The son of Ruby Dee and the late Ossie Davis, Guy Davis initially followed in his famous parents' footsteps. But then he discovered the blues in college, and now travels the world performing in places untouched by the genre, from Greenland to the Galapagos Islands.
Known as "The Ambassador of the Blues," Davis talks with NPR's John Donvan about his new album, The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed With the Blues, and his passion for blues music.
On Fishy Waters, The Character He Created For His New Record
"Let's just say he comes from my need to release my inner Garrison Keillor. Fishy Waters reflects the moments in my life when I've been the most stimulated, when I've been in front of people who told stories, and ... you could see it right in front of your eyes as it was happening. That means they're using just the right words.
"...And when I was, say, 8 years old, I remember being down in front of an auditorium with big saucer-shaped eyes, looking up at a fellow with a guitar, singing and playing. I thought that was just the most magical thing ever, to have such a simple thing made out of wood and steel strings, making music. And that is what has shaped my life."
On His Inspiration For Waters, A Southerner Who Hops Freight Trains
"I made it in my imagination. I made it while listening to old records, and I guess I was prompted by people like Taj Mahal many years ago to listen to the old-style blues. And from the Taj I got to hear people like Mississippi John Hurt and Rev. Gary Davis and Robert Johnson and, you know, so many other names. And I found the people who played this sound that felt familiar to my bones already."
On The Future Of Blues Music
"Though it does continue to survive today, it is still, to me, an endangered species, and it needs all the proponents it can — all the proponents who will stand up and play it in whatever form they play it. Meaning the new style, the old style, the Chicago style, the country style; it needs to be played and played and played."
JOHN DONVAN, HOST:
So Guy Davis has been dubbed the ambassador of the blues. And while he initially followed in his famous parents' footsteps, and those are actors Ruby Dee and the late Ossie Davis, he has devoted much of his time to spreading the word about the blues. He travels the world with guitar and harmonica in hand, performing in places that are relatively untouched by the blues, from Denmark to Spain to the Galapagos Island. So blues musicians, we want to hear from you. Where do you play? And who comes to see your shows?
Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. So Guy Davis is on tour in support of his new album. It's an audio play of sorts. It's called "The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed With The Blues." He's with us here in Studio 3A. Guy Davis, his latest album. And are you ready to give us a little something, or would you like to chat first?
GUY DAVIS MUSICIAN: Just before I start, I would like to say that this is the first I'm hearing that Levon Helm passed away.
DONVAN: It's the first we heard as well.
MUSICIAN: And he recorded with me a number of years ago, and I'm sorry to hear that. I would like to start out with a number from "The Adventures of Fishy Waters." This is called the "Railroad Story," and we're going to get it moving just like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAILROAD STORY")
MUSICIAN: (Singing) I was standing by the railroad track. I was waiting on a train. I heard the whistle blow. The train was highballing through the countryside. With that train going so fast, I couldn't get on board. And I feel it slow down making a turn. When it made it that turn, I ran alongside, hopped onboard, and I was highballing with it. That train passed on by a farm, had some chickens out there. They were having an egg-laying contest. They wanted to see who can lay the biggest and the most eggs.
(Singing) When that train passed on by the chain gang, had the prisoners standing up, they're shackled ankle to ankle. The sun made the sweat glisten on their backs as they held the picks up high and the shovel down low. They were building a road. When the guards had their backs turned, a couple of them escaped, ran off into the swamp. And they crossed that swamp with water up to their necks, past snakes, past alligators. When they got to the other side, they ran over to the road, trying to catch the train. But it didn't matter where those prisoners ran. Didn't matter how far, how fast they ran because they're turning the dogs loose on them. And you know those bloodhounds were hungry.
(Singing) Well, the train kept moving on down the track. The convicts were chasing after that train. The dogs were coming after the convicts. Now, the train track ran right through the middle of a pig farm. And then the pen over on the right-hand side of the track had some pigs running around out there. And then the pen on the left-hand side of the - well, now, those pigs weren't so lucky. They was having a barbecue over there and the smell wafted about there, blew back over the train, over the convicts, right into the dogs' nostrils, drove those bloodhounds crazy. Well, the train kept moving on down that track, the convicts take that train top speed and the dogs were gaining on them, getting closer and closer and the convicts ran. They leaped. They landed in the pen on the right-hand side. And the dogs chase them and chase them and chase them and leap. And the dogs landed in the pen on the left-hand side. Well, the train kept moving on down that track, nobody (unintelligible). And that's how I got here.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DONVAN: Guy Davis, I could see that.
GUY DAVIS: Good.
DONVAN: So Fishy Waters is the character that you've created, and you travel the world telling the stories of this guy in 1930s, bluesman and a hobo. Not a bum, you say, he's a hobo.
DAVIS: Correct. Not a bum. He's a hobo.
DONVAN: And his name is Fishy Waters. And so where does Fishy Waters come out of your experience in life? How did you find him?
DAVIS: Let's just say he comes from my need to release my inner Garrison Keillor.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIS: Fishy Waters reflects the moments in my life when I've been the most stimulated, when I've been in front of people who told stories. And like you said, you could see it right in front of your eyes as it was happening. That means they're using just the right words and not too many of them and lets the mind see what's happening. And when I was, say, eight years old, I remember being down in front of an auditorium with big saucer-shaped eyes, looking up at a fellow with a guitar, singing and playing. I thought that was just the most magical thing ever, to have such a simple thing made out of wood and steel strings, making music. And that's - that is what has shaped my life.
DONVAN: Why the blues? Now, you didn't say that that man with the guitar you saw was a bluesman or was he?
DAVIS: As a matter of fact, he wasn't. He was a folk musician.
DONVAN: Mm-hmm. So how'd you find the blues?
DAVIS: Oh, you picked up some interesting questions there. First, people I saw playing the blues was some white college boys. And I didn't know - it wasn't my people's music, you know, I didn't know it was my people's music. I thought it belonged to them, you know. But something in it felt familiar, and I'm related to it. I found out years later, of course, that's us. That's us'n(ph) . That's us'n music, man. I love that stuff. But there was just something in it, and I can't explain.
DONVAN: And you're Fishy Waters. I mean, he's a Southerner. He's hopping freight trains. He's crossed the Memphis to Mobile. And you're a kid who grew up in New York City around Broadway. So when you fell in love with the blues, how did you go make that connection with the world that the blues actually came from?
DAVIS: I guess, I made it in my imagination. I made it while listening to old records, and I guess I was prompted by people like Taj Mahal many years ago to listen to the old-style blues. And from the Taj I got to hear people like Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis and Robert Johnson, and you know, so many other names. And I found the people who played this sound that felt familiar to my bones already.
DONVAN: It's just there. The feeling was just there.
DONVAN: Let's - we've got a lot of people who - we've asked for musicians to call us, and we've got a lot of them lined up.
So let's go to Bob in Tulsa. Hi, Bob. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
DONVAN: Hi, Bob. We can hear you fine.
BOB: Excellent. How are you doing this afternoon?
DONVAN: We're great.
DAVIS: Doing good.
BOB: Great. I just wanted to share my experience with the blues. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that's a city known for its musical talent. They're known for the blues, probably much - has been known to the rest of the country. But I really turned on to the blues one day at about age 17 and a friend of mine turn me on to Led Zeppelin One. And I realized, oh, wow, this is the blues. And it caught me and it held me in its grip and it's never let it go since then.
DAVIS: Yeah. Blues is like that.
DONVAN: Is it everywhere and you're finding it in places you don't expect it?
BOB: Yeah. Yes.
DAVIS: Yeah. I used to go to a summer camp in Vermont run by Pete Seger's brother, mostly folk music but occasionally we heard something called the blues.
DONVAN: Thanks for your call, Bob. I want to go Big Papa in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Hi, Big Papa. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
BIG PAPA: Hey, how are you all doing?
DONVAN: We're good.
DAVIS: Hey, Big Papa.
PAPA: Hey. I appreciate your help in keeping the blues alive.
DAVIS: Hey, the feeling is mutual.
DONVAN: Do you play...
PAPA: I play with a band called Brethren; we were just playing at the Juke Joint Festival over in Clarksdale, Mississippi this weekend. And we take on Mr. Cedell Davis as well. I don't know if you know who he is but...
DAVIS: Yes, sir. I've met Mr. Cedell Davis.
PAPA: He's not able to play his guitar anymore with his butter knife, but he sure can sing, man. He's got one of the strongest voices out there.
DONVAN: Hey, Big Papa. You just said I want to thank you for keeping the blues alive. Is that part of the story of the blues right now, that it needs to be kept alive? Is it fading on us, Guy Davis?
PAPA: I - oh, I'm sorry.
DONVAN: Oh, you go ahead. You go ahead, Big Papa, first.
PAPA: My opinion is, I think it's still going, it's strong, but it's following that tradition. It's like, you know, you take somebody like the Black Keys or the White Stripes or, you know, a variety of people it's rock. But it's still, down underneath there, that's still - that's Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton and Son House, and they're just trying to - they're trying to put their own little signature on, you know, what came before them. You know, they're trying to be honest.
DAVIS: Yeah, I hear you, Mr. Big Papa. I'm thinking of a blues that, though it does continue to survive today, it is still, to me, an endangered species, and it needs all the proponents it can, all the proponents who will stand up and play it in whatever form they play it. Meaning, the new style, the old style, the Chicago-style, the country style, it needs to be played and played and played.
DONVAN: Big Papa, thanks for your call.
PAPA: Oh, thank you.
DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News. Let's bring in Mike from San Antonio, Texas. Hi, Mike. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
MIKE: Yeah, how are you doing there? I got a band called the S.A. Blue Cats here in San Antonio, and my mantra when I started this band was that all forms of American music evolved from the blues, and we kind of like to do all of that. And I'll turn (unintelligible) Lester and Jimmy Reed songs to big fat horn songs - I run(ph) a six-piece band, three-piece horn section. Everybody kind of flips instruments, I play trombone or harmonica. And I was on the board of directors of the San Antonio Blues Society for 16 years and we (unintelligible) the effort to hang the historical marker for Robert Johnson's recordings at the Gunter Hotel here back in 1936.
MIKE: But you don't think of San Antonio as a blues Mecca by any means. But there's a very - what I call a rabid culture here, small subculture of blues, very good musicians and a lot of history here. And I got to see Guy Davis about 10 years ago, the Kerrville Folk Festival.
DONVAN: Mike, who's the audience in San Antonio? Who's in that audience?
MIKE: Oh, it's mixed. And here in San Antonio, it's unique right now (unintelligible) the town's growing so fast because it's kind of one of the better shaped cities in this repression - recession that we're in, but the audience is very mixed. We play to all ages of people, from 10 on up to 90.
DONVAN: Hmm, that's good news.
MIKE: (Unintelligible) at the Olmos Bharmacy here in San Antonio every Friday for about the last two years, and it's just blowing and going. We're having a real good time, and the blues society here is doing very well. (Unintelligible) the Robert Johnson S.A. Sessions festival, which I help (unintelligible) that, and I also (unintelligible) we're in the middle - beginning of fiesta right now and the Fiesta Blues Heritage Series has become a very well-attended festival in San Antonio, that I also helped get that going. I was on the fiesta commission for five years. But in San Antonio, it's not bad. They have a lot of fun.
DONVAN: All right. That's good to hear. That's encouraging, it must be, Guy Davis, to hear that.
DAVIS: Blowing and going, I like that phrase.
DONVAN: Let's bring in Mick in Bend, Oregon. Hi, Mick. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
MICK: Hey there.
MICK: I lived in Europe for a long time. I got to play with Taj a few times over there, which is a pure pleasure.
MICK: And (unintelligible) days, played with some of the guys in the American Folk Blues Festival. But I found that in Europe the blues has a lot more cache to it. It seems to be more popular in Europe than it is here.
DONVAN: I just want ask Guy if he finds the same thing.
DAVIS: What I find is that it is not taken so for granted over around in Europe. Over here in the U.S., we got so doggone many channels on our TVs, you know. We have to live several lifetimes to watch all the entertainment that's on. So, yeah, I do feel a little - almost more cared for sometimes overseas.
DONVAN: Mick, thanks for your call. And, you know, this - the time flew on this segment, but we wanted to hear one more time from Guy Davis. So why don't you take us out to the end of the segment? Ladies and gentlemen, Guy Davis. Fishy Waters, as you should know him.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIS: (Singing) Woke up this morning, feel around for my shoes. You could tell I heard me them old, old walking blues. I woke up this morning, I feel around, feeling around for my shoes. Well, you could right then, don't you? Babe, I had the walking blues. Some people say to worry. Old blues ain't bad. That's the worst old feeling I most, I most ever had, oh Lord(ph) . Some people can say the, say the word, old blues ain't bad. But that's the worst feeling, don't you, babe, I most ever had. Sometimes I feel like blowing our lonesome home. Well, this morning, everything I had was gone. Oh, Lord, sometimes I feel like blowing my lonesome home(ph) . (Unintelligible) gone...
DONVAN: Guy Davis, the ambassador of the blues. His new album is "The Adventures of Fishy Waters: In Bed with the Blues." He's next heading up to Lakewood, New Jersey, that's on April 20th, and he's back here in Washington, D.C. April 21st and 22nd. He joined us here in Studio 3A. Thank you very much, Guy Davis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.