The re-release of this 1960 classic could not have been more timely since it coincides with the passing of the sound engineer, Rudy Van Gelder, and it may come as a surprise to jazz fans in particular that Englewood Cliffs recording studio played host to some of the veteran blues performers at the beginning of the folk revival era via the Prestige Bluesville off-shoot that recorded the great Lonnie Johnson among others..
From the outset this is folk-blues in the demonstration class, and as ever with the good Reverend, features an extra strong dose of gospel that intersects with the blues. Davis always sought to speak the truth and it is certainly true that the lyrics in the songs he performed (often adapted from traditional verses) have never gone out of date, and indeed in several cases can be applied to present day events. This is exemplified by the haunting, ‘Death don’t have no mercy’, that might be a pertinent observation on the tragedy that has befallen victims of the recent Italian earthquake. The opener, ‘Samson and Delilah’, is a stunning number that had previously been recorded by Blind Willie John under a different title, ‘If I had my way, I would tear this building down’. One of eight children and raised by his grandmother, Davis was partially blind from childhood, but that only served to motivate him to seek a higher musical path as well as a religious one, and he was ordained a baptist minister in 1933. The rasping vocal delivery was in some respects uncompromising, yet still provided the perfect counterweight to his beautifully melodic guitar playing and the two combine on a song such as, ‘Pure religion’.
What is sometimes overlooked is how fine a guitarist the Reverend Davis was and he was largely self-taught and by the age of six was making his own improvised form of stringed instrument, made up of a pie pan and a broom stick. This is one of the most endearing aspects of the album as a whole. As a bonus, further RVG recorded songs dating from 1961 augment the original selection and of these, the heart warming, ‘Motherless children’ and the optimistic, ‘There’s a bright side somewhere’, stand out. As ever with Soul Jam releases, extremely generous timing at just over seventy-five minutes, extensive liner notes with three separate commentaries including the original line notes from Larry Cohn and numerous photos and album covers all make for unbeatable value for money.
Reverend Gary Davis was an influence on both his contemporaries such as Blind Boy Fuller and Brownie McGhee, but equally on countless subsequent musicians from Bob Dylan and Richie Havens through to Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and current folk-blues singer-songwriters of the calibre of Eric Bibb. Quite simply the music of Reverend Gary Davis represents one of the towering building blocks of twentieth century American folk music.