Rev. Gary Davis

Demons and Angels: The Ultimate Collection (Shanachie)

Record Reviews

Rev. Gary Davis

Demons and Angels: The Ultimate Collection (Shanachie)

This 3-CD anthology devoted to Rev. Gary Davis, one of the innovators of the "Piedmont" style of finger-picking blues, is a most curious example of musicology. On one hand, the Reverend was recording as early as 1935, but the set only spans 1958-66. The South Carolina native recorded a number of albums, yet all three discs are live recordings. The liner notes give detailed transcriptions of Davis' lyrics down to the last decipherable "Oh oh oh" on "Blow Gabriel," and even give the key for each of the compilation's 58 offerings, but fail to mention whether the man performing them is still living. Or, in fact, anything about what he did after moving to New York in the Forties. The photographs sprinkled throughout, however, including one with Bob Dylan and another with a bikini-clad young woman, suggest that Davis, who was blind, did all right for himself on the folk-festival circuit. (The Reverend, who only reluctantly performed blues after his late-Thirties ordainment, passed away in 1972 at age 76, by the way.) So even if its claim of being "the ultimate collection" proves specious, Demons and Angels nevertheless succeeds in presenting a fascinating portrait of an unsung American musical icon. Davis could make the steel strings of his preferred National guitar weep, moan, talk, or sing depending on the song's mood, and he consistently exhibited an instinctual flair for rhythmic and dynamic variations that lend these solo performances needed depth and variety. His repertoire draws from all over America's musical map, from the self-explanatory "Rag Blues in C" and "I Want to Be Saved" to a fair approximation of a military band for "Soldier's March" and a version of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" that's a long, long way from the version familiar to Mary Tyler Moore Show fans. Where his dalliances with blues and popular styles often elicit a few chuckles, it's the church material that makes the set worth owning; "Crucifixion," "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well," and "Twelve Gates to the City" being three especially lucid instances. Logistically, Demons and Angels could have been better conceived, but as it reveals Davis as both master guitarist and devoted servant of the Lord earthy enough to record a tune called "She Wouldn't Say Quit," it's hard not to enjoy the fruits of the Reverend's labor.


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