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Just living long enough if you can carry a tune you will be able to sing the blues. Because the world is going to provide you with a blues to sing - Josh White Jr, Frets magazine

Author Topic: Academic writing on the Blues?  (Read 4435 times)

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Offline Doug

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Academic writing on the Blues?
« on: February 02, 2006, 07:48:25 AM »
Hi all...

I know that in recent years Blues is gaining more recognition as a true art form worthy of scholarly analysis, and there has been a bit of a resurgence of stuff written about the blues.

I'm considering doing an academic paper on the portrayal of Jesus in Reverend Gary Davis songs, and I'm wondering if there would be enough secondary sources to write about the topic.  I know there's a wealth of recordings by him, and I have no question that there would be enough material to do an interesting analysis.  And there's some popular stuff about him.... but is there anything um... academically respectable?  I'm assuming there's not going to be anything directly related, but am wondering if there are any journal articles, etc. on Reverend Gary Davis, or on pre-war blues and/or the blues revival.

I'm figuring if anyone would know, Weenie Campbell would...

Doug

Offline Doug

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Re: Academic writing on the Blues?
« Reply #1 on: February 02, 2006, 08:00:39 AM »
On a related topic, has anyone checked out Robert Tilling's book "Oh, what a beautiful city : a tribute to the Reverend Gary Davis (1896-1972) :gospel, blues, and ragtime"?  Is it worth getting or seeing?

I noticed that Catfish Keith offers it directly from the author (at $40 US) on his website at
http://www.catfishkeith.com/revdavisbookpage.htm

Anyone explored the book yet?

Doug

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Academic writing on the Blues?
« Reply #2 on: February 02, 2006, 08:39:14 AM »
There's this:

The Rise of Gospel Blues
The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church
Michael W. Harris

http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/HistoryAmerican/AfricanAmerican/?ci=0195090578&view=usa

I don't know if it has material on RGD, but getting a hold of it and checking the bibliography would no doubt give you a line on some sources.

While it doesn't have much on RGD, I would think that Paul Oliver's Songsters and Saints would be a valuable resource for anyone working in this area. While his academic work is in architecture, his blues writing would fall into the academic sphere IMO.

And Bruce Bastin's Red River Blues would have essential material on RGD. Also pretty scholarly stuff IMO.

Offline frankie

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Re: Academic writing on the Blues?
« Reply #3 on: February 02, 2006, 08:47:30 AM »
On a related topic, has anyone checked out Robert Tilling's book "Oh, what a beautiful city : a tribute to the Reverend Gary Davis (1896-1972) :gospel, blues, and ragtime"?  Is it worth getting or seeing?

I've had it for a few years - there are a lot of stories, something of a discography which was probably complete at the time it was published, some historical background.  Lots of pictures...  will it tell you anything you don't already know if you've read Red River Blues?  Not necessarily.  It's nice to thumb through it now and then, though.  There are worse ways to spend $40.

Not a lot has been written about Rev. Davis' relationship to the church - even descriptions of his music tend to gloss over his religious convictions in favor of pointing out the relationships to secular music.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Academic writing on the Blues?
« Reply #4 on: February 02, 2006, 11:22:08 AM »
I've had it for a few years - there are a lot of stories, something of a discography which was probably complete at the time it was published, some historical background.  Lots of pictures...  will it tell you anything you don't already know if you've read Red River Blues?  Not necessarily.  It's nice to thumb through it now and then, though.  There are worse ways to spend $40.
Here follows a review from Blues & Rhythm 78 (April 1993) from an era when they used highly opinionated contributors...

OH! WHAT A BEAUTIFUL CITY A Tribute To Rev. Gary Davis 1896-1972
Robert Tilling (Compiler) Paul Mill Press, Jersey, 1992, Paperback, 124 pps, illus. ?18

   Like most who hold an obsession with a particular artist, Bob Tilling has never been content to ?publish and be damned?, but has preferred to wait until the ingredients of his book has done right by his particular preoccupation, namely Rev. Gary Davis.
  Which is very laudable but over a twenty-five year period events can overtake such sentiments and, whilst not totally consigning the endeavour to an almost ran, events can certainly cause a damp squib. In Tilling?s case the ?event? that finally overtook his toil was Bruce Bastin's illuminating chapter on Davis in his ?Red River Blues? (Macmillan, 1986). Bastin's research into Davis, in particular Davis? time in North Carolina and his influence upon other Carolina bluesmen, really left little new for any subsequent biography to say. I suspect that Tilling, fully aware of this, radically reviewed his original approach to the book.
   Two decades on, what we get is not the promised standard biography, but an A4, glossy, coffee table ?kaleidoscope of images? (to quote from Paul Oliver's perceptive and enlightening introduction). Rotating around a host of black and white photographs (spanning 1952 to 1972) the reader is presented with a biographical chronology, colourful anecdotes from fellow musicians and record producers (John Townley?s recollections are fascinating), concert reviews (favourable and otherwise), selected record reviews, obituaries and a discography. This inventive approach brings to the page a vividness of character that standard format biographies can often fail to achieve. Thus, via Tilling, we learn from others that Gary Davis was by turns a switch-blade-carrying street musician, a compassionate man of God (braving a white?s only hospital ward to preach over the dying Woody Guthrie) as well as a guitarist with the ability to ?teach a slug to use silverware? (to quote a former pupil of Davis). The all pervasive impression created by Tilling with his use of this material is that, although the book is about a guitar playing gospel singer whose name happens be Gary Davis, it is the story of a ?universal human being? (to paraphrase Buffy St. Marie) for whom the word ?humility? was probably invented.
  This self-published labour of love has been a longtime in preparation and, should ?18 seem a trifle expensive for a mere 124 pages, all I can say is that if 25 years of my life had been devoted to such a task I'd regard it as cheap at half the price. As should you all. Alan Balfour

Offline Doug

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Re: Academic writing on the Blues?
« Reply #5 on: February 02, 2006, 01:36:46 PM »
Thanks for your suggestions, Uncle Bud and others!

I had the Harris book on the Rise of Gospel Blues on my list of books to check out (I'm hoping to get a library copy of it), but it's nice to have the link to Oxford University Press.  Especially since the Canadian Amazon site is selling it for $113.95!

Thanks also for the suggestions of Songsters and Saints (Oliver) and Red River Blues (Bastin).  I hadn't heard of either of these, and they look wonderful -- if not for the paper, than just for background reading.

Thanks again for the tips....  Hopefully I'll be able to talk my professor into letting me do the paper (and I'll let you know whether it turns out...)

Offline Stuart

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Re: Academic writing on the Blues?
« Reply #6 on: February 02, 2006, 02:02:05 PM »
Hi Doug:

The Amazon.com Canada site is probably selling the hardcover edition. You should familiarize yourself with WWW.Bookfinder.com. It's a good resource for searching out discounted, used, and out-of-print books. There are a couple of sites listing used copies of "RISE OF GOSPEL BLUES" for $10-11 U.S. dollars through Bookfinder.

If you can't find any secondary studies of RGD's music, you might look for studies of religious music that are grounded in the primary source material. You can then use the methodology in your study of RGD's lyrics,, their content, and what they reveal or inform us about his faith. Make sure that you work closely with your prof on this so that s/he understands what you're doing. You don't want any surprises come grading time.

Best of luck with you project.

Offline Doug

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Re: Academic writing on the Blues?
« Reply #7 on: March 02, 2006, 09:04:10 AM »
Just to give a quick update...  A month ago I said:

Hopefully I'll be able to talk my professor into letting me do the paper (and I'll let you know whether it turns out...)

After a fair bit of talk my prof did allow me to do the paper (I'm not sure whether she was being nice or giving me enough rope to hang myself...).

So I'm in the middle of reading some semi-related books (mostly the ones suggested here), and listening to a lot of RGD stuff.  I'm transcribing the songs I'll be using (so if I hit any problems I may be making some posts over on the Lyrics forum), and trying to figure out which songs are covers and which are originals (that's oversimplistic, since even on traditional songs he would modify them and make them his own).  I'm finding it surprising that lots of the stuff that I consider RGD's signature songs were covers...

Anyways, I have another month or so on the paper, so you'l probably hear more from me along the way...

Offline Johnm

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Re: Academic writing on the Blues?
« Reply #8 on: March 02, 2006, 09:23:36 AM »
Hi Doug,
Perhaps you have already picked it up, but the recent Smithsonian Folkways release,"If I Had My Way:  Early Home Recordings--Rev. Gary Davis", SFW CD 40123, includes in its notes commentary on the various songs by Horace Boyer, an expert on the gospel tradition, who talks about sources and precursors of the various songs Rev. Davis performs on the CD.  It strikes me that his commentary might save you some work or at least point you in the right direction.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Academic writing on the Blues?
« Reply #9 on: March 02, 2006, 12:03:54 PM »
Here's a coincidence. Looking through a set of a magazine called Jazz Beat (snappy title eh?) when I spotted this. Don't know if much use to you but thought I'd scan and share regardless. Published in August 1965:

Blind Gary Davis
Paul Oliver
When Blind Gary Davis came to England on the Blues and Gospel Caravan last year I was field recording in West Africa and therefore missed hearing and seeing him. The opportunity came again in June when he toured with the Folk and Blues Concert group organised by the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Times have changed as the "folk song" craze has developed: a few years ago the very appearance in this country of Blind Gary Davis would have been the subject of fanatical enthusiasm by a small handful of dedicated blues and gospel music collectors, and it would have been virtually overlooked by Cecil Sharp House. Now it is the EFDSS that toured Blind Gary and the blues enthusiasts were in the minority in the large audience which packed out the Fairfield Hall. It was a folk audience and lest there be any mistake, they hadn't primarily come to hear Blind Gary Davis but to hear Jack Elliott, Buffy St.Marie, Derroll Adams and another folk singer. This in itself marked a change, for eight years or so ago Jack Elliott and Derroll Adams were known mainly to the supporters of The Good Earth, The Roundhouse and the few other folk and blues clubs that were fugitives from skiffle. Now Jack Elliott headed the bill and way down, half-way through the first half, was Blind Gary Davis. He was the only authentic folk artist on the bill but the EFDSS have the same problem as their counterparts in the States?all singers of folk song are called "folk singers". In England genuine folk artists are generally called "traditional singers"; in the States they hardly make even this distinction. One couldn't help wondering how the members of the audience differentiated between Blind Gary and his companions on the programme?if indeed they did.

For there is a definite distinction between Blind Gary and the rest of the bill and it is not merely one of colour, nor of sight, though these factors have played their part. Blind Gary Davis however, has had a life-time of singing blues and subsequently gospel songs. He is a genuine original and at the same time part of the authentic tradition rather than being a singer who has assumed its attributes. He is now sixty-nine years old and in his life has witnessed many social and musical changes and has packed into his years more drama and incident than most men would wish. He is now featured as a "folk singer" and represented by an agency so it is necessary to look back to his origins. Gary Davis was born back in 1896 in Clinton, Laurens County (Lawrence Countv is usually and incorrectly given), South Carolina. His parents were farmers and from very early childhood he worked on the farm, his association with country Negro workers introducing him naturally to the folk traditions that they shared. So at the age of five he was already playing rudimentary guitar and picking his way on the banjo. At this early age he was also playing the harmonica but it was to the guitar that he devoted his main attention. Thus were laid the foundations of his highly complex and exciting guitar which is both the admiration and the despair of his listeners and would-be imitators. By 1903 when he was still only seven he was a competent performer on the guitar and playing for local functions. In the subsequent years he played at the country suppers, the buck-dances and barn-raisings that formed an essential part of Carolina rural life beforc the first world war. In 1912 he joined up with a few other musicians to form a country string band and toured through the Carolinas and in to Tennessee. He was soon playing with a musician whom he recalls only as "Stovepipe"?unfortunately he could not tell me whether this was Johnny Watson (Daddy Stovepipe) or Sam Jones (Stovepipe No. 1) but he did recall even today the guitar instrumentals that he learned from Stovepipe fifty years ago.

The details of his early life are difficult to come by for Blind Gary is reticent about the period before he lost his sight. It seems certain that he had a rowdy and dissolute life in playing the country jukes and dance halls where he spent his money and made his change. He apparently lost his sight early in the 1930s but the precise circumstances and the date remain uncertain. At all events, blinded, he was forced to make his guitar playing his sole source of income. He played in the streets as well as in the joints but the effect of his blindness and perhaps the conviction that it had been the result of the life he had been living caused him to give up playing the blues which had been the basis of his music and to turn instead to the music of the Negro church. In 1933 he was ordained at Washington off the North Carolina Coast and baptised in the Pamlico River. For a time, however, he still played some blues, even recording a couple of blues in 1935?including the incredibly rare Cross and Evil Woman Blues  on Melotone 35-10-16. But the remainder of his recordings for many, many years were to be gospel songs. At least, under his own name: a few years ago I reissued on Philips BBL 7512 an album of Blind Boy Fuller which had Blind Gary Davis, as he was now known, playing second guitar, on Evil-Hearted Woman and My Brownskin Sugarplum. Blind Gary had met up with P;lind Boy Fuller, the famous blues singer from Durham, North Carolina, and the youthful Sonny Terry, a brilliant harmonica player. The three blind men were led around by a washboard player who rejoiced in the unlikely nickname of "Oh Red"?his real name was George Washington.

For several years Blind Gary played at Church meetings and revival meetings, augmenting his income playing in :the streets. His wanderings took him to New York in 1940 where he has remained ever since. It was still possible in the early 'sixties to hear Blind Gary playing on the streets of Brooklyn or Harlem, but these days he naturally plays somewhat less in the streets as he approaches his seventieth birthday.

Sixteen years after his arrival in New York Gary Davis recorded for Ken Goldstein and the sides issued rank as the finest he has ever made. He was then just sixty years of age, already probably past his prime. But if he were past it the recordings, which were issued on the now rare lp American Street Songs (Riverside RLP 12-611) backed by a set by Pink Anderson, show no sign of it. Amongst the titles then recorded his version of Twelve Gates to the City and the tune originally recorded by the Texas gospel singer Blind Willie Johnson, Samson and Delilah were quite outstanding. Also at this time he recorded Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning and it was a great pleasure to me that he opened with this tune at his spot on the Fairfield Hall concert.

When he made the recordings above he restricted his playing entirely to gospel songs and in public at any rate, did not play other forms. Now it seems he has relaxed his own strict rules and plays guitar instrumentals and blues as well as gospel songs. This makes for greater interest in the performance and permits him to show off his stunning guitar technique. One such item was an improvisation on the guitar with a spoken commentary, an impersonation of a woman and her lover. The latter preferred to play his piano and Blind Gary imitated his piano blues on the guitar?a skilful and witty performance but one which probably eluded a large proportion of the audience because of the thickness of his speech. Blind Gary has a very coarse voice and one of great intensity when singing his gospel songs. He showed an unexpected facet of his abilities by playing and singing in a much gentler voice the old jazz standard She's Funny That Way. Not my choice for preference but good nonetheless with echoes of Blind Blake at times. He played both six-string and twelve string guitar and the deep tones of the latter were thrilling to hear, though his remarkably dextrous playing is probably heard to greater effect on the six-string. Reverting to his instrument of earlier years he played Travelling Shoes on the harmonica, alternating the music and the vocal line. His playing on this instrument is not outstanding though it is an old style. He would have many peers on this, but few on the guitar. Gary holds the guitar somewhat to his side, plays it at an angle that moves towards the horizontal and has it uncommonly high, the strap being high behind his neck instead of round his collar. This clearly enables him to feel a close association with his instrument and indeed he commented "I can't see my guitar but I can feel it. And it feels better to me than your eyesight can see it."

Gary has an unexpected line of wit. One enthusiast called for Twelve Gates to the City- but, said Gary "that's a Judgement number. If Gabriel called for you to go now you wouldn't be ready; and I know I ain't." And he didn't play it. He did play a fine blues in the style somewhat of Peg Leg Howell's Please Ma'am and concluded with his old features contorted, and his words barked out in a hoarse, rough voice by singing You Got To Find Your Hiding Place. It was a splendid and memorable performance and we can be grateful to The English Folk Dance and Song Society in enabling us to hear Blind Gary Davis. Now what about a real sensation and negotiate for Mance Lipscombe, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt or Skip James? . . .

And in the meantime, or before a hoped-for return of Gary Davis, what is there for the collector to hear? The Riverside Ip is unobtainable but the Prestige issue released here by Fontana has twelve fine selections. This is on Fontana 688 303 ZL and copies should still be available. There are just four titles on XTRA 1009 but they are good, though rather poorly recorded. (The other five titles are by an excellent singer, Short Stuff Macon.) Best buy for the collector who heard Blind Gary sing both sacred and secular songs and play his guitar instrumentals, is Pure Religion and Bad Company issued by Dobell's 77 label on 77 LA 12/14 which has fifteen items showing every aspect of this unique artist's talents.

Offline Doug

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Re: Academic writing on the Blues?
« Reply #10 on: March 02, 2006, 05:17:49 PM »
Perhaps you have already picked it up, but the recent Smithsonian Folkways release,"If I Had My Way:  Early Home Recordings--Rev. Gary Davis", SFW CD 40123, includes in its notes commentary on the various songs by Horace Boyer, an expert on the gospel tradition, who talks about sources and precursors of the various songs Rev. Davis performs on the CD.  It strikes me that his commentary might save you some work or at least point you in the right direction.

Thanks for the tip, John.  I do have the CD, but I downloaded it off of Emusic (a pay subscription service), and Emusic doesn't provide the liner notes.  (Which is kinda irritating, since I don't even know who the person singing on many of the songs are.  However, it's hard for me to justify spending the $15-$20 for the liner notes when I already have the music....). 

This CD especially, seems to have a large amount of Traditional or cover songs, most of which I think I've been able to eliminate from my list...  I still have question marks by four songs...  "If the Lord be for you", and "He never has left me" both sound like traditional songs, although I haven't found evidence for that yet.   What does Boyer say about "He stole away" (wonderful guitar piece), and "Destruction in the land"?

Offline Doug

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Re: Academic writing on the Blues?
« Reply #11 on: March 02, 2006, 05:29:39 PM »
Here's a coincidence. Looking through a set of a magazine called Jazz Beat (snappy title eh?) when I spotted this. Don't know if much use to you but thought I'd scan and share regardless. Published in August 1965:

Thanks Bunker!  I did find this interesting, especially what Oliver says about Davis' blindness.  I had heard that he was born blind... probably in other places, but definitely in an interview over on Stefan Grossman's site (http://guitarvideos.com/interviews/davis/index.html).

I was also interested to read about Davis' reasonably late (in his 30s) return to the church.  Samuel Charters mentioned the same thing in "Sweet as the Showers of Rain", but before I read Charters I had just assumed that he was always a church man.  ...

Thanks again for sharing from your archives!

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Academic writing on the Blues?
« Reply #12 on: March 03, 2006, 12:33:12 PM »
Thanks Bunker!  I did find this interesting, especially what Oliver says about Davis' blindness.  I had heard that he was born blind... probably in other places, but definitely in an interview over on Stefan Grossman's site (http://guitarvideos.com/interviews/davis/index.html).
It was written 40 years ago and probably received wisdom at that time. Here's what it says on p. 246-7 of Red River Blues which is part of a chapter entitled Blind Gary Davis in North Carolina. If you haven't yet managed to aquire this book, I'd humbly suggest you try to make this one of your primary sources. The depth of research is a-m-a-z-i-n-g:

On July 13, 1937, Davis was examined by Dr. T. C. Kerns of McPherson Hospital, who confirmed that he had been blind since birth in both eyes. His further findings presumably led to Davis being accepted for an award under aid to the blind.

Eye condition primarily responsible for
blindness.   Buphophtholmus

Secondary conditions.   Ulceration of cornea

Etiological factor responsible for
primary eye condition.   Glaucoma

Prognosis.   Hopelessly blind

Remarks.   No need for another examination

The initial report on Davis by his first blind commission caseworker in the same month is enlightening: "M. has no income. When questioned about income, M. stated, 'They don't allow me to solicit.' . . . M's philosophy seems to be woven around his religious inclinations. Was ordained two months ago as a minister in Washington, N.C. Attends Mt. Vernon Baptist Church and is greatly concerned about 'work concerning saving souls.' He 'abstains from things that cause him to make errors in life.' Much ability is shown in his steel guitar which would be a source of income, but it appears that M. has scruples against this type of endeavor. When questioned about the guitar as a means of income, M. stated that he does not play the kind of music that meets public appeal since he became Christianized."

Offline Doug

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Re: Academic writing on the Blues?
« Reply #13 on: March 03, 2006, 05:34:38 PM »
It was written 40 years ago and probably received wisdom at that time. Here's what it says on p. 246-7 of Red River Blues which is part of a chapter entitled Blind Gary Davis in North Carolina. If you haven't yet managed to aquire this book, I'd humbly suggest you try to make this one of your primary sources. The depth of research is a-m-a-z-i-n-g:

You don't have to *humbly* suggest anything... I'm loving your advice, and the breadth of your knowledge.

Red River Blues is one of the books I have on order, and I'm hoping it's one of the parcels waiting for me at the post office.  I ordered it when Uncle Bud suggested it, and am looking forward to getting it.  I'm currently going through Songsters and Saints, which is really interesting background reading too....
« Last Edit: March 03, 2006, 06:14:55 PM by Doug »

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Academic writing on the Blues?
« Reply #14 on: March 05, 2006, 12:35:40 PM »
Blind Gary Davis
Paul Oliver
When Blind Gary Davis came to England on the Blues and Gospel Caravan last year I was field recording in West Africa and therefore missed hearing and seeing him....
The above from Oliver got me to looking to see what critics actually said about RGD's performances on that UK Blues and Gospel Caravan tour in 1964. I've extracted Simon Napier's assessment for Jazz Monthly (July 1964) on the grounds that a) he attended more than one performance, which others did not, and b) most just resorted to listing numbers performed and little else.

"...The programme was a masterpiece of its kind with fine photographs and excellent notes by Paul Oliver who'd now doubtless be writing his report if he weren't working away in West Africa. Paul's absence is regretful, as no blues writer ever brought to life a concert so vividly as he did with the "Folk Blues Festival" of last year in this magazine.
   I saw, heard or was present at four concerts in all, in fact the last four in a row, and the variety of things done by each artist makes writing up the events a trifle difficult. Blind Gary, for example, could be pretty erratic, as at the New Victoria second house when he played two instrumentals under great strain, then had to be led off stage by Sonny Terry in a state of near collapse, apparently quite overcome by his reception. Anyone who saw that show probably thought they had a bad deal, but to expect a genuine street singer to turn out any sort of professional performance is to destroy all the things that are good in the blues and gospel idioms. If you were lucky, and apparently you had an 80% or better chance, and saw Gary at his very fine best, as I did for 35 minutes at Brighton, then I'm sure you'd agree that Gary Davis on stage can produce the most wonderful country gospel music any concert stage is ever likely to see. His moving and beautiful rendering of Pure Religion was one of the most wonderful things I have ever witnessed; and Muddy Waters, following on, broke his usual silence to pay sincere tribute to "the great Reverend"."
("overcome by his reception"? Probably promoter speak for "extreme exhaustion due to intensity of tour schedule") >:D

Offline MTJ3

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Re: Academic writing on the Blues?
« Reply #15 on: March 05, 2006, 12:56:41 PM »
As this seems to have morphed into more of a thread about Gary Davis, I might add that you might be interested in the following bibliography compiled by one Alan Balfour. 

http://www.revgarydavis.com/biblio.html

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Academic writing on the Blues?
« Reply #16 on: March 09, 2006, 12:35:00 PM »
Perhaps you have already picked it up, but the recent Smithsonian Folkways release,"If I Had My Way:  Early Home Recordings--Rev. Gary Davis", SFW CD 40123, includes in its notes commentary on the various songs by Horace Boyer, an expert on the gospel tradition, who talks about sources and precursors of the various songs Rev. Davis performs on the CD.  It strikes me that his commentary might save you some work or at least point you in the right direction.
All best,
Johnm
Perhaps I may suggest as a complemetary CD to the above, Shanachie's :Demons and Angels: Rev. Gary Davis: The Ultimate Collection". It was released in 2000 so may be deleted for all I know, but what I do know is that one of the motivating forces behind it was modest Frankie, so...

Tags: Rev. Gary Davis 
 


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