Reverend Gary Davis grew up blind and poor in the Piedmont region of South Carolina at the dawn of the 20th century. Orphaned by his parents and raised by his paternal grandmother, Davis found expression in the acoustic guitar, singing gospel, ragtime and blues songs, both traditional and original.
As a young man, he migrated north to Durham, North Carolina, and then to New York City’s Harlem, all the while continuing to write, perform and develop his style, which included working the range of the fretboard with his intricate rhythm and lead work. Many guitarists hearing his records assumed they were listening to two guitarists, when in fact it was Davis alone.
Thanks to the folk and blues revivals of the early Sixties, Davis’s career got a much needed boost, bringing him and his music to the attention of Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Peter, Paul and Mary and countless other musicians who helped keep his songs alive over the years since Davis died, in May 1972.
Now Davis’s story comes to the screen in Harlem Street Singer, the first-ever film to tell his little-known story. The trailer for the film is presented below.
Produced by Acoustic Traditions Films, Harlem Street Singer traces Davis’s journey from the tobacco warehouses of the rural south to the streets of Harlem to create a revealing portrait of an artist who impacted the musical landscape of folk music. In addition to performances by Davis, the Grateful Dead and others, the film features interviews with many of the artists he influenced, including the Dead’s Bob Weir, Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen, David Bromberg, Stefan Grossman, John Hammond, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Len Chandler. Their statements attest to the powerful pull of Davis’s music.
“Damn near any musician who was a real guitar player in New York in the Fifties and Sixties was influenced by Gary,” notes musician and producer Barry Kornfeld.
“There was maybe one person, two people, in a hundred that knew they were listening to a Gary Davis tune,” Weir says of the Grateful Dead’s covers of Davis songs like “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and “Samson and Delilah.” “Probably half of them thought that we had written it.“
Harlem Street Singer celebrates the beauty and spirituality of Davis’s music as well as the human qualities that made him a much-loved teacher and minister.