Gary Davis was a man of God, but his finger-picking attack sure was
fierce. Eventually embraced by the Blues
Revival, the Reverend Davis had spent years performing on the streets of
Harlem. He also took on students,
including future neo-roots artists like David Bromberg and Stefan
Grossman. Davis’s loyal students and
admirers piece together his story and trace his elusive influence in Trevor
Laurence & Simeon Hutner’s Harlem
Street Singer (trailer
screens during this year’s DOC NYC.
was a real deal bluesman from North Carolina, who recorded some real deal blues
sides, before dedicating himself to songs of praise and worship. They were still drenched in the blues, making
him rather tricky to classify. A modest
man with an idiosyncratic teaching style, Davis accepted any student bold
enough to sign-up with him. In addition
to Bromberg and Grossman (who discuss their teacher throughout HSS), Davis also provided musical
instruction to Roy Book Binder, Dave Van Ronk, and Woody Mann, who also serves
as the film’s musical director and co-producer.
was legally blind since birth, grew-up in the Jim Crow-era south, and lived
most of his life in poverty, yet HSS is
a defiantly upbeat movie. According to
those who knew him, Davis just played his music and preached the Word (indeed,
the two were always closely related), regardless of his circumstances. Of course, there is a lot of music in the
film and it is consistently great.
Laurence & Hutner scored a coup with the inclusion of previously
unseen footage of Davis laying it down at the Newport Folk Festival and they do
not keep viewers waiting for it, using it to kick off the film with a big
the apostolic flame burning, Mann leads a tribute ensemble that periodically plays
some dynamite Davis covers. Mann and
Bill Sims, Jr. have the unenviable role of handling the guitar and vocal duties
respectively, but they both sound fantastic, getting first rate support from
Dave Keyes on piano and Brian Glassman on bass.
It is a killer quartet that ought to get a ton of gigs together if HSS receives the attention it deserves.
Few docs are as wildly entertaining as HSS, but it still does justice to the
seriousness of Davis’s life and times.
Hopefully, someone from PBS has it on their radar, because it is as good
as anything that has been on American
Masters since Cachao: Uno Mas and
is considerably better than most. Highly
recommended to general audiences beyond established blues fans, Harlem Street Singer screens again as
part of DOC NYC this Thursday morning (11/21) at the IFC Center, so consider
calling in sick for it.
Labels: DOC NYC '13, Documentary, Rev. Gary Davis