Rev. Gary Davis was a prolific guitar player. A protégé aims to keep his legacy alive
Updated December 12, 2022 at 1:23 PM ET
Stefan Grossman sees himself as a "bridge." In the early 1960s, Grossman studied with blues and gospel singer Rev. Gary Davis, who sang on the streets of Harlem and taught at his home in the Bronx. Davis' fingerpicking style influenced guitarists, some of whom went on to major careers in American roots music.
Grossman has made it his life's work to pass on Rev. Davis' teachings. "I want to pass on the joy of playing this music to others, just as Rev. Davis passed it on to me," he says.
Grossman was 15 years old when he started making the trek from Brooklyn to the Bronx to study with Rev. Davis. When he first called Davis, he got the same reminder that all of the blind Baptist minister's students received: "Bring your money, honey."
Sometimes Grossman's lessons lasted all day. He often brought a tape recorder with him and over several years recorded Davis at home, in church and at Gerde's Folk City, a Greenwich Village nightclub.
"Besides being a master musician, he was a master teacher," says Grossman. "He taught music in the way that all great traditional music is taught – by imitation."
He treated his students like family
Davis' song "Death Don't Have No Mercy" was covered by Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. Another tune from Davis' repertoire, "Samson and Delilah," was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary. Although he didn't write the song, the trio credited him as its author and the resulting royalties allowed the once-impoverished musician to buy a home in Queens.
A scholarly list of the many prominent performers who studied with Rev. Davis at one point includes Ry Cooder, Janis Ian and Harry Chapin. But Grossman says there were a lot of people who had just one lesson with the man.
"There was a handful of us that really spent time with Rev. Davis – personal time," Grossman explains. "We were like grandchildren to him and he treated us with such warmth and care. You couldn't ask for anything more."
David Bromberg was one of those students. He recalled that at the time he studied with the reverend, the blind musician's guitar was "continually stolen." At one of Bromberg's performances in a small Greenwich Village club, Davis stood up in the audience and declared, "I have no children but I have sons." It was his way of claiming Bromberg and Grossman as his proteges.
A student becomes a teacher
Grossman says that once he became a decent fingerpicker, Rev. Davis admonished him about playing in public until the reverend said it was OK – the idea being that Grossman would be carrying Davis' name into the world and that he shouldn't do so until his teacher thought he was ready.
In the late 1960s, Grossman spent time performing in England where he was friends with musicians Eric Clapton and John Renbourn. His eclectic performance career includes being tapped for an acoustic band on the West Coast that included Janis Joplin and Taj Mahal but due to contractual conflicts, the group was disbanded after the initial rehearsals. Grossman ultimately decided to focus on teaching, not performing.
On his Guitar Workshop website, some of the instructors are guitar heroes like Bromberg. But others, like David Laibman, are hardly household names. Laibman is a master of ragtime guitar who was an economics professor at Brooklyn College. Although most of the lessons are purchased online, the business still sells DVDs and CDs. Many of the titles focus on the music of African American artists of the early 20th Century.
"Fingerpicking was really explored and extended by the Black musicians in the 1920s," says Grossman. "Those were the great, great players. That was the stuff that really intrigued me."
New technology helps teach an old style
Grossman's guitar lessons were initially distributed on reel-to-reel audio tape via snail mail but now — more than 50 years later — the lessons are downloaded as video files. That's also how the technology evolved at Homespun Music Instruction, which was founded by Happy Traum, the Woodstock musician who used to perform with his brother, the late Artie Traum.
"There are people all over the world who love this kind of music but they're isolated," Traum tells NPR. "Maybe they go to a festival and then come home all fired up and say, 'Now what do I do?' I think in those cases [web videos are] the perfect outlet for people to get this kind of instruction."
The playback software used for instructional guitar videos allows aspiring fingerpickers to easily slow down the material they're trying to learn, something that was much harder to do back in the 1960s when students had to drop a phonograph needle on a particular spot on a vinyl record.
"I used to sit with an LP and keep putting the needle down on a Merle Travis record to try to figure out the licks," Traum recalls. "That was work."
With the analog technology, slowing down playback caused a change in pitch and certain octaves became inaudible, something that doesn't happen with the software used for the playback of the video lessons.
Homespun started at around the same time as Grossman's instructional guitar business. Traum says that he, like Grossman, is a preservationist.
"Stefan is a master himself," says Traum. "I have a lot of respect for what he does."
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