A truly unique figure in American folk music, the late Rev. Gary Davis was a blind Baptist preacher from South Carolina who sang on the streets of Harlem. He didn’t make his first recordings until he was 39, and didn’t enjoy widespread acclaim until being discovered by the folk crowd in his ’60s. He lent his index-and-thumbpicking style to ragtime instrumentals and novelty tunes as well as the stirring gospel numbers that he’d belt out in his raspy, craggy voice.
Davis’ set at the ’65 Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island constitutes the first eleven songs on this CD – a reissue of the ’67 LP, At Newport. Included are the rags “Buck Dance” and “Twelve Sticks,” the latter on 12-string, and Davis’ tour de force, “You Got To Move” – a bouncy, hand-clapping version of essentially the same gospel tune Fred McDowell played as a slow, mournful slide tune (later appropriated by the Rolling Stones).
But the single most riveting track here is Davis’ classic “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” a song so haunting it makes “Hellhound On My Trail” sound like “Skip To My Lou.” Here, Davis’ guitar work is understated, nothing especially complicated, but it’s absolute perfection. Davis never did anything halfheartedly, but the mood on this song is so immediate, the feeling so deep, it would be hard to imagine him (or anyone, for that matter) ever giving a more soulful performance.
This review originally appeared in VG‘s June ’01 issue.