I always loved Gary Davis’s guitar playing, but was into blues and ragtime a long time before I got into gospel music — so for many years my favorite of his albums was The Guitar & Banjo of Reverend Gary Davis. As far as I know, this is the only instrumental album by any of the foundational blues or gospel guitarists of the prewar era, so it was also the one album I could listen to when I was in the mood to hear guitar without vocals. (There were only two banjo tracks, plus one on harmonica, all on side two, so I mostly stuck with side one.) I’ve since heard other versions of a lot of the pieces on this record, and if I compared them back to back I might prefer them, but these are the versions I heard first and know best, and generally the ones I learned.
Over the years I tried my hand at pretty much every track, and the first three were all at some point highlights of my repertoire. I’m not sure I recall all the parts of Davis’s reworking of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” which started things off, but I still regularly fool around with the second (titled “Slow Drag” on this release, though more commonly known as “Cincinnati Flow Rag”) and third (often titled “Twelve Sticks,” but here called “The Boy Was Kissing the Girl [And Playing the Guitar at the Same Time]). The fourth tune was an instrumental version of “Candyman,” and then a reimagining of some John Philip Sousa compositions called “United States March” — all in all, it’s a hell of an album.
Davis was without doubt the most versatile and virtuosic guitarist in the ragtime-based style popularized by Blind Blake — at least on record. I assume there were other contenders back in the teens and twenties: apparently some of his ragtime arrangements were based on pieces by Willie Walker, a friend a playing partner of Davis’s during his youth in South Carolina, who unfortunately recorded only two songs, one of them the astonishing “South Carolina Rag,” and Davis himself only recorded his ragtime instrumentals after being “rediscovered” in the 1960s. By the time record companies got interested in African American guitar players, the ragtime period was over and they were looking for blues and gospel singers, so any virtuoso ragtimers who were still around would have been ignored. (Another whom we know of only ex post facto was Johnny St. Cyr, who was presumably playing his intricate solo guitar version of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Jelly Roll Blues” by the 1920s, but only recorded it by chance many years later, when Alan Lomax interviewed him about Morton for the Library of Congress.)
I went through various stages of trying to play Davis’s pieces, and “Cincinnati Flow” was from one of the earlier rounds and undoubtedly simplifies a lot of the subtleties of his arrangement. I later had the pleasure of spending many long afternoons with Ernie Hawkins, a longtime student and disciple of Davis’s who really knows how to play this stuff, which considerably refined my approach to some tunes, but I’d been playing this one so long that I stuck with the way it felt comfortable.