Archive for December, 2019

The Reverend Gary Davis’ “Candyman + Cincinnati Flow Rag”

Born in Laurens, South Carolina, Gary Davis (1896-1972) was one of eight children his mother bore but the only one who survived to adulthood. He became blind as an infant and was mistreated by his mother, so much so that his father placed him in the care of his paternal grandmother.

Davis took to the guitar at an early age and developed a unique style, playing not only ragtime and blues tunes, but also traditional and original songs. In the mid-1920s, he migrated to Durham North Carolina, a major center for black culture at the time. While there, Davis collaborated with a number of other artists in the Piedmont blues scene including Blind Boy Fuller and Bull City Red. The Piedmont (literally, foothill) guitar style was named after the Piedmont plateau region, on the East Coast of the United States from Virginia to Georgia.

It was also during his time in Durham that Davis converted to Christianity and he would later be ordained as a Baptist minister. Following his conversion and especially his ordination, Davis began to express a preference for inspirational gospel music. His strong religious convictions not only helped him deal with his blindness, but also cemented deep gospel roots he would draw on for the rest of his career. He also broke his right wrist in an accident around this time and the wrist was never set properly, which accounts for a good deal of his unorthodox fingering and hand positions on the guitar.

He became a well known street performer in the early 30’s and built up a great reputation at parties and dances around South Carolina, playing his vast repertoire of John Philip Sousa marches, Scott Joplin ragtime piano pieces on the guitar, as well as blues and gospel songs. In 1935, a store manager with a reputation for supporting local artists introduced many artists, including Davis, to the American Record Company. The subsequent recording sessions marked the real beginning of Davis’ career.

In 1940, he moved to New York where he continued to work as a street performer until he recorded again in 1956. These recordings garnered him a lot of attention and he was finally rediscovered the by folk and blues revivalists of the early 60s. He continued recording albums and became very popular on the folk circuit and toured throughout the US and even Europe, spreading his gospel message and spellbinding audiences with his powerful intense voice and his guitar virtuosity.

In New York, guitarists started to frequent his apartment for lessons, including Dave Van Ronk, Stefan Grossman, Bob Weir (later of The Grateful Dead) and Jorma Kaukonen (later of Jefferson Airplane). Like many of the older blues players rediscovered at this time, he performed at the Newport Folk Festival. Peter, Paul and Mary recorded his version of “Samson and Delilah”, also known as “If I Had My Way”, a song by Blind Willie Johnson that Davis had popularized. “Samson and Delilah” was also covered and credited to Davis by the Grateful Dead, who also covered one of Davis’ great masterpieces, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” Eric Von Schmidt credited Davis with three-quarters of Schmidt’s “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”, covered by Bob Dylan on his debut album.

I was very fortunate to come of age when the folk revival took North America by storm. I loved everything about the music. Although I started to play guitar in 1963, I had to wait until 1969 before I could buy my first acoustic guitar. For the next six years, I tried to learn the instrument but everything was difficult back then. Even tuning the guitar was a problem – the only tuning aid at that time was a tuning fork and they certainly didn’t sell those in Rockland! At any rate, the tuning fork only helped you tune one string. Now, we have inexpensive digital tuners that precisely tune all the strings of any instrument to perfect concert pitch.

I remember being frustrated at trying to learn to play from recordings – since my guitar was only tuned “by ear” I struggled finding the right pitch and the notes played by the great artists of the time flew at me from everywhere. Then there were innovative guitarists like Bert Jansch who played the guitar in exotic tunings and I couldn’t find their notes on my guitar! I was saved when I saw an ad at the back of a comic book, telling me to write in to the Stefan Grossman Guitar Workshop in New York City for a free catalog of guitar instruction lessons. I started collecting Grossman’s instruction books, everything written out in tablature, a pictorial representation of the six guitar strings complete with numbers on the string lines to indicate at which fret to play each string. For a kid like me, who could never afford real music lessons, tablature was a godsend. Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, and Stephan Grossman himself, is responsible for nurturing the aspirations of countless guitarists who wanted to learn the fingerpicking style of guitar. The Workshop is still active and now features many priceless video recordings of the great masters from the past. I am still a client.

The Reverend Gary Davis learned “Candyman” around 1905 but he seldom sang the lyrics, judging them to be sacrilegious. I myself never stoop so low as to sing the “Big Leg Ida” verse. Bass lines in fingerpicking are played by the thumb and invariably from low tonic to higher fifth or the higher octave of the tonic. Davis played “Candyman” from high fifth to the low tonic, probably just to confound his students! It is a subtle inversion that is easily fumbled, so that most guitarists play the song the more conventional way. Out of respect (and preference), I play “Candyman” the Reverend’s way.

My Godin Seagull guitar

A number of people today are uncomfortable with the song’s overt reference to a drug pusher (candyman) but the song comes from a time when drugs were not regulated. At the turn of the century, opium was readily available in a liquid form called laudanum and was widely prescribed for everything from menstrual cramps to hysteria and depression. Cocaine in various forms was found at most high society gatherings and was the drug of choice for Sigmund Freud and Pope Leo XIII, among many others. It is never wise to view a bygone era with contemporary sensibilities.

One of the first records I bought was a collection of Reverend Gary Davis tunes, including “Cincinnati Flow Rag.” The reverend recorded this piece about a dozen times , but never the same way twice.. That record I had is long gone and I haven’t come across that particular version of “Cincinnati Flow Rag” but it was unforgettable, complete with field hollers. I play it as I remember it.

For this recording I used my Godin Seagull guitar, hand-made in La Patrie, Québec.


Richard Séguin – voice and acoustic guitar


Candyman + Cincinnati Flow Rag

posted by R.A.Seguin in Non classé and have No Comments