Rev. Gary Davis was a musical genius. His music and guitar playing spanned a century of different techniques, styles and ideas and touched on so many musical
formats, i.e. blues, ragtime, folk, gospel, marching songs and tin pan alley hits. In these single song lessons Ernie Hawkins teaches Rev. Davis’s
most requested and famous guitar arrangements. Ernie gives you a detailed rundown of each arrangement, analyzing the structure and timing of each phrase,
verse and chorus and then replaying everything slower on a split screen with close-ups of both hands.
All these lessons are taught by Ernie Hawkins.
Played in the key of G this is one of his most famous, happiest and fun songs. It starts in first position G and walks up through a famous Blind Blake G riff: open G string, to the 3rd fret, open B to it's 3rd fret to the open E and up to the 1st fret, which is the 7th. On to the C chord, where it walks up in a similar way to the C7, fifth fret G form.
So in the C it starts on the 2nd string, first fret, to the 3rd, 4th, first string open, to the 3rd , 5th and 6th frets, which is that C7. It moves up to the difficult Gary Davis G form with the first finger on the 5th fret, fourth string- the G root - and the last three fingers forming the D form, 7th fret. It moves down from that G to an A7 form D7 on the 5th fret, down further to the E form G, 3rd fret, left thumb on the low base, 3rd fret.
From there it moves down the a 1st position E and on through the circle of fifths with A7, D7 and G. It ends by going through the great and famous Blind Blake turnaround of G, G7, C, Eb7 played by descending on the 4th string from the third fret to the open D.
This is one of Rev. Davis' instrumental show pieces that he loved to embellish, improvise and decorate with a repertoire of grunts, whistles, moans, squeals, claps, slaps, thumps, stories and jokes. He worked around a core form that allowed him to open up his imagination and express his creativity. It starts with his patented first position C7 chord, played with his left thumb covering the two base strings on the third fret which enabled him to play the high fifth on the high E string, third fret, while playing the seventh, the Bb, on the third string, third fret.
From there he moved to the first position F, left thumb on the first fret, low E. Then he jumps to the A diminished, fifth fret, and the G form C, also fifth fret. He's doing this while syncopating the beat with his right hand, characteristically using his typical right hand roll: thumb, finger, thumb, thumb, finger, finger, thumb. (Bear in mind that he always only used his right thumb and forefinger.)
The second time through he plays the C7, the F, then Ab7 to G7. After repeating the first four chords he often played a descending, syncopated sequence: C, Bb, F with an A base, Ab with his little finger, left hand on the fourth fret, lo E string, C, D7, with his thumb on the seconds fret, low E, G7, C. The bases descended: C, Bb, A, Ab, G, F#.
He picked up that F# base, low E and repeated it on the D string, fourth fret, played with his little finger, and kept moving down on the string to the seventh, on the third fret, to the E note, second fret, the third note of the resolving C chord. He makes this very complex sequence sound smooth, simple and natural. Often instead of this first position turn around, he plays it up the neck out of the G form C chord, descending on the fourth string on the eighth, seventh, sixth frets, using a standard blues turnaround.
For a second part of the song, he walks up connecting chords from the C form C to The A form, on the second and fourth strings. He starts in C, first fret second string and second fret fourth string, to the third frets and fourth frets both strings to the first and third strings open. Here he is basically harmonizing the run: C, D, Eb, E, Eb, C, A. This is a move that he really exploits beautifully in Fast Fox Trot.
This is a wonderful little rag that the Rev. said he learned from a piano player. It is beautifully symmetrical and a sweet example of his key of C ragtime blues (that is: jazz) style. It begins with a classic Rev. Gary Davis C run out of first position and moves up to a diminished A on the 5th fret. Back to the run and up to a diminished C on the 8th fret.
He resolves it with an II IV I progression and a IV bVI V turnaround. The bridge moves up the III, an E7 chord made from Rev. Davis' distinctive C form that uses his left thumb to cover the two low strings, in this case, on the 7th fret. (Merle Travis is the only other player I know whom independently, it seems, used this fingering.) From there he uses the E form A minor on the 5th fret, running down to the first position A minor. Down two frets from the E7 he then uses the same fingering for there D7 on the 5th fret, and then moves down to the 1st position G-G7, with the 7th on the D string, 3rd fret.
This is a brilliant example of Rev. Davis' unique A blues style. If you hear anybody else playing these runs, for instance Blind Boy Fuller or Brownie McGee, you can be sure that the Rev. taught them.
The same sorts of runs appear in other famous blues such as Mountain Jack recorded in the thirties and Seven Sisters. They form the backbone of Twelve Gates. These blues are wickedly improvised around a handful of stock phrases. They use the whole fret board to sing clarion trumpet calls. He uses every rhythmic variation in the book, seamlessly throwing in triplets and double timing perfectly as the progression rolls along.
It starts with a high call in the D/C form A on the 8th fret, works it's way down the neck through the A form D, back up to the D form and finally down to the famous 1st position A run that forms the heart of these songs. He slides up from the 1st to the second frets on the D, G, and B strings, hits the open high E and rolls down on the bases by pulling off the 1st fret, D string to the major 3rd, 4th fret A string, resolving on the middle A note, 2nd fret G string. The chromatic base runs he peppers throughout are the same ones he got down so pat from early on, that we can hear in his thirties recordings.
This whole style of A blues is full-blown from the start and, as I said, unique to Rev Davis. Every key, genre, regional style, it seems, he wholly made over into something deeply original. At the same time he shows a deep mastery of those very traditions he transforms.
Candy Man appears to be, and sounds like, at first hearing, a beautiful, fairly simple 16-bar song. Rev. Davis was always playing it, even in his sleep, according to Dave Van Ronk. In fact, it is fiendishly conceived. I have found it to be very difficult to teach. The melody starts on the open G string, and moves back and forth from that G note to the relative minor, the A on the second fret. Where the melody starts is where the first beat lands. This means that the first beat starts on the high base, rather than the low. This reverses the beat from almost any song that can be found in this guitar tradition. A handful of Rev. Davis' songs start this way, a notable other example being You Got The Pocketbook, I Got The Key. The tip-off comes with the three base notes at the end of the progression the G, E, C. That C, rather than being the first note in the last bar is the last note, the 4th beat. Van Ronk recorded it as a normal song, with the beat in the usual place. In his biography, written by Elijah Wald, he says that he knew he had it wrong and actually dreamt that he was playing it right for the Rev. This song is another example of Rev. Davis taking a simple country-style song and turning it into something unique to him and very special.
When Ernie Hawkins told Rev. Davis that he was interested in the old songs, he said this was his mothers' mothers' mothers' mothers' (etc.) song. According to Dr. Ellis this actually was one of his oldest. It was a ring shout type number that his grandmother sang while hoeing in the fields. He adapted the original a cappella song for the guitar.
"I sat down studying what keys to play this song in so it sound just like they sang it." It's another one of those Old Testament minor (this time A minor) songs that goes straight to the soul. When he sings, "I rapped and I rapped at the Mercy's door 'til my head got wet with the morning dew," he's not messing around. Children of Zion revolves around the E minor form A minor on the fifth fret, taking advantage of the open A base.
It rolls down to the first position and gives us a chance to improvise on those A minor-C major runs. There is a beautifully used A chord that resolves into the A minor. The timing can be tricky. He often jumped all the way up to the twelfth fret to the A minor octave chord.
Rev Davis told me that Cocaine Blues was an example of 'country picking.' Unlike his usual complex style of playing, it remains in the first position, and uses a steady alternating base. This is an instance where Rev Davis takes up an earlier style of playing that on the surface seems not as sophisticated as his usual playing, that uses a common progression, and turns it into something really special.
It's in the key of C but never once uses a C base. Through the three chords, he alternates 6th and 4th strings for the base. When playing the C chord, he often hammers on the 4th string base, often on the 4th beat of the measure. This contributes to the song's contemplative and hypnotic effect. The lines that snake around the very simple melody, running through the progression, reinforce this trance inducing quality.
These bases and the basic 16-bar form, act as a platform that allows him to improvise these lines seemingly endlessly. There is a serious bittersweet tone to the guitar part. It seems to come from a deep place in the soul. The words can be funny witty, down and dirty, nasty and even serious.
This is one of the most compelling guitar parts in Rev. Davis' entire repertoire. The descending line, D C B G on the three bass strings gets the song moving toward it's chord progression in a way that propels the story.
Using the left hand thumb on the low G note, third fret, E string enables the player to tackle Rev. Davis' famous G7 fingering with it's doubled seventh - the F note on the fourth string third fret and first string, first fret. The high-end break perfectly mirrors the progression.
Rev. Davis obviously loved playing standards. It seems like he always found the perfect key for his style of fingerpicking. Because it works out of the first position so much, it's very important that the sweetest, most convenient key be chosen. That's not to say that he couldn't play in flat keys, having worked out songs in the recorded keys. He starts out with an introduction that bears some resemblance to his version of Walkin' Dog Blues. It's F to C7 in the first position, first four bars. The following four bars he's up into the second position C7 and F, coming down with A7 forms C and Bb to the C7. This is, basically, repeated.
The song itself, the first melody note, starts on the low F base. The melody is picked up from there on the A, second fret G string. On the third beat of the second bar, he moves his thumb up a fret to the F# and plays the middle F#, with his little finger, fourth fret D string, neatly walking into the G7 chord, thumb now moved to the third fret and the seventh played on the third fret, D string. After the G7, he uses a C7 run to get back to F. After a bar of F he surprisingly walks down to Db, C position. The second time through goes to C on bar four, back to F and D minor. The song resolves from Bb, to C to F.
A deep, deep Em song that personifies Death as a figure that creeps into our room like a demon from our oldest dreams. He uses the same figures and tricks that we hear in his other E minor songs, though the chord progression is more complex and emotionally moving. It is as if the Em is really used in its role as the relative minor of the Key of G. In bars five to eight he moves the song into G, brightening the mood altogether. When he gets to the B7, what is the third in G becomes the fifth of the key of E minor, serving as a bittersweet transition back to the minor.
This is one of Rev. Davis' most famous and beloved songs, coved by such artists as Bob Dylan, Jorma Kaukonen and Hot Tuna, and the Grateful Dead.
Rev. Davis told Stefan Grossman that the first blues he heard was Delia played by an itinerant guitarist named Porter Irving ca. 1910, which would have put Davis in Greenville, South Carolina, around the time he began playing with Willie Walker. The guitar part of Delia is based on that of Cocaine Blues. It starts out with four bars of Cocaine in C and jumps up to the G form C, 5th fret. After a half bar in C it moves to D form F - easiest to play the C form. It lands back in first position C, half bar to Am half bar. The rest is the Cocaine Blues F and concluding C.
Rev. Davis taught us all how to play in F, an unusual but, it turns out, very happy key for fingerpickers. He had many brilliant songs, sacred and secular in this key. This is another instance of a confluence with Merle Travis, who was also adept in the key of F. Great minds truly do think alike. By using his left thumb to cover to low F base, first fret, low E string, he sets up octave bases with the third fret, D string.
This song is in three parts. Part A is the improvised "bugle-call" motif worked out of the D form F, fifth fret. He uses his little finger to play the eighth fret, high E string off and on, and easily creates the I III V bugle-sounding patterns. He will alternate between this F chord and the G form C7 on the same, the fifth, fret. Part A works out of the first position F and C7 chords. He keeps the base steadily alternating between the two F notes, fourth and sixth strings. To play this F chord, he covers the first frets of the three high strings. This enables him to hammer from the first fret to the second, third string. This is the often used minor to major third riff. Adding his little finger to the second string, third fret enables him to easily play the sixth. Like most of Rev. Davis' fingering, the style is very economical and the notes fall easily to hand.
I have learned over the years that if you are working too hard and your fingering is awkward, you are doing something wrong. The first three bars of this eight bar section play the melody in the F chord, and the fourth moves to the C7. He plays the low G base in the C7 chord by moving his left thumb from the first fret (for the F) to the third for the C7. Bars five and six return to the F while seven and eight consist of one of various runs moving through F to C7 to resolve on the F. Part B is the minor part, where the relative, the D minor, becomes the I and A7 the V. This is also eight bars and it alternates between the I and V. Here he often using his syncopated thumb-finger thumb-thumb-finger-finger-thumb roll. He uses the last two bars to repeat the runs he used to resolve part one, bringing the song back to the major key of F.
This is a neat circle of fifths ragtime-blues number cautioning infidelity. Though it's in G it starts on the III, the B7, A form, 4th fret. It walks through the progression - E, A, D - until it gets to the G and works it's way through the Blind Blake G turnaround, G, G7, C, Eb7, runs down G to G, 1st string through the 3rd. It then takes the middle notes of the E form G, on there 2nd and 3rd strings and walks down chromatically to the open strings. Then it repeats the Blake run, double time.
Learning to play Fast Fox Trot (Buck Rag) will take you a long way to understanding and playing Rev. Davis's key of C rags, sacred songs, and especially blues.
Part A is based on passing chords that like the first position C to the A form. The two notes of the first position C on the B and D strings are C and E, respectively, the I and the III. If you move these to the third fret, same strings, you have to middle of a G7 chord. Move up to the fourth fret same strings you have the (in C) flat IV and the flat III-the minor III. (The diminished.) Move up one more fret, the fifth, while barring the third fret, you have an A7 position C chord. Those two notes, fifth fret B and D strings, are G and E, the III and V of C. Now here's the key: these two notes, G and E, are the same, of course, as the first and third strings, open. Moving from the fourth fret to the open strings, completing the movement of the connecting chords from the C form C to the A form. This makes these kinds of runs effortless, as they fall so naturally to hand.
As Fast Fox Trot attests, there is a lot of music and harmony in these notes and Rev. Davis seems to find infinite ways to play them. For the B part, he continues to play separate lines up the neck to the G form C, again cleverly using open strings as he rolls the high runs down the first position runs. This is a difficult song to study and learn, but will reap many key of C rewards. Learn this and you have come into possession of an essential key to Rev. Davis playing.
This is a 12-bar blues that modulates from the key of G to C. Rev. Davis showed Ernie this back in the sixties. As this is the only version Ernie has ever heard, he doesn't know if Rev. Davis was improvising around the song or playing it as a relatively set piece like Slow Drag.
In the C part, the 12th bar has a Ab7 instead of G. For the G part, the melody starts on the open 3rd string (the I) and walks up, in the manner of Blind Blake, to the minor 3rd, then the 3rd, then to the fifth. It does exactly the same thing with the C chord. It then moves up to the D form G, and down to the E form. In the C part he used the minor to major, 4th fret second string to 1st string open beautifully. As he played that melody, he was able to harmonize a counterpoint middle line on the same frets of the G and D strings. He taught us all how to do this with Fast Fox Trot.
This is an example of the Rev. arranging a recording from a band for solo Piedmont guitar. He was a master at this. His guitar not only imitated a piano but brilliantly and effortlessly, it seemed, reproduced the sounds of a whole band.
This is a 12-bar C blues based probably on the W. C. Handy song. The first four bars rock back and forth between the Am and E7 chords. From there it falls into a standard Gary Davis C blues. This song is a perfect platform to get comfortable playing and singing these blues.
The Rev. seemed to be able to spin endless verses from this progression. Playing blues in C with the style is a good way to break into the way he uses runs and reply to the melody and improvise. C is the perfect key for this because runs easily fall to hand.
The I is the 1st fret of the second string, The III is the open E and the V is the 3rd fret, high E. The 3rd and minor 3rd are right there: 4th fret B string to open E. The G form C chord on the 5th fret makes it easy to play the Rev.'s patented trumpet lines down to the first position.
Another example of Rev. Davis' creative and precise melodic playing in the key of C. He establishes the melody and then improvises freely on it. It's important to note that Rev. Davis uses his left-hand thumb on the low fifth, the G note, third fret low E string to sort of anchor the C chord. It's there when he needs it for the G7 chord (with the middle voice seventh on the third fret, D string). This is apparently an original with no precedents.
Rev. Davis' C gospel songs are wondrous to behold, worked out in a style unique to him. The key of C has a brightness and a sort of uplifting tone. The melodies are detailed and ornate; the basses form contrapuntal supporting lines. Rev. Davis had a great variety of key of C sacred songs. If we just listen to the compiled 1935 recordings, of the ten songs in the key of C, we hear three that are of the same basic form: I Belong to the Band, Stand By Me, and You Can Go Home. As close as they sound, they still differ in subtle, but important ways. They share a form, but keep their individuality.
There is nothing like these songs anywhere in the American folk, blues, gospel guitar traditions. I Belong to the Band is a outstanding example of the use of this form. In the chorus, the bass seems to answer the "Hallelujahs" with it's own line, and then punctuates the second half with notes on the fourth and first beats. The verses ring through a signature, clarion C run from the G form, fifth fret on down.
This, again, is another Em song that comes from the depths of spiritual longing. The themes of going over from this world to the realities of the next, contact with the Holy Ghost and salvation from the fallen state of sin: this is the essence of the spiritual side of Rev. Davis. It uses the same guitar strategies as found in Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning and Death Don't Have No Mercy.
Again, this is Rev. Davis reviving an old song in his typical key of G chord-melody style, the melody played on the first string as it is supported by chords and the runs that connect those chords. Dr. Ellis tells us that it is also known as “Sweepin’ Through The City,” and “I Won’t Be Back.”
This popular gospel number has received many treatments, most notably by the Carter Family (as “We Will March Through the Streets of the City”) and Shirley Caesar and the Caravans in 1962 for Savoy (“I Won’t Be Back”). It has even shown up in the repertoires of the Singing and Praying Bands of Maryland
Rev. Davis had a bag of E minor songs. They tended to deal with the deeper themes of life, offering an archetypal profundity. These are themes that generally come out of the Old Testament. Like the ancient prophets, Rev. Davis (and Blind Willie Johnson, who also was at home with these songs) urges us to keep the light of the soul burning brightly, and our hearts set on the greater life to come.
Rev. Davis uses three different E minor inversions. The first position uses the natural open strings in the country blues tradition. Here the Em pentatonic scale falls easily to hand. Rev. Davis€۪ innovation is to run down the treble strings while ascending in the bass. He does this while walking through the progression: C Em B7 Em. The first C in this progression is in the A form, between the third and fifth frets. This C is easily interchanged, with the fingering Rev. Davis uses, with the second position Em, the Dm form. The song begins on the third position Em, the Am form between the seventh and ninth frets. It rocks back and forth to the E form B7 chord on the same fret. He likes to take a break on the open strings for the chorus.
Here is another key of G chord-melody song, this time an original that further shows Rev. Davis seemingly limitless imagination. Dr. Ellis tells us: Davis was very much aware of the social implications of this rousing participatory number when he told a Seattle audience, “People been talking about going to heaven, and we divided down here. We don’t want to mix together down here but we all want to go to heaven.
One thing I want to say, there ain’t no white heaven and there ain’t no white hell. Ain’t no black heaven, and there ain’t no black hell. But when all of us die, you understand, we likely going to that same hell. There ain’t no white fire down there either… Let us see where heaven begin at,” at which point he launched into Let Us Get Together.
This is another virtuoso piece, possibly learned from Blind Willie Walker when he and the young hot guitarist Gary Davis led a string band together. It is, of course loosely based on Scott Joplin’s famous Maple Leaf Rag. Throughout the song, the main fingerpicking employed is Rev. Davis’ right hand ‘thumb roll’. Since he used only the thumb and forefinger of the right hand for picking, he devised a perfect way to play triplets.
It goes: thumb, finger, thumb, thumb, finger, finger, thumb. This pattern rolls through the whole tune and gives it it’s distinctive syncopation. He starts with the A diminished, 5th fret, goes down to the 1st position A and then to the base run that repeats throughout. He marches through the song’s diminished chords, triplets, runs, dissonant chords (the Ab5) until it sweeps up the neck, the D form A on the 9th fret. He stays up there through the E form A and there C7 form E
This song is one of the Reverend’s statements of faith and the road to salvation. He told me that it was a gift from the Holy Spirit that came to him in a dream. Like Samson, it is a study in chord inversions in the key of G. He uses the same difficult D form from Samson for the C on the tenth fret. This is Rev. Davis playing his unique, complex, contrapuntal style of ‘chord-melody’.
Virtuoso D blues improvised around a melody in standard tuning. Not only is Rev. Davis working around a theme but as he invents his way along, he does it with complex counterpoint. On the base, he often sticks to the A and D in the D chord. But then he works the song around a repeated base run: A D F# D, the same run that he uses in G in Crucifixion.
He uses the whole neck, moving the D chord up through the A form, 5th fret (where the song begins) to the G, 8th fret. Though we rarely hear him play blues in this key, it is amazing how intimate he is with it. He sticks faithfully to the progression and weaves the melodic lines through it the way a jazz pianist would. Sliding the D chord from the first to the second fret enables you to play the minor 3rd to the major on the 1st string as easily as with the C chord. This is the middle of the run that falls from the 1st string 5th fret (the V) to the 3rd fret 2nd string, the I. Around the middle of the song he breaks off base and melody picking and works out with single line base runs.
This song is not just virtuosic, it is soulful, bluesy and beautiful.
This is played in the key of. He chose to stay in standard tuning when playing in D. This enabled him to exploit one of his signature riffs — used also in Let Us Get Together. This is where, with a D7 chord, he descended on the base, from A to G to F# (A and low E strings) while ascending, from E to F to F# on the treble (high E string). He suggests the same kind of movement with the
following G7. By using three different D forms. The first position D7, the second position C form D major and the C7 form using his thumb to fret the two bottom strings, fifth fret, he manages to play subtle harmonies on the middle strings. This is an elegant, compact, gem-like arrangement.
Although this songs sounds, on the surface, fairly simple and straightforward, it is yet another example of the Reverend taking a common traditional form and, with the tricks of impeccable timing, turning it into something diabolically clever and difficult to play. I don't think that he ever really worried much about other guitarists stealing his stuff because he knew how really hard it was to play it like he did. On the other hand, he prided himself on the ability to imitate any guitarist, being able himself to steal anything he admired. So it is most helpful to be sure, when listening to him play this song, and complex songs like this, to be able to count the changes accurately. It is very much like listening to Thelonious Monk. The changes proceed impeccably, but the melody slides over through the progression in devious ways, often starting on the four rather than the one. For me personally, this was a lesson that, once learned, made all the difference for his music in general.
Therefore, keep in mind that many of Rev. Davis's songs come into focus when counted. This is true not only of the songs he has worked out to stable forms, but also of the many improvised blues that he has recorded. It is in these blues that he often brings the great Monk to mind. This is another reason, in my opinion, that Rev Davis should be considered one of the great jazz age artists. The song begins normally enough, with the base run from G to C to A minor. When he gets to the run, he pauses on the four beat and starts the run on the and-one, ending on the third beat of the next bar. Ending again on the third beat when he resolves the first part, he starts the second part with a slide to the fifth fret, second string again on the fourth beat. So the general rule, once this tune gets going is to start the sequence on the fourth beat instead on the usual first.
This is Rev. Davis’ signature song. It is a masterpiece that stands up there with any virtuoso’s song from any tradition. According to the story I heard, the substantial royalties from this song helped change Rev. Davis’ and Annie’s lives. In the office of Peter Paul and Mary’s lawyers, Rev. Davis was asked if, in fact, he wrote that song. After a pause, he said no. Because they wanted him to have that money, everyone was surprised. He then said, to great relief all around, that “the Lord gave it to me in 1927.”
Apparently this satisfied the lawyers, who did not know that both Blind Willie Johnson and Rev. T. T. Rose recorded it that very year. Rev. Rose’s recording is very close to Rev. Davis’. But he was savvy enough to see it as a way out of the poverty that dogged his life until then.
This is one of the Rev’s greatest and most beloved guitar showcases, and one of the great virtuoso pieces in the whole Piedmont canon. It is a highly syncopated dance tune using a “New Orleans” beat. Part I is the most distinctive, complex and difficult part. It features two bars of a rising base from the G to the C and descending treble that move opposite, that is down from the G to the C. While this sophisticated counterpoint is happening, The Rev. maintains the tricky New Orleans beat on both ends. It uses the A form C on the 5th fret for the high part of the melody.
To my ears this is a melody appropriated from a section of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag. This rag was so famous and beloved that any one of its parts would be instantly recognized and celebrated. Part II enabled him to pick and chord on up the fretboard, opening the way for further improvising. Often he stretched these parts beyond the bounds of the progression, which was unusual for him.
This is surely one of the most amazing showpieces in all the fingerpicking world. It starts in F and modulates to C, covers the neck, and is full of wit and virtuosity. It starts with a rousing drum roll, first position F, then hits a jazzy reveille worked out of D form F, fifth fret. He establishes his spirited marching pace and is off to war. The song creates images and tells the story of battle, complete with the sound effects. Part A, a Sousa-sounding march in F starts on the first position, and for bases uses only the low E (first fret) and the A (third fret). It’s the perfect chord for playing the scales that make up the melody on the treble strings. By hammering on and pulling off, the melody falls sweetly to hand, like all of Rev. Davis’ playing. The same holds true for the following chords, C7, first position, D7, same form, up two frets. The base stays steady on the two low strings, the left thumb covering the low E on all three chords. The second time through part A, the song moves to the Bb, A form, left thumb covering both basses, first fret. After returning top the F, part A resolves with the Bb, C (Bb up two frets) and a nifty run, that slides up to the F note, seventh fret, A string, straight to the open D string, finally rolling down in the first position to the F.
It really gets interesting when it gets to part B. A chromatic run from the G, on the high E string, third fret, down to the open E, initiates the key change to C. He quickly goes to D7, (made like a F, but with the left thumb up to the F#, second fret, low E string, and the little finger to the F#, fourth fret D string. To play the G that follows, continue moving the thumb up, this time to the G, third fret, and play a G7 with the F on the D string, third fret. Again, this time with the C and G7 chords, he pulls and hammers the scales that make the melody. The bugle call towards the end comes out of the D form F, fifth fret, and this part resolves with the same D7 and G7 as before. The last time through this part, it resolves with ascending D form chords, F, G, and E on the twelfth fret. The bugle call interlude that follows is played out of the D form E, fourth fret, the D form G, seventh fret, down to Eb7, D7 form, first finger on the first fret of the D string, back and forth to the D, first position. This creates a kind of tension that resolves in various G runs, back to C. At the very end of the song, as nightfalls on the battlefield, taps is played out of the D form F.
This is one of Rev. Davis’s most traditional sounding pieces — a typical Piedmont A blues. In the context of his wider repertoire, it is relatively simple and he often used it to teach beginners, using it to introduce them to his playing. It revolves around a second position G, or ‘long-A’ form A chord. The first finger of the left hand frets the four high strings, second fret, and the little finger frets the first string, fifth fret. By sliding from the first to the second fret of the second string, moving from the minor to the major III, and then playing the second fret, G string, the I, he plays the word “spoonful”. He plays this in different octaves: eighth to ninth frets first string (D form A) to the tenth fret second string, and by choking up on the third fret, low E string, the open low E.
Though I have heard him occasionally use the IV chord, the D or D7 in the second bar, in this song, he most always plays it with just with A and E chords, the I and the V. Starting out, in the A chord, notice that he often uses the standard blues ‘thumb drag’ from the open low E string to the open A, on the ‘+ one’ beat. When he gets to the E7 chord, he hammers on the first fret of the G string some of the time, and plays the open high E to the seventh on the third fret, second string.
This surprising version modulates from C to the Key of G. The parts are related musically, but are very different in their tone. Part A, which has 16 bars, has the serenity, depth, and playfulness of Cocaine Blues, on which it is based. The right hand picking style is, basically, Cocaine Blues. Mainly it stays in the first position, and the bases are the same, always on the Low E and D strings. The difference is the chord progression, as it starts with two bars of G and G7. The second bar resolves on the C but immediately moves to F. He often hits the open low E string, either on the third beat of the second bar, or the fourth, in anticipation of the coming F. The fifth and sixth bars repeat the F, the seventh bar is D7 and the eighth is G. The is the part that sounds so much like Cocaine Blues. The second eight bars are the same, except the fifteenth bar contains the G, the last bar is the resolution of C.
Although he’s rolling along at a fast clip, Rev. Davis takes his time with the variations. He sometimes moves down from the G form C, fifth fret, to the D form F to C with the G on the high E, and then C7 (like Rag Blues in C) The second eight bars reverse the movement, going from the C with the high G, to F7 on the third fret to G7 of the fifth, landing on the G form C with the C note on the eighth fret. Both G parts imitate the two C parts, though not exactly. The low G part starts on the C form G, little finger on the high D, first string, tenth fret. Then it’s down to the E form C, eighth fret, the D form G to the E form G. For the IV chord, he uses, most of the time, the A form C. From the first chord, the C form G, high D, he walks up exactly as he does in the C part: D7 form C7, D7 form D7 to the high G form G, octave. He walks back down from that high G to the D form C, A7 form G, C form G. You will have understood a great deal of CAGED theory when you get this wonderful, inventive song under your fingers.
Next to Samson, Twelve Gates is Rev. Davis’ most powerful and popular song. It’s a vision of the celestial city, Holy Jerusalem, straight out of Revelations, 21:21. (“And the twelve gates were twelve pearls: every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass”). This image is a mandala employing the number four, compounded four times, bringing an archetypal sense of wholeness to the soul. Rev. Davis’ playing in the key of A, beautifully structured, enables this fourfold architecture to reverberate. He uses this style of playing in A in both blues and sacred songs. It is unique to him and can be heard fully formed from his earliest recordings, with Twelve Gates itself and I’m Throwin’ Up My Hand. When we hear Blind Boy Fuller and Brownie McGee play in this style, with more simplicity, we can be sure that they learned it from the master. The style is build around the A chord, first position and A chord, second position, G form. This enables him to best use the open strings on the fleet chromatic runs that roll through the song. Besides that he uses the D form A on the ninth fret to imitate the voice singing the verse.
Yet another virtuoso showpiece that is Rev. Davis's equivalent to Merle Travis's Cannonball Rag. He takes the common circle of fifths progression in G, E7, A7, D7, G and goes to work all over the neck. The core of the song starts mid-neck with his five-fingered C7 form E7, his thumb anchoring the chord on the two low strings on the seventh fret. He works his way down to the E form A, fifth fret, the C7 form D7, fifth fret, the E form G to the first position G. He repeats the progression through the first position chords until he gets back to the G, when he plays a two bar, two octave run.
Every other time through he plays a two bar run through the A7 chord, after which he resolves the progression by playing the D form G, seventh fret, the A7 form D7, fifth fret, to the E form G, third fret. He varies these runs by either starting on the first beat or a half beat sooner. At times he takes the E chord all the way up to the G form E, ninth fret, to the D form A, also the ninth fret, and runs down through the D and G. It seems as though he always varied the performances, improvising runs and varying the chord forms effortlessly.
One of Rev. Davis deepest and most amazing songs. It's a narration, a journey around Blues. Although he was often talking down on slide guitar playing, he not only knew what he was doing, but he did it like no one else.
The originality of this song starts with the tuning, D-A-D-F#-A-B, that adds the sixth, the B note, which makes just playing open strings melodic. He lopes along sweetly on the open strings, and whistles a little with the slide. When he gets himself around to imitating the piano, he slides up to the twelfth fret and plays triplets. These triplets along with the sixth in the scale produces a romping classic boogie-woogie sound that makes you get out of your chair. He further imitates the piano by walking down octaves. But then he gets sweet the way a piano can't and plays a little Poor Boy.
Of all of Rev. Davis's D songs, (as always, in standard tuning) this is the most amazing as a guitar piece. He uses the G form D, up the neck on the seventh fret the way he uses the G form C, coming down with a cornet-sounding line seamlessly onto open strings to finish the run. Timing is tricky, so try counting the bars to be sure how the runs fit together.
Rev. Davis set more than a dozen songs in the key of D on guitar, including "I'll Be All Right Some Day;"" Lord, I Feel Just Like Goin' On;"" Right Now;""There's a Bright Side Somewhere;" "There's Destruction in This Land;" and his emotional centerpiece, "I Will Do My Last Singing in This Land Somewhere." But the technical showstopper in D, hands down, was "You Got to Move," an energetic tour de force that involved virtuosic string bends, rapid runs, "talking guitar" glissandi.