I can’t remember when I first heard Rev. Gary Davis, but he was one of my guitar heroes long before I could even think about playing his music. I loved the power and virtuosity of his playing, the soulful excitement of his singing, the dynamics, the dynamism… So by my high school years I had assiduously hunted down all the extant LPs — as well as taping a library copy of the out-of-print American Street Songs LP from the 1950s that he shared with Pink Anderson, which still may be my all-time favorite.
Of course, as a Dave Van Ronk fan and eventually Dave’s student, I learned Candyman and Cocaine Blues, but mostly I worshipped Davis from afar. Part of the problem was that his greatest performances were of Evangelical Christian music, and much as I loved them, I had no interest in singing those lyrics. The other problem was that even if I’d wanted to sing them, I couldn’t make the guitar parts sound right. After studying with Dave I worked out a couple of Davis’s ragtime instrumentals, and even began performing Cincinnati Flow Rag, but it was only after I got back from Africa that I took serious crack at the gospel arrangements.
That trip had convinced me that if I wanted to understand how someone played I needed to try to replicate their tool kit — which in Davis’s case meant wearing fingerpicks and trying to play with just thumb and index finger. The fingerpicks were a first hurdle, because they always felt clumsy, but they definitely got me closer to his sound. As for that thumb-and-index style, it took ages to get the hang of it, and I never figured out the roll Davis used in his ragtime showpieces until I met Ernie Hawkins — about whom more in a future post — but it fundamentally reshaped my understanding of early blues guitar.
As far as I can tell, the overwhelming majority of early players used only those two fingers. There were exceptions, including John Hurt, Josh White, and Blind Blake, but they were outliers: from Blind Lemon Jefferson to the Mississippi Delta masters, Gary Davis to Merle Travis, thumb-and-index seems to have been the rule. To some extent, that was just a matter of custom, but it also was a matter of power — those are the two strongest fingers, which mattered in the days before amplification — and an even attack: when you use the index finger for all your treble notes, they all have the same attack. (Charlie Christian got a similar effect by playing only down-strokes with his flatpick.)
So anyway, I went through an extended Gary Davis period and learned a dozen of his gospel arrangements, though the only one I performed regularly was “Samson and Delilah,” which felt like a story rather than a religious exhortation. As for the rest, I sang them as part of the learning process, but mostly just for my own amusement, and that’s still where they fit in my repertoire. I particularly kept playing instrumental versions of these two, “A Little More Faith” and “I Belong to the Band,” because they work nicely as an instrumental medley — but more for fun than performance, and as an exercise. They’re a great way to practice that thumb-and-index style, to work on relaxing and freeing up the thumb to play brushes and accent some of the melody notes — I particularly like the power it gives to the bend in the F chord on the verse of “I Belong to the Band.” As for using fingerpicks, I eventually decided I preferred the feel of bare fingers, but I doubt I could have got here without them.