Rory Block,
I Belong to the Band
(Stony Plain, 2012)

It is simplistic to pigeonhole the Rev. Gary Davis (1896-1972) simply as a bluesman, because his idiosyncratic musical style also incorporated non-blues strains of early 20th-century rural Carolina music, including ragtime, ballads and -- most of all -- spirituals. What's certain is that Davis's guitar style has cast a long shadow as the principal influence on popular 1930s country-blues artist Blind Boy Fuller and, later, as an inspiration in the 1960s and beyond for such notable moderns as the late Dave Van Ronk, Jorma Kaukonen, Taj Mahal, David Bromberg, Stefan Grossman, Guy Davis (no relation) and others.

An early contemporary, South Carolina bluesman Willie Trice, observed admiringly and succinctly, "He could make a piano of a guitar," which is as good a one-sentence summation of Davis's unique approach as you're likely to hear. Davis moved to New York City in January 1944 and lived there the rest of his life. He eventually came into contact with white folk and blues revival musicians, one of them a young Rory Block.

Gary Davis became "the Rev. Gary Davis" in the mid-1930s, buying into the widespread belief that blues is the devil's music. Therefore, all of his publicly performed songs, sung in a voice fairly described as choked and raspy, harbor sacred themes. "Samson & Delilah," "Twelve Gates to the City" and "Death Don't Have No Mercy" are known to all literate in American vernacular music. Two others, "Cocaine Blues" and "Candy Man" (not about a candy salesman), required underhanded methods to extract from a very reluctant Davis, always anxious about where he would spend eternity. In his posthumously published memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street (2005), Van Ronk wrote that Davis was "a little more relaxed in private. ... He had no head for liquor, so after a drink or two you could sometimes put the arm on him to sing some blues or party songs."

In this accomplished tribute -- its title drawn from a gospel anthem associated with Davis -- longtime acoustic blueswoman Rory Block offers up 11 of his sacred songs, among them the three above-mentioned. The singing and guitar playing, uniformly top-notch, are entirely her own. Given the dimensions of Davis's talent, I Belong to the Band is the kind of album only an extraordinarily experienced, confident artist could hope to pull off. Though hers is a conventionally "better" voice than Davis's, it does not sweeten up the songs. It is unsparingly hard-edged in its engagement with Christian celebration and blues despair. The two are fused uneasily, and to chilling effect, in Block's rendition of "Death Don't Have No Mercy," which closes the album.

Happily, even those of us reasonably conversant in Davis's music will find little if anything to complain about. Nor, I'm sure, would Davis if he were around to hear it. Tribute albums honoring anybody, even a lesser artist than Davis, are dicey propositions by definition, but the performances on I Belong to the Band render moot nitpicking comparisons to their models. In her evocation of a great American original, Block cuts deep and rises high.

music review by
Jerome Clark

19 May 2012

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