to a decent rap that I have ever done. 'Kokomo Kidd' is the name I decided on for a black man who helped corruption spread down in Washington, D.C. ... Taking the historical spin on it, it goes back to the late 1800s to the present day.”  

The title track sets a banjo against a bass line played on the tuba, as Davis spins the story of the man to whom the powerful turn for their fix. Kokomo touts his connections saying he “kept the Supreme Court high for years,” and “I got a meeting at three, I got to bring coke to the GOP.” Updating the story to the present he brags

Office to office, I hack your email
Find out if you like male or female
I keep secrets, if you say so
Buy everybody knows you got to pay mo’
To Kokomo, Kokomo Kidd

From there, the album takes on a very personal turn with the deeply moving “I Wish I Hadn’t Stayed Away So Long.” The song was written in 2014, a year that saw Davis suffer two very important losses -- his mentor Pete Seeger, and his mother, actress Ruby Dee. Davis got the title from a comment made by Seeger after the passing of his wife Toshi. It would only be a matter of months later that Seeger himself was gone. The strength of the song rests in its honest admission of regret. While writing it, Davis kept trying to tweak the chord structure and make it a little more complex. He kept coming back to the simple melody he first heard in his head and that decision was the right one. It is in the song's simplicity that its beauty is revealed and its emotional core preserved. It is the best track on the album, and contains layers within it that continue to unfold with repeated spins.

The production of the song is a stroke of genius in and of itself. The banjo and harmonica, accompanied by Mark Murphy’s plunking double bass immediately set a rural tone. On the second chorus, the addition of backup singers illustrates what Davis affectionately refers to as the “Pete Seeger Special,” the song inviting the listener to sing along. Suddenly this gentle tale of loss, while genuinely personal to Davis, becomes a vehicle by which we can deal with the grief that life has dealt us. The song invites us to rise above the pain and find solace in carrying on.

The entire moment is steeped in the folk music revival spirit of the early 1960s. While the lyrics are specifically about Davis’ mother, the ghost of Pete Seeger is everywhere on this track. The impact of those summer music camps Davis attended as a child has never been more apparent. It is cinematic in its scope and universal in its humanity.

“Taking Just a Little Bit of Time” touts the glories of carving out some time to get away and lose yourself for a few hours. The rural feel is there again, and continues the '60s folk vibe. “Like Sonny Did” is a humorous homage to Sonny Terry, and reminds the listener that Davis reprised Terry’s role in the Broadway play Finian’s Rainbow. Davis plays a mean harp and whoops it up as Terry used to. It is great fun. Charlie Musselwhite brings his considerable harp skills to bear on the Willie Dixon classic “Little Red Rooster” allowing Davis to strut a bit.

Two bold covers make for some great listening. By recording Donovan’s “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” Davis is showing he is confident enough in himself to move beyond just straight blues, having a blast with a pop hit from across the pond. In the liner notes, though, Davis proclaims his version is inspired by Bob Marley. Go figure.

He also takes Dylan head-on, performing one of the most beautiful versions of “Lay Lady Lay” on record. Accompanied by mandolin, and featuring renowned guitarist John Platania, Davis is clearly in transcendence. Professor Louie takes the whole affair even higher, with an evocative turn on the Hammond organ.

In his first time at the helm, Davis the producer has made the best album of Davis the performer’s career. The perfect record for the back porch, this one is going to be stuck in constant rotation for a long time.

You can hear tracks from Kokomo Kidd and an interview with Guy Davis on Americana Music Show #280.