We missed CeDell Davis’s birthday on June 9, but it’s still not too late to spread the news about this most distinctive and impressive Delta bluesman.
Davis, who just turned 88, no longer plays guitar, due to a stroke he had in 2005. But when he did, he played it like no other, fretting over the top of the neck with a butter knife in place of a slide.
His technique was by necessity. At the age of 10, Davis was stricken with polio, leaving him with minimal use of his hands. Growing up in Helena, Arkansas, in the Thirties, he was steeped in the Delta blues. He had already begun playing guitar before his polio, and there was a guitar-playing bluesman inside him struggling to come out. Davis was determined to overcome his handicap.
When he was well enough, he attempted to play guitar again. As his right hand had more mobility than his left, he flipped the instrument over, left to right, and dug at the strings with his left hand, while his right gripped one of his mother’s butter knives and plied upon the fretboard. The knife, it turned out, was the only implement he could hold in this way.
Davis eventually began performing in nightclubs throughout the Mississippi Delta and spent the 10-year period from 1953 to 1963 performing with Robert Nighthawk. One night in 1957, while Davis was performing in a nightclub, a police raid caused the crowd to flee. Davis was caught in the stampede and run over. Both his legs were broken, forcing him to use a wheelchair ever since.
Despite his stroke, Davis still sings and gets out to perform. Fortunately, video exists of him playing guitar in his distinctive style, and it is a treat to see. In the video below, he performs “Bull Dog Blues” for a group of young students, and gives them an invaluable lesson in blues history along the way.
If you want to hear more of Davis’s music, he cut several records released by Fat Possum, including his 1994 release, Feel Like Doin’ Something Wrong, an album produced by the late writer/musicologist Robert Palmer that Pitchfork Media rightly called “timeless.” By all means, check it out.