In the late 50s into the earlier 60s, there was a folk music revival in the United States. Part of this was a blues revival. Artists who had recorded in the 1930s, and then given up music and taken jobs that would pay the bills, were rediscovered, and did something they had never done before: they played for substantial white audiences. The music they played came from another world. In the thirties, Big Bill Broonzy, for one example, played acoustic guitar in a group that also included Memphis Slim on piano and Washboard Sam on washboard. Lightnin’ Hopkins played a brand of blues that could not be confined to twelve bars. Banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and even fife and drums were blues instruments in the period prior to World War II. But this music was tamed during the revival years. The music was made to conform to the stricter forms that had evolved after the war. Some of the more exotic instruments disappeared from blues. I do not say that this process was forced on the musicians; they had bills to pay, and they had always wanted to please their audiences.
What, you may ask, does any of this have to do with Guy Davis? Davis knows all of this history. His knowledge is an integral part of his sound. When Davis plays blues mandolin and banjo on Sweetheart Like You, he is aware of the historical precedents, and he embraces them. Davis presents versions of pre-war blues tunes by Lead Belly and Son House. And his album notes make it clear that Davis sees himself as part of the continuum of blues music from then until now. And he has every right to see himself that way, as this album proves.
But Davis’ music is not stuck in the past. From this pre-war blues era, Davis travels to post-war Chicago for a pair of tunes associated with Muddy Waters, and also the classic Baby Please Don’t Go. He makes a brief stop in 1981, to cover Bob Dylan for the title track, and his interpretation makes an eloquent case for the notion of Dylan as a blues artist. And Davis seals the deal with his original songs here. Slow Motion Daddy, Bring Back Storyville, and Going Back to Silver Spring all sound like they could be vintage tunes. But the other four originals bring us to the present. Words to My Mama’s Song, in particular, makes a most unexpected connection between blues and hip-hop.
Davis has a voice that usually sounds like gravel; that this is an artistic choice is clear, because he sings in a clear voice for The Angels Are Calling and Ain’t Goin’ Down, because that is what these songs need. But whichever voice he chooses, Davis never forgets to communicate the emotion of the song. You can hear the ache of a man who has fallen too deeply in love with another man’s wife in Sweet Hannah. The wistfulness of Steamboat Captain comes through loud and clear.
But, perhaps the crowning achievement of this album is to take to songs that have been done to death, and make them fresh. Baby Please Don’t Go is an opportunity for many a blues artist to deliver an overwrought vocal performance; Davis avoids this trap, and delivers a vocal with just the right amount of yearning. But the high point of the album, for me, is Hoochie Coochie Man; for his performance, Davis believes in all the different folk traditions that give the song’s protagonist magical powers over the opposite sex. Because Davis believes it, we do too.
Instrumentally, Davis and his cohorts are up to the task. The music is mostly acoustic. The electric guitar is used sparingly, and usually for countermelodies; They are no screaming guitar parts here. The rest of the instruments have the job of supporting Davis’ acoustic guitar, bottleneck guitar, or banjo parts. Davis adds color on some tunes with harmonica parts. Can’t Be Satisfied is arranged for just banjo, bass and voice, and it works beautifully.
So Davis considers the history of blues, and explores the possibilities this history presents. And the result is journey well worth taking at his side.
Guy Davis: Words to My Mama‘s Song
Guy Davis: Hoochie Coochie Man