Reverend Gary Davis, Durham Blues Legend

On May 5, 1972, legendary bluesman Reverend Gary Davis died. Renowned as a finger-style ragtime guitar player, he influenced generations of players.

Davis got his start as a popular street musician in Durham in the 1930s, where he was known as “Blind Gary Davis.” Ordained as a minister of the Free Baptist Connection Church in Washington, North Carolina in 1913, he began to tour as a singing gospel preacher.

Davis recorded with Blind Boy Fuller in New York in 1935.  His “Piedmont style” of the blues was akin to the music performed later by Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry who popular around the same time. As his popularity grew, Davis toured the folk and blues revival circuits, playing jumbo Gibson acoustic guitars. His students included David Bromberg, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and the Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen. His finger-picking guitar style influenced many other musicians, including Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, Dave Van Ronk, Taj Mahal and Bob Dylan.

In addition to being a performer and teacher, Davis was a prolific composer of both religious and secular music. He incorporated John Phillips Sousa marches, spirituals and square dance music into intricate guitar instrumentals. Songs associated with Davis include “Baby, Can I Follow You Down,” “Candy Man,” “Cocaine Blues” and “Samson and Delilah.”

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