A Banjo and a Rocking Chair: Guy Davis Remembers
Guy Davis talks about Pete Seeger, Levon Helm, the Black Lives Matter movement, Dylan, Donovan, and the Kokomo Kidd
Guy Davis gets around. As in around the world. Nicknamed "AnAmbassador of the Blues” by an Ecuadoran journalist (Davis is quick to point to BB King as THE Ambassador), he has seen his musical vision carry him to some interesting places. He performed at the first concerts held on the Galapagos, at the invitation of the Ministry of Culture, and has performed for the Queen of Denmark. Greenland, Indonesia, Portugal, the list of stops on his passport is extensive. Born the middle child to famous parents, Guy Davis knew early on that he loved to make sounds.
On stage he seems a natural. With a quick joke and an easy laugh he dives into a song with gusto, engaging the audience and transporting them to the places and people that populate his lyrics. And while it might seem effortless, he has paid his dues. Speaking with him, there is no doubt that he benefited from growing up in a loving home and observing his famous parents.
Guy Davis has made his own footprints while trekking the show business path. Davis is not only a musician but, like his father, an actor on stage and in film. As a writer who created and performed his own material Off Broadway, he has received rave reviews. He returned to Broadway in 2009 performing in Finian’s Rainbow reprising a role once inhabited by Sonny Terry.
His influences are diverse. The usual suspects, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy. But he is also quick to point out that he counts Pete Seeger and Garrison Keillor as inspirations. As a child, Davis’ parents nurtured his desire to make noise, and sent him to summer camps that deeply ingrained in his soul the power of song.
On the eve of the release of his latest album, Kokomo Kidd, Davis was relaxed and eager to talk. One thing though, Davis loves the banjo. Really. Loves. The banjo. When he speaks of his father buying him his first five-string his voice rises and he says the word banjo as if it were the Holy Grail of musical instruments.
Photos courtesy of Joseph Rosen
Did your love of music start early?
Sure, I must have been four or five or six-years-old…sitting at the table and of course there would be a lot of music on the radio, and I loved what I heard. But just taking the butter knife along the edge of the table, holding down on the blade and playing down on the handle, it would make this kind of bdrdrdrdr sound, and that…. to me….that was music! I remember back in those years taking an empty tin can and, standing at the edge of our yard, taking a couple of coat hangers and banging on it. That, to me, was a parade passing by in my imagination.
Was the guitar your first instrument, or did you start somewhere else?
The guitar wasn’t the first thing. The first instrument that I became truly interested in, apart from various jaw harps and harmonicas, was the five-string banjo. When I was eight-years-old I went to a summer camp run by Peter Seeger’s brother. I heard a lot of five-string banjos and twelve-string guitars, some mandolins, but maybe not so many violins. All that music, and all that it had to offer, I knew that I loved it. I knew it in my bones. I heard the guitar, and I wanted to know how to play it, but the banjo was even more attractive to me. And, my God, my dad even bought me a banjo. I’ve got stories you haven’t even asked me about.
This camp was run by John Seeger, and Pete was a huge proponent of the five-string banjo and folk music. So I guess it was the second year at this camp, after my dad bought me this banjo, I took it with me. And they took us out on this camping trip, out on these open-back trucks, sometimes one day, sometimes three days, and we would bring our sleeping bags and things. And one day my little camping group stopped at an auction, up there in Vermont, out in the country. And they were auctioning off pieces of furniture and stuff. I saw this rocking chair that I liked. It had no arms on it. String players love to have chairs with no arms on them, so they can play guitars and things. So I started bidding on this rocking chair. I think they gave each of us an allowance of something like two dollars and fifty cents as our spending money. So I had saved all my money and I was bidding on this chair. The estate salesman was auctioning it off and there was someone else bidding on it. And finally it got to the point that it was just above the money that I had, and the auctioneer looked down at me, and he must have thought I was cute, so he took a quarter out of his pocket and tossed it to me and I got to buy that chair. And not only did they let me bring the chair back from the camping trip, but during nap time, a half hour after lunch where we were supposed to go back to our bunks and lie down, that first day they let me sit outside on the porch and play my banjo. That’s what it was all about for me. You cover Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, but also Bob Dylan. On the new record you cover Donovan’s song “Wear Your Love Like Heaven.” Muddy and John Lee were referred to as folk singers at one time. You grew up during the 60s folk revival, when black artists would appear on folk albums, often called “Hootenannies.”
At the camp I learned, as I call it, the Pete Seeger special. That is, having a roomful of people singing together. That was the biggest and best part of folk music to me. Now the blues I specialize in is one man, singing and playing guitar by himself, or, even if he is in front of a band, he is usually singing by himself. Yeah, the old blues musicians used to call themselves folk singers, they did have to go under the label of folk singer. Even Big Bill Broonzy, who had been playing all kinds of great music in the 30s and 40s kind of switched up his tune, and took an acoustic guitar with him to Europe, and Muddy Waters and those folks went over, and there was a lot of interest in acoustic music. So to me, it’s a matter of survival. You have to play it or label it however you can make it happen.
I was interested in folk music, in blues music as folk music, ragtime music as folk music. I remember John Seeger and his wife singing a Billie Holliday song. I think it was “I Can’t Help Loving That Man of Mine.” And if it wasn’t Billie Holliday then maybe it was Lena Horne or something. The two of them would just throw back their heads and sing this wonderful song; and I don’t even think they had musical accompaniment, they just sang this beautiful harmony together. So folk music is big enough to accommodate all types of music. I know nowadays they call it singer songwriter, and that’s okay too.
Now as far as Donovan is concerned…I’m kind of growing up, and I am making steps of my own. This latest cd I produced on my own, out of my own pocket from start to finish. And that song happens to be a song that I like. I think in the beginning I didn’t have the confidence to talk about all the kinds of music that I like, and my eclectic tastes. Wisely, my manager said that I should put myself under a heading like blues musician because it’s easier to market. If I say I am a blues musician, you get a sense of what I am going to do. If I say I am an acoustic blues musician, you get an even greater sense of what I am going to do.
But never have I ever done a show with only the blues. I have always sneaked in a little folk, or ragtime, or whatever. So in the past few cds I have been sneaking in some Bob Dylan, and now Donovan. And I got to know, though not very well, I wish I had gotten to know him more…Richie Havens. So I think that the music that we do, blues music, folk music, acoustic music…I personally would like to see it advanced even more on the world music stage. Maybe it is time. There is some evolution going forward. I think I’m part of that.
There is nothing wrong with electric guitar, a full band, but there is something pure and pristine about the sound of acoustic strings.
On this one I am joining acoustic and electric together. I am doing “Little Red Rooster” by Howling Wolf with Charlie Musselwhite on the harmonica. John Platania on electric guitar, it’s a full band set up. It’s all going to work.
Influences lead you to other influences. You hear someone and it leads you to someone else. Who were your early influences?
My biggest influences early on…..I would have to point to Leadbelly. But I didn’t get there on my own. I would have to credit that to that music camp. We heard all kinds of music. Leadbelly was one of the people that they talked about. That’s where I first heard Leadbelly music, first heard a twelve-string guitar. So I knew there was something pretty powerful in all that, so I am going to put down Leadbelly as one of my earliest influences. Maybe I should say by way of Pete Seeger.
When did you first discover the power of applause?
Again, I go back to that summer camp, and school. I must have been in the third or fourth grade. Being on stage at school (away from camp) with my banjo. I was singing this song “I’m On My Way and I Won’t Be Back.” I liked being out there in front of those folks, and I am sure some of those folks wished I would go on my way and not come back. (Laughter) And that’s okay, it is part of the learning process. My parents were always so supportive, I don’t remember a time they didn’t support me, or applaud me, or give me lots of hugs and extra kisses. I got a taste for being on stage in school... I liked being in plays…. "These were two damn good parents..." What was it like, having such accomplished actors as parents?
I will tell you, I only knew them as mom and dad. So I didn’t come up with anything to compare it to. As a child I can tell you, they didn’t brook any nonsense. There was a great sense of humor in the family. There was always conversation, there was always love and understanding. As I’ve grown up, and have a kid of my own, I look back at my parents and I can say, these were two damn good parents. But in reference to what you might be asking, there were so many people that seemed to know my parents when I was growing up. I knew there was something extra that was expected of my behavior that maybe other kids didn’t have to deal with. I always felt like I had to sit up a little straighter, and be quiet and cooperative. I felt a little singled out as a child of these people who were so well known. It was like a shirt that fit me a little too tight. Now that I'm grown I have had a feeling that there was a reason I was born into this family. That I needed to know show business in front of the lights, and also behind the scenes. Because that is my life. I inherited being on the road from my parents.
What lessons did you learn from them about performing?
I got it from my father in particular, I got it from both of them. The lesson I learned is this…whoever you are communicating to, your audience, they deserve the very best of what you have to offer. I will tell you how I learned this. There was never a lecture, where they told me that, there was no pronouncement. I remember being at a show, a couple of decades ago, at a high school gymnasium, which was the town’s auditorium, and there was this accordion wall that split the gym.
I was in the outer area, near the entrance to the gym. This was after my sound check, and I was tuning my guitar. I watched people as they walked in the door and across the gym and some of them would glance over at me, and then they would go behind the wall and take a seat in the audience. And I was thinking to myself that these folks could be home right now doing anything they wanted, but they’re coming here to see me. It became very clear to me that I had to give them the very best of what was in me. That lesson was something that I arrived at on my own.
But I’ve got to give you the precursor to that. When I was in my younger twenties, maybe my late teens, and in the habit of staying out way later than I ought to, I might come home at five am or six am. And dad would be in the dining room in his bathrobe and pajamas sitting at the dining room table. He would have two yellow legal pads in front of him, and a bunch of yellow #2 pencils, and some erasers. He would have a piece of Scotch tape wrapped around his pinkie finger, and apparently that was to keep from scuffing the graphite across the page as he wrote. That was his word processor in those days. And he never made an announcement or a lecture. But something came up in the course of conversation, way later, and he said to me something along the lines of, “Talent is a mighty fine thing. But being a professional craftsman means doing a thing whether you feel like it or not.” He was up every morning writing. A writer…that was what my father considered himself, even though the world remembers him as an actor, a director. He considered himself a writer. He wrote a play about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and a play about Langston Hughes. He wrote a play about the four girls who died in the bombing in Alabama back in 1963.
That year was the year that my family stopped celebrating Christmas…that isn’t quite right. We didn’t stop celebrating Christmas, but we stopped doing the highly commercialized holiday…because President Kennedy had been killed, and those little girls had died. My dad and mom, it broke their hearts. And so you know, there had to be a different way to approach all this. But it was never again such a big commercial, gobs of presents, Santy Claus sort of affair. It was family and community and there were people who needed things… What were the early days of your career like when you were trying to establish yourself, and get a record made?
My first record didn’t come about as something that I really wanted. It was 1978. Pete and Toshi Seeger went to Folkways Records, it was run by Moses Ash. And they said they wanted to record me. I didn’t know anything about how to make a record, market one, or much less produce one. I was given three hundred dollars, so I could have gone to a recording studio. But what did I do? I went out and bought a tape recorder and microphone and sat and recorded myself. And I turned it into Folkways and they turned it into my first record which was called Dreams About Life. 1978.
And then I didn’t record again until around 1993. The early days of my career had a lot to do with me learning about my craft. I used to go down to Greenwich Village and perform at this magic club, a place that was called Mostly Magic. There were magicians and comedians and singers. There was a ten year period of growth from the early eighties to the early nineties…playing comedy clubs, festivals. I remember sitting up all night long waiting to go on, to audition for…oh what’s the word….I don’t know how to dignify it. (Laughing) It was the kind of thing that could really melt your ambition if you weren’t ready to put up with it. Those were really crazy times. They made me know that I really wanted to do this thing.
Was there anyone who really encouraged you during that time?
Yeah. I will say that Taj Mahal was quite an influence. Even though I didn’t get to spend a lot of close up time with him. He made me feel like I was worth listening to. And he would greet me like a friend in the few times we got to see each other. There were one or two folk singers who let me go out with them as their musical accompaniment. Oscar Brown, Jr. I modeled some of my songs on him. I don’t have what you call a real singing voice, mellifluous and what not. But Oscar’s songs had a lot of narration. A lot of narrative.
On the album Sweetheart Like You there you have a track, “Words to My Momma’s Song,” that is more like a spoken word piece. It featured your son Martial. What was it like recording with your son?
That was our second or third time recording together. I had him in the studio when he was thirteen, doing a song comparing rap with blues. I learned a lot from my son. I don’t know if he thought that I did, but I did. He tells me about rap. He explains things to me that my brain is too old to understand. It was fun to have him because it was something that he wanted to do. I got to write the words that he spoke. But “Words to My Momma’s Song” has so much to do with this movement Black Lives Matter and intense confrontations between police and the black community, and especially black young men. My mother was one of those mothers who warned me, back in the 1960s, that I had to watch how I behaved around police. There was no mistaking what she meant or what she was talking about. That song, “Words to My Momma’s Song,” I guess you could say was that kind of a warning. It was a warning. As an artist, my message is even broader. I challenge them (the movement) as an artist, when they are talking about black lives matter; my message is more closely worded…all lives matter. And there is no conflict between the two. We have now a political season where it would seem as though those two statements are exclusive of each other. But it should never get to that. I know there is a lot of frustration in the black community, but all lives matter. I want my music to say that we all have stories to tell, and we can all learn from each other. I want to sit at the Jewish Seder, I want to go to the Passover. I want to hear the story of Passover spoken at the meal. I want to hear from Koreans. I want to find out what’s happening from people in Greece, what their music means. I want to hear from North Africa. I want to hear Scot bagpipes. I want to hear all this music.
I want to hear the blues. I don’t think one has to be better than the other. According to the music industry one might be more marketable than the other, and I really don’t care for that. Man, I’m a recording musician, I don’t plan on dying rich. I’m planning on dying, but not rich…(laughter)
So much of the money these days, in black music, goes to rap. Sometimes I think we are losing our sense of history and culture. The African American contribution to folk music….you don’t often see a black man playing the banjo on TV these days…
Let’s go back to black musicians and that banjo. My father bought me a banjo. And he bought me a banjo precisely at the point in American history when a black man did not need a banjo. Right at that time he bought me a banjo because I asked for it. This was after the Supreme Court had ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, and therefore, illegal. I am sure he would have much rather bought me a guitar, because that was the happening folk instrument at the time. But I wanted a banjo. He let me enjoy that instrument, and I am grateful for that. I have banjo on this upcoming cd, on all of my cds, really. Dom Flemons let me play some five-string banjo on his last cd. Man, I’m crazy about this banjo. Thank God for the internet, and independent radio stations that will play this type of music.
The internet is where I found your music. Back in 2000 I had read that Levon Helm played drums on your album Butt Naked Free. So I checked you out, because I have always loved acoustic blues…folk blues, ragtime guitar…
Levon had just come back from surgery. He happened to be in the studio that day and so we asked him to play some drums. I remember all of us being a little bit angry at him, behind his back, because he was still smoking. I am not dumb enough to think I got on the Conan O’Brien show with my band simply because my song was a cool song. It was Levon. It was a way of him letting the world know he was still alive. I actually had two drummers on the show that night. I rarely get to take a whole band out, but I did that night. And he’s playing on my song “Waiting on the Cards to Fall.” Thank God for Levon. Oh yeah….oh yeah…
So tell me about the new record, Kokomo Kidd.
That is title of the record and one of the songs on the album. 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, DC under the radar. In terms of getting illegal substances, prostitution, that sort of thing. Taking the historical spin on it, it goes back to the late 1800s to the present day.
On this album I have the best version of “Lay Lady Lay” that I have ever heard. And I heard it done by Richie Havens, and Buddy Guy, heard it by the Everly Brothers…by Isaac Hayes. Professor Louie, who engineered the last couple of albums by The Band, oh man, when he’s playing the keyboards on that thing…you’re hearing the real Woodstock sound. It is a version of “Lay Lady Lay” that I think is going to be a real killer.
I am really happy to see that you included “I Wish I Hadn’t Stayed Away So Long” on this record…
I think that song is gonna go places. It came to me just about whole. The title of it came indirectly from something Pete Seeger said before he died. He said he wished he had been home more often. He said it after his wife had passed. And after his wife died, he died about five months later. The song isn’t about Pete Seeger, but that energy is in there. My mom died the same year as Pete, and that energy is in there too.
The night you performed it at the Black Rock, Eric Bibb introduced it as one of the best new songs he had heard.
I’ve been knowing Eric and his dad Leon for many years. Eric is…integrity should be his middle name… ‘cause he walks the walk and walks the talk. Maybe it’s the best song I’ve ever written, it just sort of dropped out of the sky. It’s like it wrote itself…I remember singing it and crying while I was singing it… I just tried to stay out of the way while it was writing itself…
The gravel in his voice and the swagger in his risque stage banter are real, but they are only part of the the picture. While reminiscing about Levon and the appearance on Conan O'Brien, his voice cracks for a moment. He wrestles for control and continues to express his gratitude for Helm even as his speech trails off to a whisper.
Backstage at the Black Rock, in March of this year, glimpses of the little kid with the banjo surfaced. But when the light conversation turned suddenly to compliments on the aforementioned song, he uttered a hoarse thank you, and took a bite of his take out food. He fell silent, briefly avoiding eye contact and one got the feeling that he was swallowing more than his meal. Then, after a few minutes, the rascal returned cracking another joke, imitating a man who had eaten too much spicy food.
And yet, spending even a short time with the man there is a sense that the boy is always present, that you can almost see him. Cradling his banjo, he is perched on his rocking chair, riding along in the back of the truck, passing villages and summer fields with the sun on his shoulders, and before him, the open road.