8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30
The Plaza Theatre
Most of the careers of the early bluesmen – those operating from the turn of the 20th century through the 1930s – were marked by obscurity. They were confused for one another by the public, misrepresented by marquees and buried in unmarked graves. Guy Davis was denied this experience by birth. Not only were his parents famous and ridiculously talented, they were devoted to the cause of bringing African-American efforts out of the shadows.
“I thank God that I have the parents I have,” says Davis. “They encouraged me in the bullet I bit.”
Guitarist extraordinaire Davis is the son of legendary acting couple Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. During our phone interview, Davis is at his mother’s house, and it takes every ounce of self-control not to ask him to hand her the phone. When your father gave the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral and your mother starred opposite Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun, you’ve got the lineage to go anywhere you want. Where Guy goes is backward.
Davis reaches through and past the decades his parents fought in for inspiration. He works a Piedmont blues style, picking out classics like “Motherless Children” and Mississippi John Hurt’s “Payday” with an intense clarity from his instrument. His original works sound mostly like they fell out of the archives, belonging to that age of simple rhymes and messages and crazy talent. Even the modern authenticity-obsessed culture would be hard-pressed to distinguish the emotion in his songs from that of abused souls like Blind Willie Johnson.
“If there’s one of those notes in a hundred that connects with you … that’s what I seek to do,” he says.
Pulling from such an antiquated era can mean singing about some antiquated ideas. He says of the misogyny and racism that marks much of the old blues that he “tries to be aware of it. There’s things in the blues that to this day make me uncomfortable.” Sometimes that means changing lyrics; sometimes it means adding an intro that gives the song context, like in the case of the N-word-repeating “Natural Born Eas’ Man.” “There’s ways to do it with humor,” says Davis.
Of course, just because it’s old doesn’t mean it isn’t universal. Davis’ song “Uncle Tom’s Dead,” on 2004’s Legacy – a song and album that were both named as one of the best of the year by NPR – imagines a conversation between a bluesman and a rap fan about the common themes in both genres.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a good song,” admits Davis, “but they’re singing about the same things. Stay out of the hands of the law, drugs – which, at the time, would have been moonshine – and work with what you have to use.”
There’s another way that Davis missed out on belonging to the blues: He’s not Southern. He was raised in New York City. In the background, a woman caring for his mother interrupts our conversation to interject that “real blues, like real barbecue, comes only from Memphis.” But for a musical mutt like Davis, that sits just fine.
“I’m anti-classification. I’m all kinda mixed up,” says Davis, referring to his incorporation of folk sounds, like his use of a banjo. “The blues is supposed to be defined by if the music has an identifiable Mississippi Delta, Piedmont style. But where do you put Elizabeth Cotten?”
Ultimately, Davis points the finger back at the listeners for drawing sharp divisions. “It’s our own stereotypes that tell us what’s blues and ragtime and folk.”
The speed and dexterity with which Davis plays is incredible, but he opts out of Stevie Ray Vaughan-esque flourishes: “The acoustic picking is what I do.” He calls out some players who launch into overly long and noisy solos. “When the notes are coming out like bullets, the ear starts to go to sleep on them. Soon there’s no room in the concert hall for the audience, it’s so full of notes. There’s a way to approach all those solos that includes the audience instead of blowing them away.”
His life may not have been bare feet on a gravel road, but Davis has had his own challenges. His technical ability with the guitar, for example, was developed to mask trepidation with his vocals. “I was afraid of my voice,” says Davis. “I spent years trying to hide behind my guitar picking.”
Ultimately, the medium that launched his mother got the younger Davis to open up. “Musical theater is what gave me the confidence to stand up and get my voice heard.
“There comes a time when the soul has to take over,” says Davis.