Gospel, Blues and Street Songs
Rev. GARY FAVIS and PINK ANDERSON
Jazz Archives #100(12”)
John Henry (5:25)
Every Day in the Week (3:31)
The Ship Titanic (3:14)
Greasy Greens (2:56)
Wreck of the Old 97 (3:26)
I’ve Got Mine (3:05)
He’s in the Jailhouse Now (3:42)
Reverend Gary Davis
Blow, Gabriel (2:14)
Twelve Gates to the City (3:22)
Samson and Delilah (3:52)
Oh Lord, Search My Heart (3:02)
Get Right Church (3:04)
You Got to Go Down (2:40)
Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning (2:35)
There Was a Time That I Was Blind (2:36)
The two voices heard here give proof of the continuing vitality of an old tradition in American Negro music. Despite the vast changes in Negro life of the past half-century – huge migrations to the Northern cities, industrialization of many Southern towns, the widespread rise in literacy and education – itinerant street minstrels are still a common musical feature of the folk life of their communities, whether in backcountry Carolina or on Lenox Avenue in Harlem. Their music has remained a living force because it had the eclectic power to change with the times in the world where it is sung.
Behind the minstrel songs and secular blues of Pink Anderson and the gospel songs and holy blues of the Reverend Gary Davis lies a long tradition of Negro folksong. Ultimately deriving from the tribal chants of West African forebears, this Afro-American folk music developed distinctive genres: the holler of the field hand, the syncopated communal chanting of the work-song, the reiterated verses and haunting tonalities of the blues. At the same time, nineteenth century Negro song was receptive to white influences: the hymnal, the hoe-down and the ballad. The resulting blend of influences resulted in a unique style of song, applied with imagination and vigor to subjects and musical forms from both the sacred and the secular sides of life.
These two contemporary street singers reflect the several polarities of their own tradition: country vs. city; and spiritual vs. sinful songs. But they further suggest that these oppositions, once distinct and clear, are now interestingly mingled. The “Singing Reverend” uses blues forms for his biblical texts and plays jazz guitar figures while accompanying himself. As for the rural-urban contrast, the city singer was inevitably once a country boy himself, while the country minstrel, to make his singing pay, must come to the centers of population, the towns – where he is exposed to a host of social and musical influences that cannot help but shape his singing.
The old-time street and blues singers (such as that early master of the art, Blind Lemon Jefferson, who can be heard on Riverside 125 and 136) profoundly influenced jazz, and more than a few early jazzmen began either as their accompanists or as performers in the street bands that drew upon the resources of their vocal music.
The street singer naturally not only assimilates other kinds of music than his own, but also gathers thoughts, language, conflicts and aspirations from the audience to whom he sings and whose voice he becomes. That is why even today it is possible to record such good examples as these of a folk-art that is historically the bridge between the Jubilee songs of slavery days and jazz.
Thus street singing not only has a valid place in musical history, but continues in the pattern of its own tradition to recreate the blues and the spiritual today, taking subjects and some facets of style from resent-day life and from contemporary popular music. As ever in the past, it ministers to sinners in their sin and calls the faithful to their faith. Street singers will probably be with us as long as there are distinctly Negro communities. And for an even longer time, the influence of their songs will have placed a indelible jazz-and-blues tinged mark on American popular music.
The songs of Reverend GARY DAVIS are all religious (as one would expect of an ordained minister). They serve two non-conflicting functions: they satisfy the religious needs of the store-front church congregations before which he appears; and they earn him a living as a blind minstrel entertaining his audiences on the streets of Harlem.
Davis has more to offer than the average street singer, for he is undoubtedly one of the finest folk instrumentalists in the country. Born in 1896 in Lawrence County, South Carolina, this son of a poor farmer took to music naturally, could play the mouth harp at five, and played guitar with facility at the age of seven.
He refuse to talk about how he became blind, or when, but it must have been in his blues-singing days as a young man. In any case, his blindness undoubtedly contributed to his decision t give up his rowdy, blues-singing ways and to turn to religion. He was ordained in 1933 and has since refused to sing anything but religious music. (Before that year he had made several blues records, as well as some religious numbers, for the old Perfect label.) He has been living in New York since the early ‘40sm, and during that time has recorded and has appeared on radio and in concerts.
The music heard here is more than just religious material. It is also jazz – plain and simple. The guitar breaks between stanzas, the intricate runs, the blues stanzas, the slurred vocal and instrumental lines, the frequent exchanges between voice and guitar – all are integral parts of jazz. Here, indeed, is an exciting combination of the deep religious intensity of earlier Negro spirituals, the subjective identification of the blues, the drive and movement of jazz, and the directed objective of the sermon.
Perhaps the best known of the songs he sings here is Twelve Gates to the City, long a favorite and part of the recorded repertoire of many earlier street singers. Two of these songs come from his own family tradition: he remembers singing Blow Gabriel and Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning as a young boy. Samson and Delilah, a song-sermon based on a biblical story, and Get Right Church were learned from other ministers at a revival meeting in North Carolina in which Davis participated more than twenty years ago. Time and memory have apparently played little havoc with these numbers, for the imagery and manner of vocal presentation are far more consistent with the religious tradition of the rural South than in his other numbers. He has ornamented the structure with intricate runs and breaks, but the original spirit is still clearly present. Of Davis’ own compositions, Oh Lord, Search My Heart and You Got To Go Down are excellent examples of modern gospel song, having roots deep in early Negro spirituals, and also the musical freedom of the best jazz. In There Was a Time That I Was Blind can be found that combination of religion, self-pity and fatalism which one might expect to find in the repertoire of almost any blind singer.
As a result of 40 years of street singing, PINK ANDERSON’s voice is strong and reaping, and anyone within several blocks would surely hear and be drawn to it. Once having gained attention, he would sing a varied program of old ballads, blues and minstrel, vaudeville and popular songs calculated to evoke memories, share experiences, and enable his listeners to laugh at themselves and the world.
His is a folk voice, and his versions of traditional material have all been tempered and changed by time and personal experience. He is also a highly sophisticated entertainer, for street crowds are in many ways the most critical of audiences, with no inhibitions about letting a performer know if they dislike or are indifferent to him. At the time he made these recordings, Anderson (who calls Spartansburg, South Carolina his home, but was recorded while plying his trade in Virginia) was about sixty years old. He accompanies himself here on a weather-beaten Martin guitar which he plays with three fingers picks.
These seven selections are typical of his street performances. John Henry is certainly the finest native American ballad of Negro origin, and one of the best known. (For this number, Anderson played the guitar with a half-closed jack-knife, and almost-forgotten technique that created unique sounds.) The Ship Titanic and Wreck of the Old 97 are preoccupied with the drama of tragedy and disaster, based with rather amazing accuracy on actual occurrences, with Titanic placing special emphasis on the idea of the rich being chastised for belief in the non-destructability of the ship. Every Day in the Week (on which a washboard player named Jumbo Lewis lends support) is one of the few traditional blues in Anderson’s repertoire, although all of his songs have a basic blues tonality. Three songs from non-traditional sources show interesting changes in the hands of Anderson. Greasy Greens is far removed from its minstrel show origins; I’ve Got Mine was a popular vaudeville song at the beginning of this century. To both, Pink has added his own stranzas and anecdotal folk-humor. His unusual talent for social satire is also exhibited in the alterations made in county singer Jimmie Rogers’ I’m in the Jailhouse Now.
The songs of Blind Gary Davis and of Pink Anderson – sometimes optimistic, often bitter, always highly realistic – represent an early and continuing phase of American music and an important ingredient in jazz. Both men – Anderson roaming Southern sidewalks and country roads; Davis performing in the store-front churches and on the streets of Harlem – carry on the tradition of such legendary street singers as Blind Willie Johnson. This is an album of authentic Americana: direct, unadulterated, and full of a folk-poetry and soul-stirring emotions that mark it as true art.
Editing and notes by KENNETH S. GOLDSTEIN
Cover designed by KEN DEARDOFF
Side 1 recorded by PAUL CLAYTON, May 29, 1950; Charlottesville, Virginia.
Side 2 recorded by KENNETH S. GOLDSTEIN, Jan. 29, 1956; New York City.
Re-mastered, 1961, by JACK MATTHEWS (components Corp.) on a HYDROFEED lathe.
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are produced by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS, Inc.
235 West 46th Street New York 36, N.Y.