Reverend Gary Davis (1896-1972), one of the greatest ragtime guitar players and singers, left his trace, reaching beyond his time-frame, as a key influence for many folk and blues musicians of the '60s, such as Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, Jerry Garcia, Dave Van Ronk, David Bromberg and Ry Cooder. Born in 1896 in South Carolina, Gary Davis remained blind due to an accident while still a baby.
Another accident later on in life left him with a broken wrist that never healed properly, and this might be the reason for his peculiar swinging finger-style guitar technique (Davis used his "Miss Gibson" large six-string guitar, tuned to an unusual E-B-G-D-A-E configuration that provided him with a more complex set of chords). As a prolific composer of religious and secular music he created an impressive body of work that has been recorded by, among others, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Peter Paul & Mary and the Grateful Dead, and many others. Davis' original music style construed upon gospel, marches, ragtime, jazz and minstrel forms was exposed to a constant unpardonable examiner: the instant, fragmentary street audience.
In the early '30s, Davis entered a recording studio for the first time with a selection of blues and spirituals for the American Record Company. His strong faith helped him cope with blindness, and in 1933 he was ordained as minister of the Free Baptist Connection Church in Washington, North Carolina. For years he toured as a singing gospel preacher, keeping away from blues. Only in 1945, after moving to New York, this time as minister of a Baptist Missionary Church, Davis was back to recording again.
Since then, for the last 30 years of his life, Davis was blessed by doing the much wished-for: teach, preach and sing. It was not unusual to have his church with him on his performances and to have his audience attending his sermons. All through the '60s Davis performed at folk festivals around the country, including the Newport Folk Festival and the Philadelphia Folk Festival. His fame ultimately increased to the point that he was asked to tour Europe. Hearing him in 1962, English music critic Robert Tilling of Jazz Journal called him "one of the finest gospel, blues, ragtime guitarists and singers."