Reverend Gary Davis was born in 1896 in Laurens county, in the Piedmont section of South Carolina, “on a farm, way down in the sticks,…so far you couldn’t hear a train whistle blow unless it was on a cloudy day.” He was the only one of eight children to survive to adulthood. His grandmother raised him because his mother neglected him (“She’d wish I was dead. She tell me that a heap of times. Sure… It’s not what you say, it’s what you show to prove it”), and his father was killed when he was ten, possibly by the High Sheriff.
He was born partially blind, and became fully blind as an infant, likely because they tried to treat his eye condition with snake oil from a medicine show.
So far as I know, according to the statement of my grandmother, I taken the sore eyes when I was three weeks old. And the doctors put something in my eyes cause ulcers to grow over my eyes and cause me to go blind.
…perhaps if I had been a man that could see like the others…I might have seen more than I cared to look upon. Now what I’m trying to get you to see: a lot of people, you know, looks on a many things, and his eyes caused them to lose their lives. And many times where many people have been strung up on limbs in the low countries and lynched just by looking. Sometimes a man’s eyes never done nothing but just look.
See? I often think of that. Well, a body’s eyes were made to look right enough, but sometimes it pays a man to keep his eyes closed..
“Now what I’m trying to get you to see: a lot of people, you know, looks on a many things, and his eyes caused them to lose their lives. And many times where many people have been strung up on limbs in the low countries and lynched just by looking.” The sadness of this statement as a comment on our society, is immense. The fact that our society has changed so little is tragic.
Davis sought solace in music and showed a preternatural talent for it. He created a guitar out of a pie pan, and he taught himself to play guitar, banjo and piano, inventing a way of playing with many voices at once. In the twenties and thirties he was active in the Piedmont blues scene, and made some recordings. He became a Baptist minister. He moved to New York City in the forties, and performed as a street musician for a while before being rediscovered during the folk revival and becoming very popular with many rock stars of the day: Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Dave Von Ronk and Bob Dylan, who covered several of his songs, including Death Don’t Have No Mercy in This World.
His music is uniquely moving. Such a perfect combination of exquisite technical skill and deeply sweet soulfulness. Such a perfect balance of heavy darkness, which we recognize as part of everybody’s life, and of the hope and humor that make it bearable. Such strange poetry to describe the loss, pain and prejudice that marked his life. When I first heard his music I was stopped in my tracks and incapable of doing anything but listening, steeped in his songs.
I am the Light of This World is the name of the song I first heard. It’s got a surpassingly sweet tune, seemingly simple, but actually a beautiful collection of voices woven around each other. The song rises and falls and goes round and round like water, and it feels good to let yourself get carried along with it. And the lyrics kill me. He doesn’t see the light, he doesn’t have the light, HE IS THE LIGHT OF THIS WORLD! He sings, “I’ve got fiery fingers, I’ve got fiery hands, And when I get up in heaven, Gonna join that fiery band.” I love the hopeful honest triumph of this whole idea. He’s not boasting, he’s stating the truth.
I think of him as glowing–he sounds as though he’s glowing, and it must come out his fingertips and all along his hands as he plays his guitar, with so much skill and soul. He spreads the light with his music. I love to think about people having a light inside them, even being that light.
I believe that every living creature has some strange light within them that shines like nobody else’s light. As we grow and become jaded and mature, we learn to hide our light, we become closed and dark and careful. You can still see the light in dogs and children, though, everything they feel comes beaming out of them, unfiltered, unshaded, so bright and powerful you can warm yourself in their glow.
I found a remarkable excerpt from an interview Gary Davis did with Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold, the wife of Alan Lomax. He’s so wise and funny and poetical. He speaks often of light, of his light, “It takes bitter medicine to do you good. But it’s a fact – I have had greater light on this experience about things, that’s why nothing don’t go hard with me. That’s the light that substantiate me to tell anybody what to weep and cry over and what to laugh over.” The light is knowledge, the light is faith, and the light is kindness and warmth. Again and again, Davis’ spirituality shines through as the strength to overcome sadness and trouble, and as the warmth of kindness, so that “You can know how to treat everybody, you know.”
He describes death as a deep dark shower of rain, and lord knows that he’s experienced plenty of loss in his life, but he says, “I want to live as long as I possibly can.” He’s still got a lot of work to do, and as long as he’s in this world, he is the light. “The weakness of man’s strength and the brightness of his knowledge is what makes a man the finest of God’s creatures to walk the earth. I’m all the time studying what I can do for my people. You can’t do nothing for yourself unless you do it for somebody else first. You can’t bake a corncake for yourself unless you bake it for somebody else. It ain’t worth the effort. In this world we have to talk a little and hush a heap. Love is just like a vein in a spring: Keeps you with supplements to cherish up what you have.”
To the eternal and universal question, “What shall we do about all the darkness that surrounds us?” which we ask ourselves always, but particularly in the face of prejudice, hate, and violence, Reverend Gary Davis would tell us to be the light of this world.