To visit Laurens, South Carolina today, one would never know it had much of a rich musical heritage. With a population of less than 10,000 people, one of the town’s most famous stops these days is the Red Neck Shop and Ku Klux Klan museum.
In the front of a converted movie theatre in the center of downtown Laurens, tourists can buy neo-Nazi clothing, KKK robes, T-shirts with Confederate flags and anti-Obama “Satan in the White House” propaganda from former Klan leader John Howard. Then they enter the museum, where one sees a shocking display of hate. The place has been popular for years.
Ironically, the movie theatre that houses the Red Neck Shop is owned by a black minister and civil rights leader. The minister bought the building at a good price, agreeing to allow the Klan museum to stay for the life of its owner, John Howard. People shake their heads when they hear this, but it’s the kind of unnatural arrangement that seems to happen too frequently in the deep South.
In 1820, Andrew Johnson, who became the 17th President of the United States, owned and operated a tailor shop on the Laurens town square near the Red Neck Shop. He later became vice president under Abraham Lincoln, and upon Lincoln's assassination, assumed the presidency.
But where the history of Laurens really shines is with its musical heritage. And I don’t mean the only music mentioned on the town’s web site that celebrates the time that a band called Hootie and the Blowfish played there.
Rev. Gary Davis
Laurens is also the home of the Rev. Gary Davis and Pink Anderson, two acclaimed acoustic blues musicians who were both born there. Davis was born in 1896, while Anderson was born four years later in 1900. Both would be forgotten in their home town, but would go on to become major figures in the Piedmont Blues and beyond.
Syd Barrett, of the progressive rock band, Pink Floyd, came up with the band's name by juxtaposing the first names of Anderson and North Carolina bluesman, Floyd Council. Barrett noticed the names in the liner notes of a 1962 Blind Boy Fuller album.
The text said “Pink Anderson or Floyd Council—these were a few amongst the many blues singers that were to be heard in the rolling hills of the Piedmont, or meandering with the streams through the wooded valleys."
Gary Davis, who became blind as an infant, took to the guitar and and played the towns around Laurens. He quickly assumed a unique multi-voice style produced solely with his thumb and index finger, playing not only ragtime and blues tunes, but also traditional and original tunes in four-part harmony. He played in South Carolina for both and white and black audiences.
In the mid-1920s, Davis left Laurens and moved to Durham, North Carolina, a major center for black culture at the time. There he collaborated with a number of other artists in the Piedmont blues scene including Blind Boy Fuller and Bull City Red.
In 1935, J. B. Long, a store manager with a reputation for supporting local artists, introduced Davis, Fuller and Red to the American Record Company. The subsequent recording sessions marked the real beginning of Davis' career. It was also during his time in Durham that Davis converted to Christianity. He would later become ordained as a Baptist minister.
In the 1940’s, Davis moved to New York City. His finger-picking guitar style caught on and many students of the guitar sought him out for lessons. Among those students were Stefan Grossman and Ray Book Binder.
Last night, forty years after the death of Rev. Davis, Grossman and Book Binder returned to a packed house at the historic Gaslight Cafe at 116 MacDougal street in Greenwich Village to pay tribute to the man who taught them to play guitar. Both men had played at this historic bastion of folk music when they were younger and were back for another fling.
Roy Book Binder
Book Binder opened the night, telling how after getting out of the military at age 22, he was in Greenwich Village in the late 1960s and given a matchbook cover with Rev. Davis’s phone number written on it. He called the number.
Davis told him lessons cost $5. “I said I can come a week from Thursday,” Book Binder said. “He told me, ‘I’m an old man. You better come and get it while it's here.’”
Davis’s wife invited Book Binder for supper after the lesson. “The house smelled weird...it was soul food cooking. The most horrible thing I'd ever eaten.” So Book Binder, to avoid future meals, started telling the Davises he couldn't stay past five.
“After the second guitar lesson, he told me not to come back for three weeks...he was going on a tour. I told him I had $50 saved up and would like to go on tour with him. He said $50 won't get you nowhere. But when I left that night, he said you bring your $50 tomorrow and I’ll carry you the rest of the way.
“The next day I was banging on the door at 6:30 in the morning. Mrs. Davis opened the door wearing a housecoat and curlers. She asked what are you doing here, Roy. I told her I was making the trip with Rev. Davis. Well, Rev. Davis is sound asleep and the train doesn't leave till 6:30 tonight. But, come in, I'll make you a good healthy breakfast.”
The audience gave Book Binder a big laugh as he launched into songs he’d learned from Davis.
After the trip, Book Binder hung out with Rev. Davis and ended up driving him and his wife to church. “At first we called Mrs. Davis ‘Sister Davis.’ At some point there must have been a promotion to ‘Mother Davis.’ She was a great lady,” he said. The one rule, when around Mrs. Davis, is the blues weren’t played, only church music.
“Rev. Davis passed away 40 years ago this month. Mrs. Davis lived to be 103. I used to visit her once a year. Since we didn’t play the blues around her, I realized that she probably thought I'd been on the road preaching for 35 years,” Book Binder joked.
Then came Grossman, an amazing guitarist who, like Book Binder, personally knew many of the great black players of the era. In fact, at 15, Grossman recorded performances of Davis, which has been released in a three CD box set in 2009 called Live at Gerde’s Folk City.
“When Rev. Davis was teaching me how to play guitar, he said, ‘Stefan, it's very easy. You have to play the guitar like its a piano.’ I said OK and I wrote that down in my book. He said piano players only have two hands. They have one hand that plays the bass and another hand that plays the treble…the melody. But guitar players have three hands. I was 15 and I thought, wow, this is mystical.
“We have this hand (his left) to play a chord. On the other hand we have a thumb, that can play the left hand of the piano. And this finger that can play the right hand of the piano. I said, just two fingers? He said “yes, that's all I need.”
Then “as I got older and older I realized that Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Ike Everly, Mose Rager, Lightin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb and Big Bill Broonzy played like that. Wow! It's simple. You make it sound like a piano and you just have to learn three chords. A ‘C’ chord, an ‘F’ chord and a ‘G’ chord,” said Grossman, making it all sound so simple to guitar players in the audience following his every move.
Grossman spoke of how competitive Rev. Davis was.
“I’d say I just saw Bukka White at the Gaslight and his first question was how many people were there? When John Hurt was in the city, I took him up to Rev. Davis's house. They spent a wonderful afternoon playing music together. I was just listening. The next day I went back up and said ‘Rev. Davis, wasn't that just great?’ He said, ‘You like that type music? I said yeah, I like it. I love it.’ He said that's old fashioned pickin’.”
Whenever he'd say something like that, I'd say "well you can't do it." Then out would come a whole bunch of tunes.” Two of those, “Cocaine Blues” and “Candy Man,” were songs Davis said he learned in 1905 from a traveling carnival musician, Porter Irving, who was coming through Laurens County, South Carolina.
Davis’s version, performed by Grossman, is made up of rhyming couplets, followed by a refrain "Cocaine, running all around my brain" or "Cocaine, all around my brain.” The song is sometimes known as "Coco Blues," as on Davis’ 1965 album, Pure Religion and Bad Company.
Davis was a key influence on the folk revival singers of the early 1960s, including Dave Van Ronk, who learned his version of "Cocaine Blues" from Davis (it’s featured on his 1963 album, Folksinger) and Bob Dylan (a 1961 variant features on The Minnesota Tapes, a 1962 variant is on Gaslight Tapes and third version is on more recent compilation album, Tell Tale Signs).
Davis’ version of "Cocaine Blues" was subsequently recorded by a number of artists in the folk revival/singer-songwriter tradition, including Richard Fariña and Eric Von Schmidt (1963), Hoyt Axton (1963, on Thunder 'n Lightning), Davey Graham (1964, on Folk, Blues and Beyond), Nick Drake (on Tanworth-in-Arden 1967-68), Jackson Browne (1977, on Running on Empty), Townes Van Zandt (1993, on Roadsongs) and Ramblin' Jack Elliott (1995, on South Coast), as well as by the punk band UK Subs. "Sweet Cocaine" by Fred Neil in 1966 is loosely based on the same song.
So this is how music travels and influences occur. The Rev. Gary Davis, essentially forgotten in his own hometown of Laurens, brings songs he heard there to much wider audiences in New York City. Among those under his influence were the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Townes van Zandt, Wizz Jones, Jorma Kaukonen, Keb' Mo', Ollabelle, Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Resurrection Band.
The Gaslight concerts are presented by Bob Porco, grandson of Gerde’s Folk City owner, Mike Porco. Both Grossman and Book Binder had performed at Gerdes in their younger years.
Roy Book Binder, Bob Porco, Stefan Grossman