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Book Review: 'Say No to the Devil'

If musicians, both past and present, have struggled with how to make a living, Rev. Gary Davis offers one of the rare counterexamples of an artist who spurned opportunities to pursue what he saw as a higher calling.

Davis was a brilliant and eclectic guitarist, an inspired and beloved teacher, an enormous influence on the folk and blues booms of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and the creator of such classics as "Candy Man," “Death Don't Have No Mercy," "I Belong to the Band," and "Samson and Delilah."

Now, in the first full biography of this influential artist, Ian Zack tells Davis’s story from his poverty-ridden childhood in the South, through his early days as a bluesman and then his calling to be a preacher, his move to New York and then 'discovery' through the folk revival, the students he taught, and the young performers (among them Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Dave Van Ronk, Stefan Grossman, Rory Block, Rambling Jack Elliott and more) who played his songs, copied his guitar style, and carried on his legacy.  

Yet, for all that, Davis was and in many ways remains a largely unknown to a wider listening audience, the result both of accidents of timing and his own deliberate decisions to turn his back on commerce to do what he saw as the Lord’s work instead. 

Zack had access to many students and others who knew and worked with Davis, lending greater insight into the complex and at times contradictory character of the man. Zack's book also has the relatively rare distinction among musician biographies of being well-written and coming in a physically appealing package with an charming typeface and vestment-like endpapers.

If Davis fought the devil, it was perhaps because in many ways he was really so much like him. And his remarkable personality, compelling story, and connections to so many major streams in American music make biography is a devilishly good read.

-- Chris Heim, host of KMUW’s Global VillageNight Train and Crossroads music shows


Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis by Ian Zack  | University of Chicago Press | a Best Music Book of 2015 pick which will be released in paperback on May 16.