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Guy Davis tricks the devil

The blues musician releases his most political album, ‘Be Ready When I Call You’

Another bluesman might have demurred, but Guy Davis had no hesitation about doffing his cap and shades.

We crossed an empty street and leaned over toward the Hudson River churning below for a few candid shots. He looked less like one of his monikers, “America’s Ambassador of the Blues,” than a stranger you wouldn’t mind shooting the breeze with over coffee on a hot summer afternoon. Which is what we’d been doing at Inwood Farm, a storefront bistro at the fingertip of Manhattan, New York, where the Harlem River empties into the Hudson. Hat and sunglasses can be a venerable blues signifier, and no one is more blues than Davis, whose rye-and-sandpaper voice and virtuosic musicianship have plucked, popped, begged, moaned, stomped and hollered across more than a dozen albums, several of which feature numbers nominated for blues recording of the year.

The middle child of three, Davis inherited the mantle of performance glory from his late parents, actors and activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and has shown unvarnished fidelity to their legacy. Nevermore so than with his new album, Be Ready When I Call You. It’s filled with the blues, to be sure, but it’s also his most political work to date, and his most original, all but one number his own (the outlier is Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” a Howlin’ Wolf specialty).

The subjects describe an arc that begins during enslavement and leaves an ellipsis at the present: “God’s Gonna Make Things Over” is an angry, anguished recounting of the Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma 100 years ago; “Flint River Blues” turns up the heat on politicians who knowingly poisoned a Michigan city’s Black citizens rather than replace toxic lead water pipes; “Welcome to My World” snaps a towel at former President Donald Trump. “Palestine, Oh Palestine,” the album’s centerpiece, is a lamentation that begins in the sorrow-drenched voice of a Palestinian mother and ultimately yields the mourning to her Israeli counterpart before they come together in a dirge-like chorale that should break your heart.

The album isn’t spinach. The interstitial numbers are suffused with knockabout humor regarding the blues trifecta of good sex, bad manners and Mephistophelian temptation. But having been composed before both the coronavirus pandemic and the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, Be Ready When I Call You has found additional texture and resonance in the intervening months and seems built for a time as turbulent as the confluent waters below us.

When we met, Davis had just finished a run of The Grapes of Wrath at an Ohio theater in which he’d played lapsed preacher Jim Casy, the moral backbone of the story and Tom Joad’s North Star. Davis hadn’t even begun promoting the album when the opportunity for a choice role came, and he took it. Was it Broadway? It wasn’t. The rest of the cast had day jobs.

“They hired me to come up there and play this man who is kind of lost in the wilderness, trying to figure stuff out, and he does not have it together,” Davis said. “He realizes he may be a man of God, but not a man of religion. He talks out to the universe – how it was maybe one big soul that connects all men and women. It’s not long before he is talking union, he’s talking about equal pay for equal work, he’s talking about equal opportunity for all. And in the end, it cost him his life.”

Be Ready When I Call You has found additional texture and resonance in the intervening months and seems built for a time as turbulent as the confluent waters below us.

How long did they have to put the show together, I asked. “Oh, God, five minutes,” he said, chuckling. “The entire experience was eight days long. But I needed to be onstage with other people.” And who didn’t need to reconnect with humans after more than a year of isolation? For someone who performs as much as he does, the pandemic must have been brutal.

“Well, a curse, yes, but also a blessing,” he said. “I guess, No. 1, because I haven’t caught it. Didn’t get it. But isolation was difficult. At the same time, I’m a person who likes his own company. And I spend enormous amounts of time alone as it is without the pandemic. This pandemic gave me time to write and write and write. I wrote a song called ‘I Got An Angel 6 Feet Away.’ I wrote because I had the time, I had the solitude. I wrote love songs about missing my girlfriend, who’s down in Alabama, and so that’s not a hard puzzle to solve.”

Davis grew up in the suburbs north of New York City, first in Mount Vernon and later in New Rochelle, where he attended high school. It wasn’t exactly the hardscrabble youth of the bluesmen who would leave their mark on him, singer-songwriters including Blind Willie McTell, say, and Mississippi John Hurt.

Indeed, the paragons of his youth were the protest balladeers whose words and melodies reflected the civil rights movement his parents so passionately engaged with. The young Guy emulated Woody Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter and, most of all, Pete Seeger, whom he would come to follow both in rhetorical style and musicianship, becoming virtuosic on guitar, banjo and mouth organ. Passing into adulthood, Davis also developed a taste for carousing, toward which his parents had differing views.

“My father would be sitting up at 5 o’clock in the morning,” he recalled. “How did I know this? Because that’s when I’d be getting in after drinking, tomcatting or tomfoolery, whatever you do till 5 o’clock when you’re young. He would be up writing. He would say good morning to me, I’d say good night to him, and he’d sit there at work. Essentially, his message was talent is a mighty fine thing, but if you want to have a craft, you have to do it every day, whether you feel like it or not. So that was his time. His word processor was a yellow legal pad, some No. 2 pencils and erasers. And he always had a piece of Scotch tape wrapped around his right pinky knuckle to keep from scuffing the graphite as he wrote.”

And Dee, his beloved mother?

“Oh, man,” he said, upping the gruff in his voice a level. “Mom was a lightning-fast, quick-tempered chick from Harlem. My mother would kick ass. And I found that out as a teenager, that she had hands faster than Bruce Lee. She did not take no s— from no know-it-all, snot-face teenager.”

Like you? 

“Like me. If I’m any judge at all of martial arts skills, I never once saw a shot she hit me with coming,” he said, eyes closed, head cocked and swaying side to side. “I never ever saw it coming. When she meant to hit you, you were hit.”

Essentially, his message was talent is a mighty fine thing, but if you want to have a craft, you have to do it every day, whether you feel like it or not.

Guy Davis on his father, Ossie Davis

That seemed as good a cue as any to change the subject. Davis’ last album, Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train, is a folk-blues masterpiece, paying tribute to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Be Ready When I Call You is a different thing altogether. As a boy, he’d gone to a camp run by Seeger’s brother and become well versed in the red-diaper-baby traditions he’d also experience at home with visitors such as actors Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier.

“Do you think it’s fair to call this album a departure?” I asked.

“I think so,” Davis said. “Up until now, I’ve been recording what is mostly blues or rag, early roots kind of music and even new songs sounding like that. Now I’ve found myself digging more into folk roots.

Blues musician Guy Davis in a candid photo during an interview with The Undefeated.

Jeremy Gerard

“This latest I would say is closer to world music,” he added. “I just don’t know how to respect boundaries. World music means at the very least instruments from all over the world. You might have an oud playing next to an Irish flute. Or it could mean songs that have to do with people other than the people in your life. This is how I define music, I guess: unlimited. You can put rock drums, Congolese drums together with the electric guitar. Well, that’s how I feel about music. Boundaries get blurred sometimes. And I like that. I know where my brain is.”

Davis and I are both 69 and came of age when white folks like me were discovering the contributions of Black composers and musicians like him. In the early 1990s, New Federal Theatre founding director Woodie King Jr. hired Davis to portray the UR artist of blues into rock ’n’ roll, Robert Johnson (before Eric Clapton got hold of him). Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil secured Davis’ bona fides as musician and actor.

“With Guy Davis, character and performer are one, there’s no difference,” King, who was just awarded a Tony Honors medallion for his lifelong theater work, told me. “Guy has authenticity, which is what the audience responds to. And he already had some of Robert Johnson’s songs in his repertory. Like Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, you know, it’s that music that gets the entire theater reeling and rocking. And that’s what happens when Guy Davis plays. It was a huge hit.”

One song from his youth that left an indelible imprint on Davis was “Deportee,” and there’s a direct link between the nameless immigrant farmworkers of Guthrie’s brutal classic and the songs that give Be Ready When I Call You its spine. “God’s Gonna Make Things Over” is a phrase that stuck with him for more than a decade before he visited the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and understood what had happened there in 1921, when a white mob killed Black residents and destroyed businesses in the country’s most infamous race riot of the time. The song is an almost journalistic account of what happened, with that ambiguous prayer for hope as its chorus.

Similarly, “Palestine, Oh Palestine” views an intractable tragedy, narrating it through the eyes and hearts of two mothers, each mourning the unending violence that has destroyed the land they claim as home. He was determined not to wrap such a sensitive theme in a political harangue.

“I understand my album is being played in Tel Aviv,” he said, adding that he has never visited the region. “You’ve got to understand that within me, there’s a white Jewish kid. We would be at my parents’ friends’ homes for Passover. My dad used to get invited into the temples to read from the Torah, and I would stand beside them, I was part of it. I don’t cut it off. I want it to be a lament for Palestine that absolutely doesn’t call for anybody’s blood. If I go to Israel, I would like it to be the day after I go to Palestine. And I would like for there to be a freaking independent state! I don’t know if it’s still possible. The best I can say is that I do not take for granted the pain of people.”

Giving authentic voice to the lives of people he does not know and whose experience he doesn’t always share has always been a hallmark of Davis’ work. Some of his songs are autobiographical: On “Every Now And Then,” a funny apologia for misbehavior despite the undeserved loyalty of a good woman, he sings:

She tolerates my farting and my burping/ She’s OK with my coffee slurping/ But sometimes, she still wants to fight/ ‘Cause I leave the seat up every night.

Among other acts of relationship malfeasance. But the hardest drug he’s ever done is weed, and he wouldn’t claim familiarity with boxcar overnights and racist judges. One of his most powerful songs, from an album called Chocolate To The Bone, is “Tell Me Where the Road Is,” about addiction, betrayal and, ultimately, the abyss of being lost. I wondered whether it reflected a personal journey of his own. It doesn’t, he said.

“I do not have the history that the character in this song has in terms of drug use. I’m such a lightweight,” he said, confessing that, “I wrote it because I always wanted to write a song like that. I’d been with friends in the city on coke and looking chronically jacked up, you know, can anybody tell me where the road is. I have met people lost and I considered myself the observer of those folks and other folks.”

There’s artistry in that, and, to use Woodie King’s word, authenticity. They’re the qualities that give Guy Davis’ music such resonance. In the end, they defined the impetus behind Be Ready When I Call You, a risky, powerful trip of an album that’s personal – even when it isn’t.

“I decided that I am larger than what I am known for, and I don’t think it could possibly be a bad thing.” He touched fist-to-heart, as if pledging allegiance. “If I don’t speak out about who’s in here, what’s in here, I guess nobody will.”

Jeremy Gerard got his first pair of press tickets when A Chorus Line opened at New York's Public Theater in 1975. He's covered the performing arts, politics and human rights as a staff writer for The New York Times, New York magazine, Variety, Bloomberg News and other publications.