Friday, May 7, 2010


I was reading the other day some fine writing by a friend who mentioned how he hesitated about posting a song
better known by the bluesman Reverend Gary Davis, feeling it might be "embarrassing" showing any version other than the Reverend's original.

I wondered if he might have been speaking to me...since I posted on the Birdhouse, for Earth Day in fact, a joyous rendition of the Reverend's "Twelve Gates to the City". I went out of my way to post this version by the Sacred Shakers simply for its joy. Joy is very good and important when you can have it. Do embrace it, share it, give it. There's a flipside to everything.

I own so many different copies of the Reverend Gary Davis on old LP and CDs you would think I might be a relative.

I didn't want to have the familiar and seminal song by the Reverend on that day. The Reverend Gary Davis was a street preacher and street singer, a vintage blues performer. Some were lucky to see and hear him when he was alive. Others passed him by in Harlem and elsewhere on the sidewalk singing and shouting and had no idea who he was. He was blind and he was fabulous. He also sang the blues from the deepest roots of gospel, and everyone knows the charity of gospel is to take it further. That means in any rendition of the song you wish: from Minnie Mouse singing it, to Son House. Sing and work with it in fields, on the streets, in your kitchens, from rooftops. May it reign. So I say, show forth any style and song and pleasure you wish when singing the Reverend Gary Davis. He can handle it.

When I think of songs that struck me blind when I first heard them, and the best for me was always walking into a record store (when we had plenty) and a song was on. Off the top of my head the first time I heard the Stones "The Last Time", or Rev. Gary Davis album "Harlem Street Singer" shook me alive. The lovely crazies running that store played the whole album, not just one stinky little song, and I stayed still and listened to it all, then bought the record! I did as I was told. The Karen Dalton moment ("what and who is this?"), Hendrix "Hey Joe", Townes "Poncho and Lefty". I could go on all day.

Once upon a time in Harvard Square on a spring afternoon I heard four or five street musicians, spread far apart, maybe unaware of one another, singing the same Bob Dylan song ("Masters of War"). All their own way. I'm still amazed.

Karen Dalton:
Townes Van Zandt: