Harlem Street Singer tells the story of Reverend Gary Davis, the great blues and gospel musician whose unique style and remarkable skills on the guitar inspired a generation of musicians. The film traces Davis’s journey out of poverty in the Deep South to his iconic status in the folk and rock scene in 1960s New York. Interviews with celebrated folk and rock musicians who knew and studied with Davis, including Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott are combined with rare archival footage and photographs. The film includes never seen before concert footage of both Davis and Peter, Paul & Mary from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The film is co-produced by guitarist Woody Mann, who received his first music schooling in Davis’s living room.
Born poor and blind in rural South Carolina in 1896, Davis was a guitar prodigy. At age seven he made his first crude stringed instruments out of his grandmother’s pie tins, and by age 14 he was already performing in a professional string band. Over the next decade he developed an innovative style combining church music, ragtime, blues, early jazz, marches and almost any other music he heard.
In Durham, North Carolina in the 1920s and 30s, Davis played blues and popular songs for tips in the tobacco warehouses and on the streets. In 1937 he became an ordained minister and focused his playing solely on religious music. A few years later, he and his wife, Annie, moved to New York to seek out a better life. Davis’s talents were quickly recognized and he soon found himself jamming with Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Brownie McGhee. But with no steady employment, he continued his marginal existence, often living in condemned buildings, playing on the street and preaching in storefront churches.
Davis’s fortunes finally changed during the Folk Revival movement in the early 60s, when he gained a following of young musicians who saw him as both mentor and father figure. As his reputation spread, many of these artists began covering his music, and when Peter, Paul and Mary recorded his song, Samson & Delilah, Davis’s royalties from the record enabled him to finally stop playing on the streets and buy his own home. In his last years, Davis played for audiences of thousands in music festivals around the world. He died in 1972.
In addition to interviews, the storyline features contemporary musical sequences produced by Woody Mann featuring blues vocalist Bill Sims Jr. , Dave Keyes, piano and Brian Glassman, bass. Harlem Street Singer celebrates the beauty and spirituality of his music as well as the human qualities that made Reverend Davis a much beloved teacher and minister. This is the exciting story of an American musical icon whose legacy continues to live on in today’s music scene.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
Roy Book Binder
John D. Holeman
Bill Sims Jr.