I first heard this on a unique instrumental album, The Guitar and Banjo of Reverend Gary Davis, which was also my source for “Cincinnati Flow Rag” and various other guitar showpieces. As explained in earlier posts, I shied away from most of Davis’s material because I was not interested in performing gospel songs, and for quite a while this was my favorite of his LPs — an opinion I later revised because he was such a spectacular singer, but by then I had practically memorized the first side of this album.
Davis recorded this piece on other albums as “Twelve Sticks” — he announces it that way on his Newport Folk Festival LP — but it was listed on The Guitar & Banjo as “The Boy Was Kissing the Girl (And Playing the Guitar at the Same Time)” and obviously after learning it with that title I couldn’t settle for “Twelve Sticks.”
I started playing a half-assed version of this when I was still far from adept at Davis’s style, and I never really went back and got it right, but when I followed my wife Sandrine to Pittsburgh for a winter, I was fortunate enough to become a regular guest of Ernie Hawkins, the man who really knows how to play Davis’s pieces. One of the first things I asked Ernie was how Davis played the lick I was faking as a three-finger roll, since the Reverend only picked with his thumb and index finger. Ernie was kind enough to show me, and this was my practice piece to get it sort of right.
Ernie also showed me the chordal descent Davis uses on this and “Samson and Delilah,” which is a perfect example of the Reverend’s astonishing economy of motion: the chords are G7-C-G-D7-G, using four different chord shapes, but if you watch his hands they barely seem to shift. The G that goes down to the D7 is particularly cute, and that sequence shows up regularly in this piece:
For both chords the bass string is held down with your left thumb. As for the other shapes, the C and final G chords are played with the standard thumb-wrap F shape, and the opening G7 uses the classic Davis C7 shape, also favored by Dave Van Ronk and Jim Kweskin (and me), with the thumb wrapping two bass strings. (Now that I think of it, that D7 chord should also have the thumb wrapping two strings to get the root note in the bass.)
As for kissing the girl, Davis had a bass riff he would play using only his left hand, and sometimes requested a female volunteer from the audience to help him demonstrate how he could, in fact, kiss and play at the same time. I have not attempted to duplicate this feat.