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Rev Gary Davis

Life and Times

Q: When and where were you born?

I was born on the last day of April, which is the thirtieth, in 1896. I was raised in Laurens County, South Carolina, on a farm, way down in the sticks, too. Way down in the country, so far you couldn’t hear a train whistle blow unless it was on a cloudy day.

Q: Who raised you?

My grandmother mostly raised me. You see, my father gave me to my grandmother when I was a child because he knowed that there was no confidence to be put into my mother. She was always from one place to another, going from different towns and dances. Things like that. So my father gave me to my grandmother. I had one brother. He was a good guitar player. I taught him. He used to keep me up all night long to teach him how to play the guitar. He got killed in 1930. The woman he was going with killed him. (1)

My mother had only two children that lived. She had eight children. All the others died when they were babes.

Q: Did your grandparents play instruments?

I didn’t know anything about my grandfather on my mother’s side. All I knew was them to play the harp. I had an Uncle who played guitar.

Q: Did he play well?

Long about them days what they called playing well wasn’t what I could call playing well today.

Q: Did your Uncle ever show you how to play?

No, he never showed me nothing. Nobody ever showed me anything. I worked it out myself.

Q: Were you born blind?

Yes. My grandmother said I taken blind when I was three weeks old. The doctor had something put in my eyes that was too strong and that was what caused me to go blind.

Q: I thought you could see out of one eye?

I could tell the look of a person but to tell who it is, I’m not able to do that.

Q: What was the relationship between black and white folk down South when you were growing up?

You see, in those days white and colored didn’t associate like the people here in the Northern states. I had too much experience about white folk then ‘cause my grandmother always raised me up from white people. They always told me that it wasn’t so good to dwell around white people’s children. They loved to play with me but my grandmother didn’t like me to take up too much time playing with white children.

I used to play for dances for white folks all right. When I was in the country I used to play for white folk’s picnics. Every time they’d have a picnic they’d come and get me.

Q: Tell me about the dances.

Sometimes people get drunk and get fightin’ and shootin’. All like that happened. I would stop playing and find somewhere to go when that happened because you know me and bullets don’t set horses.

Q: What type of tunes would you play?

I played everything I thought of. No religious songs though. Around then I was keen in my "young ways".

Q: Were you more interested in the lyrics or type of dance step that the people could do to your music?

Well it depended on what type of dance they had. You see ever since I started travelling cities, I found out things are different in the cities than it is in the country. In the country they had these old stomp down dances, you understand. Played on sets. They used to have fiddle players.

Q: Did you play different tunes at a white dance than at a black dance.

You see, around then I played for most all of them. They were separate. I didn’t make no exceptions unless it was something someone called for. There might be some slow song that the white people like to hear me play such like "love trots."

Q: Did you go to school?

Yeah, I was about 18 years old when I started going to school -- Cedar Springs for Blind People.

Q: Did you go to school to learn how to read Braille?

I went to Spartanburg, South Carolina. The Blind Institution. I was grown then, about 19 years old. My grandmother was still alive then.

Q: How was it for a blind musician?

Those that were experienced of music was alright. I never knew anyone but myself who practiced guitar, a blind person.

Q: How did the people take to a blind person?

I can only tell you what happened to me. The white people would always come around -- and a nickel was something -- and give me a nickel to play a song.

Q: How did the black people treat you?

Well, some of them promised like they do now!

Q: When did you write "There Was A Time When I Went Blind"?

Oh, that was a long time ago, in 1911. It’s a gospel statement. It’s speaking about what happened in my life. How people put me aside.

Q: You thought that was because you were blind?

When I was coming up, it was so.

Q: What did you do as a kid, beside playing the guitar?

I raised chickens and things like that. When the chickens seen me coming, you understand, they’d light up off the ground, light up on top of me. They didn’t know what it was all about, but I did.

Q: When did you leave Laurens County?

After I married. Me and my first wife started travelling. I was playing from town to town. Anywhere! Playing on the streets then. I would get run off by the police more times than I can remember. But I played a long time before that laws been originated in the South. After I started travelling, thinking over my back life, my past life and the beginning of my life, I brought them all up together, all that mattered about my life. I had me some time to wonder. A man, good health, young, I couldn’t admit who would want me for anything. That used to worry me. But as I started to travel I soon got out of that. You could tell when everybody would see me walking down the street with a woman that they wouldn’t bite their tongues at all. They asked, "can’t you do no better." You understand, they thought it was a disgrace for a woman to be walking with a blind man. They thought it a shame for a woman to take up time with a blind man.


1. In another interview Rev. Davis stated that his mother "would go to town and cook for the white folks and my father stayed in trouble all the time. That’s why he gave me to my grandmother because he was in trouble all the time." And in yet another interview Rev. Davis said that his father died before "he could realize him too much."