Reverend Gary Davis ‘Three Albums Plus’ 2CD (Avid Roots) 5/5

A seminal figure in the folk revival movement of the 1960’s, the Reverend Gary Davis was born in South Carolina where early on he listened to the country folk blues, but it was when he moved to New York in the 1940’s that his career began in earnest. Davis both preached and performed on the street corners of Harlem. He recorded sporadically during the 1940’s, but it was from the 1950’s that his work started to be recognised more widely and subsequently he attracted a following. This fine anthology of albums comprises his third album for Bluesville, the blues offshoot of the Prestige jazz label, a Smithsonian Folkways classic in ‘Pure religion and bad company’, otherwise known as ‘Harlem Street Songs’, plus some tasty extras. The earliest recordings date from 1956 and is a heady mix of adapting traditional gospel songs coupled with Davis’ own compositions. The latter are a testimony to the faith that he carried within and were communicated to a new generation that had come to the singer via discovering the blues. They include ‘Oh Lord, search my heart’, ‘Get right church’ and ‘Keep your lamps trimmed and burning’. If anything, the Smithsonian album, dating from 1959, is even more devotional in outlook, and this time all were originals and classics of the genre, including the title track, ‘Pure religion’, ‘Candy man’, ‘Devil’s dream’, and a rousing ‘Runnin’ to the judgement’. Cramming in so much music onto two CD’s was no easy task and, in the endeavour, the Bluesville recording, ‘Say no to the devil’, is divided up onto the end of the first CD and the beginning of the second which slightly impairs listening to the album in one take. Recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in 1961, Davis had by now become a consummate musician and performed on several guitars, including six and twelve string, plus harmonica and vocals. Once again the all original set had a strong religious content, with ‘Bad company brought me here’ indicating his own conversion to the faith and ‘Lord, I looked down the road’ his long reflection on becoming a servant and latter-day disciple of the Lord. A second album was recorded at Englewood Cliffs in 1961, ‘A little more faith’, and the same message is further conveyed with conviction, and of these, ‘Motherless child’, ‘I’m glad I’m in that number’, and ‘God’s gonna separate’, are among the many highlights of a consistently strong album Those recorded for Bluesville have the added bonus of the premium quality of sound. A fine all round introduction to the good Reverend Davis and extremely handy to find all these albums in one place. Thanks be to the Lord for that musical decision.

Tim Stenhouse