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John Renbourn on Davy Graham

March 30, 2011
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renbourn“I could go on for hours about Davy,” says legendary fingerstyle guitarist John Renbourn. “Back when I was a teenager, the craze was skiffle, which was the British attempt at playing American folk music. Because of skiffle, really great American players were coming over to Europe and the U.K. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott was one, Big Bill Broonzy was another, then Josh White, and eventually Jesse Fuller and Brownie McGhee. They left a few young players trying to copy their styles and Davy was by far the best. He knew Ramblin’ Jack, and he would have heard all the guys firsthand because he’s just slightly older than me. Then Davy went traveling to Morocco and Tangiers and hitchhiking around and he developed a whole style of playing that was just as fascinating as the original guys. In fact, he took it in many different directions. From the guitar player’s point of view at that time, he was just like a living legend. He was just amazing. Anywhere I would have gone hitchhiking, he would have been through already and people had heard bits of tunes from him and were trying to play like him. He was just a great influence even before he had been recorded. At the same time there was a big folk movement, and people had the idea that everything had to go back to the roots tradition. The British folk people grahamreally didn’t like the guitar because they felt it was an American instrument and it was wrong for the old songs. Davy was ostracized, but he completely changed that single-handed by arranging tunes that they said could never be arranged. One of the great classics he did was “She Moved Through the Fair,” which is a very ancient Irish modal tune, and he played it like a raga and just tore places apart. He was hugely eclectic and influenced everyone. Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, Archie Fisher—anybody you name who came afterwards. They all idolized him.

"When I first heard Davy he was sitting in playing blues with John Mayall and he was great. He was playing on an old Gibson J-50 with a DeArmond pickup like I used to use, and instead of just chunking along doing those sort of Jimmy Reid lines, he was playing 6ths and 10ths, but still great blues. It was just a different fingerstyle approach and it was lovely. It was roundabout that time that he came back from ten years in Morocco and he had the DADGAD tuning and I was there when he played it for the first time in public and it was just a big breakthrough. That’s what everyone got hold of to accompany the old songs with for a while. Then that tuning spawned other tunings that were easier to sing along with because DADGAD’s pretty high."

Photo of John Renbourn: Patrick Rafferty

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