Let the Dark Come Upon You: Juba Dance, the album by Guy Davis

By Daniel Garrett

Guy Davis, Juba Dance
Producer Fabrizio Poggi, Guy Davis; Associate Producer Thom Wolke
Recorded and Mastered by Dario Ravelli
Executive Producers Bluesdreams Productions
MC Records, 2013

“All o’ what I been and gonna be. Them songs is my destiny.”
—Robert Johnson in the published script Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson by Alan Greenberg

Humor at the misfortune in life, the absurdity, is articulated in the jaunty “Lost Again,” in which a man shrugs at his own bad luck, the opening song on Guy Davis’s album Juba Dance. The tone and phrasing that Guy Davis uses in “My Eyes Keep Me in Trouble,” with a theme of desire and danger, seem derived from the great Howlin’ Wolf: Davis’s voice is gruff and tone rueful as he sings of lust bringing trouble. The song’s string sound is jangly yet clear, with a lot of energy; and the song has a fast, tight rhythm. The presence of affection and its transforming effect is the subject of “Love Looks Good on You,” featuring Guy Davis’s voice –affectionate, amused—and guitar, and producer Fabrizio Poggi’s harmonica. The affirming “Love Looks Good on You” has a slow tempo, is rather downbeat, yet it is very pleasant: a relaxed sound.

It is important to acknowledge how much culture eludes us. I have enjoyed the work of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee on television and at the movies and in person for decades, but I’m not sure that I ever thought about their children. Did they have any? Singer-guitarist Guy Davis is the son of the greatly esteemed Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, two wonderful actors and performers (Guy’s siblings are Nora and Hasna). I did not know of Guy Davis until I was in bed one Saturday night, listening to a folk music radio broadcast out of Baton Rouge. Davis was heard doing a crazily inventive song (“Did You See My Baby?”), and I knew I had to learn more. A native New Yorker with family that had southern roots, the tastes of musician Guy Davis are cosmopolitan and thus Davis is an admirer of Blind Willie McTell and Harry Belafonte, Buddy Guy, Skip James, Taj Mahal, and Fats Waller. A writer as well, Guy Davis has written theatrical works, including In Bed with the Blues, Mudsurfing, and The Trial: Judgement of a People. Some of Guy Davis’s recordings are the albums Dreams about Life (1978), Guy Davis Live (1993), Stomp Down Rider (1995), Call Down the Thunder (1996), You Don’t Know My Mind (1998), Butt Naked Free (2000), Give In Kind (2002), Chocolate to the Bone (2003), Legacy (2004), Skunkmello (2006), Guy Davis On Air (2007), Sweetheart Like You (2009); some of which have received W.C. Handy awards in America or been quite popular in Europe.

In “The Blues Idiom and the Mainstream of Contemporary Life,” in Albert Murray’s great commentary on national culture The Omni-Americans (Da Capo Press, 1989), first published in 1970, Albert Murray notes the diverse musical influences of the blues—classical, popular, and folk music, sacred and profane—and Murray defines the blues as an expression of experience, a form of style, and an evocative and significant strategy. It is a musical form that awakens its listeners to tough realities while offering swinging pleasures. “The most elementary and hence the least dispensable objective of all serious artistic expression, whether aboriginal or sophisticated, is to make human existence meaningful. Man’s primary concern with life is to make it as significant as possible, and the blues are part of this effort” (page 58). The varied attitudes and rhythms in the art form are fundamental to its nature: they embody and encourage flexibility and improvisation.

Guy Davis is one of those artists who makes perceptible the content—the allusions to, and quotations of, different kinds of music—of the blues. “Named after a form of expression that originated in West Africa and involves foot-stomping and patting of the arms, legs, chest and cheeks, juba—also known as hambone—was brought to the New World via the slave trade and was a precursor to the blues. In many ways, it was used as an attempt to dance away one’s sorrows. With Juba Dance, Davis weaves both the beauty and pain of that experience into a rich, modern musical tapestry,” wrote harmonica-player and journalist Marty Gunther in Blues Blast magazine (December 2013).

On Juba Dance, Guy Davis performs a duet with Lea Gilmore, “Some Cold Rainy Day,” a plain blues song predicting the return of a lover after difficult times, in bad weather. Supported by a chorus (the Blind Boys of Alabama), a working man anticipates death, burial, and neglect in the classic “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” The guitar strumming is strong. In “Dance Juba Dance,” the compelling intensity subdues doubt; and the folk music evokes different things, American country life and Africa. “I been down so long I might not ever get up,” sings Davis in “Black Coffee,” about hard times, debt, and weakness. Then there’s the crazily, wonderfully rhythmic song “Did You See My Baby?” It is full of the most eccentric voicings.

The simple images (hammer and thunder and tears) in “Satisfied” yet convey an erotic dimension. And a mistreated man plans to return home in “That’s No Way to Get Along,” stating that someone “treated me like my poor heart made of a rock or stone,” and the song—possibly following Eric Clapton—has intricate string work and is very appealing. “Saturday Blues” is given a choppy rhythm and vocal style like Howlin’ Wolf. “Mother, dear mother, remember that I’m your only son,” Davis sings in “Prodigal Song,” a lament that suggests that the long gone son is not always welcomed upon return: time can make more than one person distant. Rambling, topical, “Statesboro Blues” is full of references to family and travel. Juba Dance is a good album.

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue, Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.