Blues Fest, Inteview with Guy Davis

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Erykha Badu performs at AACW Blues Fest – Photo by: Kari Thompson
By Wesley Hiserman

Last weekend Antioch College hosted the African American Cross Cultural Works’ Blues Fest. The festival followed a Gospel Fest at the Central Chapel A.M.F. on Wednesday and, on Thursday a lecture by Kevin Dean of the Ringling School of Art and Design and presentation by steel drum manufacturer Panyard, Inc.

The AACW Blues Fest started with the Terra City Blues Band, W.G. Blues Band, Karen Patterson Jazz Ensemble, and the Ark Band on Friday. The weekend featured sets by Guy Davis, Sangmelé, Jimi Vincent and Stallion, Nerak Roth Patterson, Mo’ Blues, Goapele, Frédéric Yonnet and Erykah Badu. Badu’s set ended the festival on Sunday a few hours after Yellow Springs mayor David Foubert named September eighth through tenth “African American Culture Week.? During this event that might be better described as “African American Culture Weekend,? I got the opportunity to sit down with acoustic blues master Guy Davis. Davis’ original songs are wellwritten and beautifully performed and while playing the oldest form of blues in the festival, he admits that his music is at best a perfectionist’s imitation of the original blues.

“I am not a bluesman, as I’m called. If they call me that, I don’t say anything. What I am is a blues musician,? he said Saturday night shortly after playing his set and making a guest appearance during roots band Sangmele’s. Davis is the son of two successful actors, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. He never experienced the anguish that normally corresponds to those who perform the same old style blues as he. As he (and his website) puts it, the only cotton he’s ever picked was his underwear off the floor. His understanding instead stems from an emotional awareness of history.

“My blues, I believe, is ancient blues. My spirit recognizes spirits that were here so, so long ago who came to this country in chains. And since that time, even when the chains were taken off by a proclamation of law, there were invisible chains still that held them down economically and racially. The music that I sing comes directly from those people as they came to rise up and go up off the farms where they labored even after slavery in something resembling indentured servitude.

“Sometimes the blues is entertaining, it’s sexy, it’s about a man who’s got a lot of girlfriends. Or it’s about a woman who lives in a man’s world doing the things that men can do. You know, it can be funny, it can be sad, blues can be many things but I think it originates in a cry of the human spirit for humanity, just for treatment as a human being. That’s where I think blues originates and that’s where I think my blues reaches back to.?

As for what his relationship is to real bluesmen, Davis is certain.

“A bluesman is somebody who came up in the time of Jim Crow and the time of unequal housing, unequal education, unequal health opportunities, job opportunities and such. They came up in a world where the black man was last and the white man was first no matter what else.

“I do not live in that world, although I do see remnants of that world. Some of that ignorance still exists but the world is no longer that and I am not a bluesman. I don’t show up in clubs with a knife looking for a fight. I don’t show up in clubs looking to get drunk because my blues heroes apparently, according to history, got drunk.

“…I could believe that it might help for a man to sing the blues if he has suffered true, deep, utter heartbreak, if he’s been so broke he’s had to beg for money, if his only comfort was newspapers stuffed in his clothing or a warm pint of some kind of whiskey.

“However, remember the world is a progressive experience. The men who came up with the blues dreamed that the world would not truly be like that always and their ancestors, the slaves, dreamt that the would would not be like that always. They wanted a world where their children could grow up and never know what a nigger was, and never know what it was like to be so poor that you had to stuff cardboard into the bottoms of the shoes of your children so that they could walk to school if they could even go to school.?

As a product of this progressive world some 68 years after the death of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, whose biographical documentary Hellhounds on My Trail Davis played in, Davis is conflicted about what makes a blues musician authentic. The question of race is one area where this conflict surfaces.

“I have differing feelings. If it’s a Tuesday I say yeah, white boy should sing the blues. If it’s a Thursday I say no, they shouldn’t. It’s not really up to me. I don’t think the burden of that choice is up to me.?

Arguably, the line between a well-off African American and a poor White American is blurred as far as social power is concerned. Davis believes the expression of personal and political blues figuratively corresponds to the changes that occur in the world.

“Think of the Black Panthers, think of the black muslims coming along with Malcolm X. These men were saying what their blues was and they were saying that the world had to change and the world was not ready for change. J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI made sure the world did not change. Yet J. Edgar Hoover and all of his kind mostly have died out. So these changes are coming nonetheless. There was a time when I wouldn’t see a black face when I looked at a television screen and now you see them all the time.

“That is not to say there are not still tremendous problems in the entertainment industry regarding black people and work. But you do see more, you do see progress, you do see change. That means that somebody somewhere expressed their blues.?