Arthur Davis

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Other performers named Arthur Davis would not want to be confused with this vocalist, nor put in his place -- which was a federal penitentiary, Louisiana State Penitentiary to be exact. Davis belongs…
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Other performers named Arthur Davis would not want to be confused with this vocalist, nor put in his place -- which was a federal penitentiary, Louisiana State Penitentiary to be exact. Davis belongs to the subcategory of work song performers whose venue, unfortunately for them, was not in bars but behind them. Musicologist Dr. Harry Oster recorded the man and a range of other songbird jailbirds in the late '50s. The material was originally issued on the Folklyric label, then reissued on Arhoolie as a compact disc.

A fascinating aspect of the Davis performance, undertaken as part of what would nominally be considered a trio vocal ensemble, is the use of sounds originating from various tools and work the inmates are undertaking, apparently in what have been judged as cruel conditions approximating slave labor. Louis Armstrong's classic comment about his axe -- "This piece of iron is killing me" -- takes on a whole new dimension with regard to the music of slicing cane, hacking wood, or lining the track. A slightly softer dimension is provided by a female inmate accompanying her singing on a washboard, yet even that could be described as a potentially blistering bit of music-making.

Davis and colleagues, a Willy Rafus and a fellow credited as Big Louisiana, make no secret of their particular tools of trade in a track entitled "Let Your Hammer Ring." As for what sort of criminal trade landed them in the pen in the first place, that is a detail most likely not covered in the essays written by Oster concerning his field recording activities. This being Louisiana (the state, not the prisoner), it might have been nothing but looking at a white person the wrong way. This is not the same Arthur Davis who made a bundle filming a cannibal exploitation film.