continuing on with my conversation with Guy Davis aboard the 2013 October Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. We start talking about his one man play ‘Fishy Waters’ and then take a few twists and turns that will, undoubtedly, leave some people uncomfortable….
Part One can be found here.
GD……And that’s what I’m looking for when I get on the radio and start singing the blues and carrying on. It’s fun. I want people to believe that magic is found in the human heart. In the human psyche. And blues is a part of that for me. The blues is my way of digging up magic.
B411: You were saying that you like to tell stories, and you enjoy it. Tell me a little about “Fishy Waters” (his one-man play).
GD: “Fishy Waters” – that is hobo. And he’s a man of the old cloth. The story I tell takes place in 1959, so he’s talking about things that have gone on in his life from years before that. “Fishy Waters” is a reflection, to some extent, of people in my life. I had an uncle named Tommy, who was my mother’s brother. And he told me one time that he could live out in the woods, and that he could catch a wild turkey and kill it and wrap it in tin foil, and dig a hole in the ground and fill it with charcoal and throw that turkey in there in the tin foil and cook it in the fire pit and have it come out of there tasting just as good as the turkey my momma pulled out of the oven on Thanksgiving. And I was there for every word that he spoke. And he had all kinds of other stories too. About traveling thru Central America and South American in this old Rambler and running the odometer around completely back until it zeroed out and then kept going. And these stories are in me. So much of what I sing about, what I talk about are not things that I’ve necessarily lived, I think my gift, if you want to call it that, is for dialogue. For hearing words and speaking words that affect myself, affect the people that hear them. Words that appeal to the senses, the site, sound, taste ,touch, smell, that kind of thing. So “Fishy Waters” I say is a teller of tales and singer of songs. And there’s no tale so tall that he can’t tell it, nor song so sweet that he can’t sing it.
Now this doesn’t mean that I have one of those sweet Ronnie Isley kind of voices, but I’ve got the voice I have. And this is the voice I sing with and the voice that I tell stories with. And so Fishy goes from town to town and he shares the stories that he’s heard and he tells about his adventures on the road. And this reflects a lot of the magic that I’ve had in my life as a kid meeting people who’ve come thru town and maybe sitting in my dad’s living room. I’m talking about writers and actors and various kinds of craftsmen and union organizers and some celebrities, and lots of non-celebrities. And I would hear things and I would see things and I would observe things. And they’ve all become a part of my life. They’ve become part of who I am. And I think maybe I just wrote the Fishy Waters stories so that I could be everyone’s Uncle Guy. And everyone would want to invite me over for Thanksgiving. They’d just sit and listen to me tell stories while I stuff my face with their Turkey and slap yams on my tongue and swallow them down. Cause I’m a yam eatin’ kind of guy.
So Fishy Waters, he is fiction and thru the entire work, with the exception of some legitimate blues songs like “Dust My Broom” and “Candyman” and stuff that I’ve included, it’s fiction. But it’s meant to tell a kind of truth. Fishy Water’s biggest story is of him leaving home and wandering into a hobo camp. And how that changed his life. But on the way to that story, he tells lots of tall tales that feature giant flies, talking silk worms, and all sorts of fantastical little creatures there. The kind of creatures that probably in the Christian religion, they talk about turning water into wine, and all the miracles that Jesus did, well if you can turn water into wine, I can tell you it makes all those other miracles so much more possible. Like raising the dead, curing the lame and the deaf and the blind. Oh yeah. You drink enough of that hooch, man, you’re going to be all over with those miracles.
So there is Fishy Waters. He’s there to bring that magic. And he tells tales that tales that have to do with horror and death and lynching. And the first talk he tells, having to do with lynching is a very poignant and deep and raw kind of story. And I think it’s told on very human terms. So that audiences of all races and ethnicities and communities can relate to it. Because it’s told on very human terms. But then the next stories, that have to do with lynching or threats of beatings – are told from a humorous prospective, like the guy who is going to out run a train to get away from an ass whoopin’. And you know, out run various speeding objects. This is just another way of saying that a human being will do anything to survive. You can say it seriously or you can say it with humor. But the message is the same. There is no speed that I could not obtain to get my ass away from a bullet coming my way. That kind of thing.
B411: Sometimes humor works better. It relaxes you. It releases the endorphins and all that stuff they say happens when we laugh and smile.
GD: Brother – endorphins are good! To those reading this, endorphins are wonderful. And humor – I highly recommend it because there is so much going on in the world, it make you want to cry and bury your head somewhere. And you can’t tell stories about the evils of racism and lynching and continue to tell those stories and try to point your finger at one whole group of people and expect them to be able to sit there without squirming and trembling and wanting to be elsewhere. It’s got to be laid out in human terms and sometimes humorous terms. Because life is like that. I had a teacher once who said that suppose you were feeling great sadness, and that sadness was represented by a puppy, in a little tiny room with a closet with a glass panel. So you’re looking there and you could see a little brown puppy and the little black one and the white one and the red one and the spotted one and the gray one. And there are puppies all in that room. And the sad one is the one in the corner. But if you open the door, they all come out. All the sadness, all the humor, everything comes out. That’s what makes it human. That’s what I’m after as a story teller. It doesn’t make me a great one or an expert, but it makes me who I am. It’s the path that I’m on. And I recommend that people tell their stories to each other. Find ways to tell them. I recommend that students in schools when it comes to write a paper, write about something that you know. Write about your life, or if your life is too sensitive, make up a fictional one. But write it as if you wanted people to visualize it as you were writing it. Write in terms of sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. And then ask your teacher for help when it comes to grammar and sentence structure and paragraph structure. All that kind of stuff. But you’ll be motivated. You’ll find you’ll really be communicating.
Notice that I went to school, and they just had us writing about the periodic table of elements. What is aluminum? Anybody see aluminum? AL, are you here?
B411: Al U. Minum probably lives over 127th and Lenox Avenue.
GD: Yeah, bring him down. Send for him. It was quite dull. I guess they were trying to teach us ultimately how to organize our thoughts into words, into coherent, cohesive messages that we would write or create. And that takes time. And that’s not everybody’s strong suit. But if you write about something you’re interested in, you can have more fun with it. And then on top of writing, you have got to read it to each other. People need to communicate more without the internet. Maybe use the computer to write it up. People, especially young folk, have got to learn how to communicate without the mechanical aids. Not that you should never use them, but someday, man, if the NSA gets its way, they will pull the plug on the internet and everything else, what you gonna’ do when they come for you bad boys.
B411: You need the personal experience because we all share that. That’s in us, that the “one note”. The John Lee Hooker, that’s the E – boom, boom, boom. You take that away, it gets removed thru daily life and now thru internet – which I use a lot of – but this (I didn’t touch you!) this conversation.
GD: There’s not a camera in this recorder is there?
B411: Ahh, no what camera, that’s the power indicator…ahem. The further we’re removed from each other, the more isolated we become, the more mistrust. We become all foreigners. We’re not part of the world community; we’re part of our own community. I don’t know why we’re going so deep here.
GD: It’s all right. You say the word community – on this ship there’s community, there’s blues community. Some are performers, some are listeners. And the performers must continue to humbly realize that we need listeners. I mean yes, it’s great to jam. It’s great for us great professionals to sit amongst each other and play. Play like geniuses. If I was Watermelon Slim, [Guy says talking like Slim] “you could have Sonny Sharrock, you could have Jimi Hendrix, have Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton all sitting there playing, and they would play like geniuses. But you let one woman walk up in that room, why they’d tear those guitars to pieces. I tell you they rip them. They’d bite the strings off. Where’s that bourbon?” If I was Watermelon Slim, that’s how I would have said that.
B411: Absolutely. He probably would have thrown a few more $5 words in there.
GD: It’s about community. You just brought up that word. We gotta start thinking in terms of the whole world as a community. We’re getting semi-deep as we speak here.
B411: That’s what attracted me to the blues. I grew up listening to Sinatra to Little Richard. I had a fairly broad rock and roll base of knowledge. Then The Beatles, Stones, Yard Birds, Animals,
GD: It’s a wide pallet.
B411: Indeed, and a wide pallet can hold a heavy load! Yea, so all this stuff starts to come in. And then Rock and Roll and music sort of died. There wasn’t anything to listen to. To me, past that, I found XM radio. And there’s Bluesville. The first thing I turned on, it happened to be a show called “Front Porch” with acoustic music.
GD: Speaking of XM and Sirius, they better get Bill Wax back on that show. I’m gonna kick down the door and knock…I’m sorry. I’m back.
B411: But that, I started writing to Bill. Instead of saying “Bill, play Guy Davis”, it would be “Bill, I heard you interview Guy Davis. He’s an incredible story teller, I loved it. He did a song that was about something, and I related to it. And could you play that song because I really didn’t catch the whole thing.” Then Bill starts to respond. He starts writing me back. He says, “Wow, that’s…” A relationship developed from that. And I don’t know this man from Adam. He embraced me. I go to the BMAs. I go on the Blues Cruise. I’m overwhelmed by the talent, the humbleness. And that community. And I said that’s what I’m doing. That’s my calling baby.
GD: Let me tell you about the first time I met Bill Wax. A human being who I think deserves a lot of credit when it comes to keeping the blues alive. Who’s no longer employed by Sirius/XM, and I think it’s a big mistake. When I walked into the Sirius/XM building in Washington, DC, it’s like being inside the Starship Enterprise. It’s like very long corridors with few pictures on them. And these huge open windows, Plexiglas windows on each side, inside of each was sort of a studio a kind of table area and maybe a little bit of recording equipment here and there. Mostly there were laptops in there. There was one sort of grand preforming area, but it looked like you were just walking along in a space ship and wondering where the Klingon lived. You’re there and you’re looking around. Bill made it human. He showed me this laptop. He didn’t even have to come in to work. He could just email himself tapping one button, it had this pre-programmed list of songs to play. And Bill could just sit home and sniff his flower pots. But no, he liked to be there. He liked to interview people. He liked to ask questions much like yourself. He liked to get some human feeling cooking. Finding out where he’s at with the community and stories. He invited me to do that. He recorded me doing “Going Down Slow”, a version that I didn’t think I did very well with. And years later, I heard that interview played on XM and the “Going Down Slow” sounded good! I said damn man, I didn’t realize it was that good. Because I was connected and I didn’t realize it at the time. Maybe it’s a performers job to be in the moment.
*As Watermelon Slim would say again [Guy says talking like Slim] “In case your deciding that you want to perform, you’ve got to be in the moment. It means if you’ve got bourbon bottle in one hand and you’ve got to have a glass in the other and that’s being in the moment. Dag gummit’. Can you wrap brain pan around that?”
And Watermelon Slim is gone from the room now – he stepped out the door. I tease him because I love him.
B411: I love Slim also. He’s another storyteller. His music, his stories. There are some great stories. These are the guys that keep it alive. Cause the blues in essence is the spoken word. Well it was the chants. I don’t mean to get all educational with my history here, I’m just a baby. It was field chants, which then translated into stories and sounds that passed along to the children and into music. And you can correct this, but it’s sketchy, but it’s what I’ve learned
GD: You’re saying it fine. Field hollers, the blues came up out of that stuff. [Said in a field holler/sing song voice]
“ Ah, Rosie, o’lord care,
Ah Rosie, o’lord care when she walk she really rocks behind
When she walks she really rocks behind
Ain’t that enough to worry convicts mind.”
Yes, it is enough. These men on the chain gang were singing what they knew and what they wanted to know. To sing about them women.
Ah man, there are some aspects of the blues and the early blues and the pre-blues. And the use of the N word. I don’t think should be forbidden or outlawed as much as it need to be introduced by someone like Bill Wax who can give a context to the word and it’s use and the way things were sung about. There’s an aspect of the blues that I’ve heard reflected. Especially in work songs something “I don’t want no jet black woman, she’s too mean lord, lord, she’s too mean.” Such a line, is not considered politically correct because it’s hurtful. It’s like looking at a group of beautiful women and telling them, that you’re not on this list, you can’t get on this line kind of thing. But it was something that was going on, and being sung about in the prisons. I would love to know is there was some kind of research to indicate where that, who started that line? I imagine that it came post reconstruction. Back when they had the, I think they’re called the Black Laws, when slavery ended, they no longer had slaves as a source of labor to build this country. So they turned to prisons. And what I’m calling the Black Laws, I’m not sure if that’s the right term, ensured that if a Black man and a White man stood before a judge, charged with the same crime, the Black man would do more time. And his labor would be continued to be used to build the country, to hoe the fields and harvest the plants and to build the buildings and dig the ditches. So, these are the people that the blues is written about. Even if the blues didn’t come into its recognizable form to us until 19 what ever – WC Handy said 1907, but you know it’s somewhere back there. These are the people that the blues are being sung about. The dispossessed people, those people hijacked from the street, and thrown into prison.
B411: It’s the same horse, but a different color. You can call it what you want, it’s slavery. It’s indentured servitude.
GD: I guess I just wanted it to never be forgotten that I don’t want the word, the N word to necessarily vanish from the face of the earth and imprison anybody who uses it. It just has to be used with a certain clear understanding that it is a word that riots have been started over, blood has been spilled over. And rappers seem to use indiscriminately sometimes. I’ve even hear white rappers use it to each other. So the whole thing gets kooky.
B411: It’s morphed.
GD: It has morphed. But I don’t want it to morph so much that people forget where the blues came from.
B411: Well, do you want to end here?
GD: I think we about got to the end.
*Click here to listen to Guy impersonate Watermelon Slim & sing his “Oh Rosie” song….
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease
photos by: Leslie K. Joseph
Where Blues Thrives