the music of the blind reverend gary davis -- 5/12/15

Today's selection -- from Say No to the Devil by Ian Zack. Though Ledbelly, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and others became more renowned, many consider early twentieth century bluesman Rev. Gary Davis (1896-1972) to be the most talented of them all. Bob Dylan called him "one of the wizards of modern music," and he was revered by such luminaries as the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir and the Jefferson Airplane's Jorma Kaukonen. Blinded shortly after birth by negligent medical care and emotionally abandoned by his mother, Davis's music had a power beyond most of his contemporaries readily evident in such songs as "Death Don't Have No Mercy in this Land" and "You've Got to Go Down":

"Gary Davis's mother, the former Evelina Martin, was seventeen when she gave birth, and she would go on to have a total of eight children, most likely by multiple fathers. But with proper medical care for blacks practically nonexistent, six of her children died as infants; only Gary and a younger brother -- probably a half-brother, named Buddy Pinson -- survived, and Buddy would die in 1930 at age twenty-five, stabbed to death by a girlfriend with a butcher's knife. That would leave Gary as the sole survivor of Evelina Davis's large brood.

"The event that would define Davis's life -- the loss of his sight -- occurred soon after birth. 'I'd taken sore eyes when I was three weeks old,' he recalled in one version of the story. 'They [took] me to a doctor and the doctor put some alum and sweet milk in my eyes and they caused ulcers in my eyes. That's what caused me to go blind.' In his later application to attend a school for the blind, Davis's mother would tell a similar story, blaming his blindness on 'medicines of doctor who made a mistake.'

"A doctor who examined him as an adult would conclude that Davis had suffered both infant glaucoma and ulceration of the cornea, a condition that can result from neonatal conjunctivitis contracted from a mother with gonorrhea and also can afflict children with a severe Vitamin A deficiency. As to what led to Davis's blindness, a family friend named Tiny Robinson gave a different explanation: she said Davis's mother blinded him by trying to treat his eye infection with lye soap, an old folk remedy. Davis's second wife, Annie, corroborated the story about the doctor as Davis himself told it. Both accounts seem plausible, but the common denominator was the absence of even rudimentary medical care. Davis said the doctor told his family that he 'might overcome it' as he aged, but he never regained his sight. ...

"Davis's parents weren't well suited to raising children, and Davis's maternal grandmother, whose maiden name was Annie Spencer, quickly assumed responsibility for young sightless Gary. Davis's mother 'was once upon a time a rough woman' -- a southern euphemism for being sexually loose -- who was always 'twistin' about from one place to another,' Davis remembered, and 'didn't care to be bothered with no children.' His father was 'in trouble all the time.' John Davis eventually left South Carolina and was shot to death around 1906 by the sheriff in Birmingham, Alabama, apparently after slitting a lover's throat and telling the authorities, 'Come and get me.'

"Evelina Davis not only gave up primary responsibility for raising her son to her mother -- she outright rejected Gary emotionally, although she remained in his life. The abandonment had a profound effect on him. As Davis later recalled:

I felt horrible about it 'cause I felt like I was throwed away. In fact, my mother never had cared as much about me as she did my younger brother .... He was her heart .... Because of the way she talkin' to me, she'd wish that I were dead. She tell me that a heap of times.

"It's surely no coincidence that the themes of death, abandonment, the lost child in the wilderness, and a reunion with his mother ran through Davis's gospel message and music. Indeed, gospel as an art form grew out of the misery and deprivation of the southern black experience, and those themes are common in the music as a whole. In Davis's case, it's easy to see why. Perhaps his most famous song, 'Death Don't Have No Mercy,' though based on traditional spirituals, has a strong autobiographical element for the only surviving child of eight, with its signature lament, 'death don't have no mercy in this land.'

"Davis would often sing about seeing his mother in heaven, when, presumably, all would be forgiven under God's grace. But his anger would also remain palpable. In 'Lord, I Wish I Could See,' he would address his mother's rejection in searingly poetic detail, singing: 'Nobody cares for me, because I'm away in the dark and I cannot see.' "


Ian Zack


Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis


University Of Chicago Press


Copyright 2015 by Ian Zack


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment