Musician. Davis was born in Laurens County on April 30, 1896. A highly accomplished and innovative guitarist who influenced numerous blues and folk musicians, Reverend “Blind” Gary Davis honed his style during the 1920s in the rich musical milieu of the Greenville-Spartanburg region. Known foremost for his complex finger-picking style on six-and twelve-string guitars, Davis also possessed a captivating, emotional vocal style that lent added intensity to his religious songs.
After losing his eyesight as a child, Davis was encouraged to take up the guitar by his grandmother. As a teenager he performed at house parties around Laurens, already proficient on banjo and harmonica as well as guitar. During the 1920s he played in a string band in Greenville, refining his musical skills around other talented guitarists including Willie Walker and a young Josh White. Although he learned some of Walker’s repertoire, Davis crafted his own style and is considered to be a progenitor rather than a follower of the “Piedmont” blues sound that developed in the Southeast. Davis moved to Durham, North Carolina, in the early 1930s; attended a school for the blind; and was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1933. In Durham he played the tobacco warehouses for change and influenced the guitarist Blind Boy Fuller, with whom he traveled to New York City in 1935 to make his first recordings. Davis settled in New York around 1940 and continued to record during the next thirty years for a variety of labels. Finding a new audience with young, predominantly white fans of folk and blues, he became a major presence on the folk revival circuit during the late 1950s and early 1960s, performing at festivals, coffeehouses and clubs. Davis died in Hammonton, New Jersey, on May 5, 1972.
Bastin, Bruce. Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Tilling, Robert. “Oh What a Beautiful City”: A Tribute to Rev. Gary Davis (1896–1972). Jersey, Channel Islands: Paul Mill, 1992.