Say No to the Devil

The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis

Ian Zack

Ian Zack

344 pages | 30 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2015
Cloth $30.00 ISBN: 9780226234106 Will Publish April 2015
Who was the greatest of all American guitarists? You probably didn’t name Gary Davis, but many of his musical contemporaries considered him without peer. Bob Dylan called Davis “one of the wizards of modern music.” Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead—who took lessons with Davis—claimed his musical ability “transcended any common notion of a bluesman.” And the folklorist Alan Lomax called him “one of the really great geniuses of American instrumental music.” But you won’t find Davis alongside blues legends Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Despite almost universal renown among his contemporaries, Davis lives today not so much in his own work but through covers of his songs by Dylan, Jackson Browne, and many others, as well as in the untold number of students whose lives he influenced.

The first biography of Davis, Say No to the Devil restores “the Rev’s” remarkable story. Drawing on extensive research and interviews with many of Davis’s former students, Ian Zack takes readers through Davis’s difficult beginning as the blind son of sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South to his decision to become an ordained Baptist minister and his move to New York in the early 1940s, where he scraped out a living singing and preaching on street corners and in storefront churches in Harlem. There, he gained entry into a circle of musicians that included, among many others, Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Dave Van Ronk. But in spite of his tremendous musical achievements, Davis never gained broad recognition from an American public that wasn’t sure what to make of his trademark blend of gospel, ragtime, street preaching, and the blues. His personal life was also fraught, troubled by struggles with alcohol, women, and deteriorating health.

Zack chronicles this remarkable figure in American music, helping us to understand how he taught and influenced a generation of musicians.
Taj Mahal
“Long time comin’ and here at last! This fabulous book is for those who want to read, hear, and troll the depths of Americana music for incredible artists. Once you come across Rev. Gary Davis, you are forever hooked by his creative brilliance. From his earliest recordings to his last, Zack illuminates what made ‘the Rev’ so unique. Enjoy yourself! It’s a good un’!”
Steve Katz, cofounder of Blood, Sweat & Tears
"Finally, the biography that Rev. Davis deserves. Ian Zack takes 'Blind Gary' out of the footnotes and into the footlights of the history of American music. Like John Coltrane, George Gershwin, Jimi Hendrix, and the rest of the very few, Davis’s genius was unique and uncompromising. How he was able to take gospel and blues and create a style that was so unique and so powerful is a story that had to be told. Now, thanks to Zack’s careful research and unbounded respect for his subject, we finally have insight into the art and environment that was Davis’s life story. With this biography, Davis can finally take his place in the pantheon of the greatest of American musicians."
Stefan Grossman
"Rev. Gary Davis had a rich and colorful but challenging life. Zack has put together the pieces of Davis’s life in an exciting and detailed way. This biography reads like a novel! It details the life and times of Davis, as well as the evolution of his music and the influence he had on generations of black and white musicians. A must-read for anyone interested in the blues, the folk revival, or the life of a true American genius."
Elijah Wald
“Davis was a complex and difficult man, and it is to Zack’s great credit that this comes through, along with the obvious admiration so many young musicians had for ‘the Rev.’ Say No to the Devil provides plenty of material to interest fans and newcomers alike.”
Contents

Introduction: The Anti–Robert Johnson
Prologue: You Got to Move


1          There Was a Time That I Was Blind (1896–1916)
2          Street-Corner Bard (1917–28)
3          “I Was a Blues Cat” (1928–34)
4          Great Change in Me (1934–43)
5          Meet You at the Station (1943–49)
6          Who Shall Deliver Poor Me? (1950–55)
7          I’ll Be Alright Someday (1955–58)
8          I Can’t Make This Journey by Myself (1958–59)
9          He Knows How Much We Can Bear (1960–61)
10        Let the Savior Bless Your Soul: The Reverend in the Pulpit
11        Children, Go Where I Send Thee (1961–62)
12        Lord, Stand by Me (1962–63)
13        On the Road and Over the Ocean (1964)
14        The Guitar Lessons: “Bring Your Money, Honey!”
15        Buck Dance (1965–66)
16        Where You Goin’, Old Drunkard?
17        There’s a Bright Side Somewhere (1967–70)
18        Tired, My Soul Needs Resting (1971–72)


Epilogue: When I Die, I’ll Live Again
Selected Discography
Notes
Index

For more information, or to order this book, please visit http://www.press.uchicago.edu
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