Reverend Gary Davis was a towering figure in at least two realms. As a finger-style guitarist he developed a complex yet swinging approach to picking that has influenced generations of players, including Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, Dave Van Ronk, Jorma Kaukonen and Stefan Grossman. And as a composer of religious and secular music he created a substantial body of work that has been recorded by, among others, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Peter Paul & Mary and the Grateful Dead, not to mention Davis's own releases.
From the perspective of his one hundredth birthday (April 30, 1896 in Laurens, South Carolina -- he died on May 5, 1972 in Hammonton, New Jersey), the Davis legacy looms especially large. Early musical experiences at Center Raven Baptist Church in Gray Court, South Carolina, were at the core of strong religious convictions that helped him cope with blindness, and in 1933 he was ordained as minister of the Free Baptist Connection Church in Washington, North Carolina. For years he toured as a singing gospel preacher and also sang on the streets, mostly in Durham. During this period he crossed paths and eventually recorded with Blind Boy Fuller and other "Piedmont style" musicians, including Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry.
By 1940 Reverend Davis had found his way to New York City, where he was ordained minister of Missionary Baptist Connection Church. Here his recording career began in earnest, first for Asch and Folkways Records (now available on Smithsonian/Folkways), and later for Prestige (now available on Fantasy).
Starting in the late 1950's, as folk music became popular on campuses and in coffee houses, Davis was "discovered" by a largely educated, middle-class audience that, at least at first, was more interested in his hot guitar licks and blues-holler style of singing than in his specific religious message. While the Reverend was not above responding to this more secular audience (for whom temporal songs like "Cocaine" and "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" were as exciting as gospel compositions like "Samson and Delilah" and "Death Don't Have No Mercy"), he always considered his work to be essentially religious in nature. When students like Dave Van Ronk journeyed uptown to learn the intricacies of "Soldiers Drill" (an instrumental reworking of a couple of Sousa marches, probably remembered from childhood), Reverend Davis would extend the lesson with preaching, food and companionship. In this way he became an important mentor to the folk music revival, and eventually performed at many festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival and others. Eventually he toured in Britain, as well, where critic Robert Tilling, writing in Jazz Journal, called him "One of the finest gospel, blues, ragtime guitarists and singers.
By the 1960's Davis was represented by Folkore Productions, which also published his songs under the imprint of Chandos Music (ASCAP). Chandos and Folklore continue to administer on behalf the Reverend Gary Davis Estate, whose main beneficiary, the widow Annie Davis, dwelled for many years in the Reverend's proudest legacy, a brick house in Queens, New York.