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A loving portrait of a blues master from the perspective of his disciples

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Rating: PG, Grade: A

Within a matter of moments, “Harlem Street Singer,” the Simeon Hutner and Trevor Laurence-directed documentary devoted to revealing the musical life of Reverend Gary Davis, the influential blind blues singer and guitarist, draws a contrasting comparison between Davis’ life and the tragic experiences of the legendary Robert Johnson. Both musicians, beloved by a cadre of players in the folk and rock (and beyond) veins, have had their sounds described as being so full-bodied and complex as to create the sense of multiple guitars playing at once. Musicologists have debated, in the case of Johnson, whether or not the seminal recordings of his work in the 1930s were manipulated – sped up to give the impression of a faster style that could not have been generated in real time.

It is intriguing to note that part of the contrast between these two men lies in the fact that Johnson gained notoriety early on, after starting out by plying his trade on the streets and in juke joints, only to die at the young age of 27, reportedly poisoned by a husband jealous of Johnson’s alleged romance with his wife. His true fame came decades after his death, when rock guitarists in the 1960s rediscovered his distinct playing and songwriting style and sought to incorporate elements of it into the emerging rock revolution.

Davis was born in South Carolina in 1896, a decade and a half before the Mississippi native Johnson (1911). Despite his own degree of supreme self-confidence in his abilities, Davis seemed far more content to focus on a more marginal lifestyle, removed from a fascination with quick and easy fame. Also a street player who worked in the juke joints and clubs whenever the opportunity presented itself, Davis, especially once he made his way from the South to New York, supplemented his playing income by teaching lessons.

“Harlem Street Singer” shines brightest, in fact, during interviews with Davis’ former students, many of whom transitioned onto the pop music landscape in the 1960s – as members of Peter, Paul & Mary, Hot Tuna and the Grateful Dead. But it is through the students’ memories of those lessons with Davis that his true musical genius comes to life. What he taught was more about the ability to improvise and express musical thoughts outside the boundaries of genre, rather than a mere presentation of notes and chord progressions. What also comes across is the surprising ease of this man, a blind, black man at that, with and among diverse groups. He taught middle-class white kids and played before primarily white audiences at music festivals as he gained more access and acclaim, but he never lost touch with his core sensibility as a street player and storefront preacher.

And it is his unambiguous spirituality (he preached and lived as a man of the people, a man with common and relatable urges, but an unwavering faith and commitment to his message) that sets his story apart from Johnson’s. When we think of Robert Johnson, we cannot separate the player from the (likely) carefully branded legend of his “meeting at the Crossroads” with the Devil, who tuned and played his guitar, granting him his otherworldly talents. This Faustian pact tends to overshadow what was nothing more than natural talent honed through intense practice.

Davis, as the “Harlem Street Singer,” lived longer and among his disciples, providing them with intimate access to his genius and his humanity. His blues and his soul were on display every day and in every way.