Aficionados of Rev. Gary Davis and Hot Tuna have required listening when it comes to the June 27 edition of Greasy Tracks.
In a program showcasing the music of the legendary bluesmen, there were also interviews with author Ian Zack who discusses his remarkable, just-published biography of Davis, Say No To The Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis (University of Chicago Press) as well as guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, a founding member of the Jefferson Airplane whose 1969 side project, Hot Tuna, with band mate Jack Casady, continues to this day.
Hot Tuna, with a catalog brimming with Davis material, plays Infinity Hall in Norfolk on July 14.
In addition to the music of Davis and Hot Tuna, there were handful of other artists who covered Davis featured.
The iconic Davis (1896-1972) was a blind, street-preaching guitarist who was an ordained Baptist minister. Born in South Carolina, he took to the guitar at a young age and was soon proficient in everything from ragtime to gospel and blues music in the Piedmont style — a unique finger-picking approach where the thumb is used to play the bass string while the melody comes primarily via the forefinger or other fingers plucking the treble strings.
Other Piedmont-style musicians — many of them coincidently blind — included: Blind Blake, Elizabeth Cotton, Floyd Council, Blind Boy Fuller, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry and Josh White.
Unlike the bulk of his contemporaries, Davis preferred to perform religious music, often turning his songs into lengthy sermons. When he did perform secular blues music, it was usually during lessons where he charged students $5 with no limits on his time as these sessions often lasted all day. Later in his career, he understood people were coming to his concerts expecting to see secular songs, so he usually did a set of religious songs and one featuring often-racy blues.
Many of Davis’ students went on to recording and performing careers, including David Bromberg, Roy Book Binder, Rory Block, Ry Cooder, Stefan Grossman, Janis Ian, Steve Katz, Dave Van Ronk and Bob Weir.
Davis was notoriously blunt when it came to expressing his opinions of contemporaries and he held little or no regard for nearly all of them. Commenting on Bukka White who played in an open tuning with a bottleneck, Davis said, “That’s cheating.” He was even harder on Skip James: “Nobody would even hire him for a dance.”
Upon hearing one of his students listening to Hot Tuna’s eponymous 1970 debut — an acoustic live offering featuring Kaukonen, Casady and Will Scarlett on harmonica — Davis surprisingly commented: “That boy (Kaukonen) sure can play.”
Kaukonen never played with Davis nor did he study with him, but one of his classmates at Antioch College, Ian Buchanan, was one of Davis’ prized students, taking lessons from Davis for five years. Buchanan later taught Davis’ style to Kaukonen.
Kaukonen returned to his roots on his recently released Ain’t In No Hurry (Red House).
Along with the likes of Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, Jackson Brown, Bert Jansch Donovan, Tom Rush, and Peter, Paul and Mary, Kaukonen was one of countless musicians greatly influenced by Davis. Many of Hot Tuna’s studio releases feature at least one Davis song, live albums are dotted with Davis material and concert setlists always feature a mix of his music.
Davis material or his stylings covered by Hot Tuna includes: “Hesitation Blues,” “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” “I Belong to the Band,” “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” “Children of Zion,” “Oh Lord, Search My Heart,” “Great Change,” “Candy Man,” “Mama, Let Me Lay It On You,” “Let Us Get Together Right Down Here,” “Sally, Where’d You Get Your Liquor From?” and “I Am The Light of This World.”
Hot Tuna formed in early 1969 when Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Paul Kantner and drummer Joey Covington played a handful of dates when the Airplane took time off. There were various line-ups in the early years of the band, sometimes just Kaukonen and Casady playing acoustic.
Their first studio record, Burgers, came out in 1972 at which time the Airplane was as good as being grounded, effectively playing its final concerts that September. The group reluctantly reunited in 1989, releasing an album and undertaking a brief tour, highlighted by a mid-set Hot Tuna appearance during each show. In 1996, the Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Greasy Tracks, which airs 3:30-5:30 p.m. on Saturdays, is the longest-running soul and blues program in the state.