Blind Willie Davis

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The classic American spiritual "When the Saints Go Marching In" is closely identified with Louis Armstrong and New Orleans jazz. At Preservation Hall in the latter city, there is even a sign indicating…
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The classic American spiritual "When the Saints Go Marching In" is closely identified with Louis Armstrong and New Orleans jazz. At Preservation Hall in the latter city, there is even a sign indicating that the combo will be glad to play the song -- for a 50 dollar tip. (All other requests are only ten dollars per song.) Yet one listen to the Delta blues or rural gospel version of the song by Blind Willie Davis, originally recorded for the Paramount "race" record series in the late '20s, could make a listener completely forget the Dixieland "Saints" -- and that's quite an accomplishment. The recordings of Davis, a figure whose personal history has yet to be uncovered, are part of many from this period that represented the beginnings of the gospel recording industry. As such, Davis' work has been widely anthologized in various compilations devoted to early black gospel or sanctified singing, including the marvelous Raw Pre-War Gospel, 1926-36 on the Revenant label. In addition, blues fans have found the work of Davis to be of value even removed from its gospel context. Like the powerful work of Blind Willie Johnson, the recordings of Davis have everything a blues fan will want or need, including gritty vocals and tough guitar playing. Davis' bottleneck guitar arrangements are quite unique. His thumb picking style is considered extremely unorthodox, actually seeming to be something like a backward version of what other Mississippi Delta players do. Davis also seemed to think and move faster than some of his contemporaries, meaning his combination of strumming and picking patterns is dense and packed with detail. The heavy blues content of a Davis performance also gives his gospel material much less of a joyous character. The performance included on the Revenant disc, "I Believe I'll Go Back Home," features sorrowful and moving interplay between voice and bottleneck; and represents a powerful argument that gospel music comes out of tragedy rather than ecstatic joy, at least in the minds of some blues and gospel critics.