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Passion and strife 

Through the filter of recent popular opinion, the tobacco industry has come to be viewed as an obscene force of 20th-century-style greed and malevolence, and tobacco use itself at best a pitiable vice, at worst a sin. That leaves the city of Durham in an interesting spot, with its history retroactively interpreted as a city born of sin--or at least one suckled off the astronomical revenues produced when that sin hit the open market. But the new reading fits, in a way, as Durham was once one of the blues capitals of the nation, and the blues was the music of the devil. After a century spent profiting from cigarettes while millions puffed their way into cancer wards, the Bull City, in an attempt to shimmy out of that dark legacy, presently dons the moniker "City of Medicine" and profits off the cancer wards themselves.

Perhaps it was only natural that a city laden with such sharp irony and such tremendous cash flow should become the "City of the Blues," as successful artists must be able to sniff from a distance the traces of both elements. In the 1930s, Durham became home for vagabond players of blues music like Blind Gary Davis and younger men like Blind Boy Fuller, to whom Davis passed along his craft. The blues songs audiences wanted to hear in those days were usually stories of lust, drink, violence, betrayal and hardship--just the thing, really, to crank up a late-night house party. But every Saturday night ends in a Sunday morning, and Durham, exercising that wonderful Southern capacity for contradiction, was also a pious, prosperous town with a black middle class that preferred listening to swing and gospel, and that derided blues music as a troublesome business, as a stain on the race. The spiritual gulf was enough to give players like Davis and Fuller reason to pause and consider whether they had enough strength to keep playing blues in the face of scorn (and police harassment) or, inversely, whether they had the fortitude to quit. Whatever paths they chose, their stories would be shaped, like the city in which they would make history, by the leaves of Carolina tobacco.

The air of veneration and age lent to Durham by the gothic, rusticated walls over at Duke is one that clouds the truth. Durham is, in fact, a comparatively young city. Its growth was unexpected, and was almost entirely dependent on the success of the Duke family's tobacco company. Although the post-Civil War population was only about 100 souls, by the time Buck Duke found himself embroiled in his antitrust dogfights, the city had grown exponentially. By 1930, the first peak of Durham's great blues era, the city had a population of 50,000.

It was the tobacco market, namely the errant nature of tobacco money that floated around the warehouse district, that inspired both Gary Davis and Blind Boy Fuller to start playing on the streets. Dodging the job market anemia of the 1930s, Durham thrived in those years, steadily supplying cigarettes to a nation on an interminable smoke break. For a blues musician it was an ideal place to be; not only was there cash--but there was hot cash, the kind that was anxious to get out of the owner's billfold.

Certain populations that washed in and out of Durham also attracted blues players. Traveling farmers brought their sweet- smelling crop to the brick warehouses and, after making their sales, always could pluck enough from the roll to invest in a weekend bender, taking their time to handsomely tip the blind gentleman picking guitar down on the street corner.

Another source of subsistence came from the seasonal warehouse hands who, as transient populations will do, tended to initiate weekend house parties and chitterlings struts that would last through the night. They would cook up chitterlings and rice and drink white lightning, cherry moonshine or, in tobacco season, sticky-sweet peach lightning. If the air at these parties was tainted by the turbid scent of sin, so much the better, for good times meant more work for a musician. Blind Boy Fuller was a favorite at these house parties, playing with washboard and harmonica players for set fees and free booze.

No doubt the most salient trait of blues musicians is that, as a group, they have a startlingly disproportionate tendency to be handicapped. Of the great Durham players, Sonny Terry was blind, Gary Davis was blind (he was often called Blind Gary), of course Blind Boy Fuller was blind, and Peg Leg Sam's appellation accurately summed up his state as well. Music was the best trade for those with debilitating afflictions. However complicated an instrument it is, wielding a guitar is a much safer prospect than swinging a scythe or a hammer. Fuller, losing his sight to syphilis in the 1930s, knew that he had little choice about his career. Music was choosing him. His young wife, Cora Mae, recalls that her husband had only goofed around with the guitar before that, but it was the dimming of his sight that led him to hang with Davis, and then to begin to really play.

Durham's Trice brothers, Willie and Richard, were the exceptions as blues musicians; they were not physically impaired. Many times they toted Gary Davis to house parties, borrowing his guitar and more than a few of his licks. They maintained all their faculties during their playing years, although both brothers were to successively lose their legs to diabetes later in life when, ironically, they would stop playing the blues at the Lord's request. Music was a spare-time thing for them, and that probably accounts for their diminutive recording careers. As neither was forced to play for a living, as Davis and Fuller were, they spent much of their lives working at a gas station.

Gary Davis, blind from childhood, had been playing guitar many years by the time he settled in Durham, and his playing was so impressive that the legend spread around town that he, following the now somewhat hackneyed Faustian blues story, had sold his soul to the devil to allow him to play so well. One is inclined to think that, had that actually been the case, he might have bargained for something more than playing on street corners. Listening to Davis play, there is the temptation to believe he may have had an invisible accompanist or may have possessed a sixth finger on his right hand, special for picking the treble strings while he banged out rhythms with his thumb on the bass. A welfare worker who entreated Davis to break out the guitar in his office noted in his report, "He is an unbelievable guitar player." The late Richard Trice, speaking from his wheelchair in a retirement home over on LaSalle Drive last August, grew wide-eyed when talking about Davis' abilities, as if some of his more ornate licks were mentally indigestible to the mind of a fellow guitar player. "He was the playingest man I ever saw. Played piano, too. Make it sound just like the guitar."

Fuller and Davis belong to a guitar tradition known as Piedmont blues. The term may have more geographical than musical relevance, as many styles of blues were played across the area, and similar sounds are to be found elsewhere in the South. Much of it is ragtime, bouncy and flush, but it is definitely smelt with Delta blues, which made its way across the Smoky mountains via medicine show players like Mississippi John Hurt. There is some bluegrass, too, lurking around in its muddled ancestry.

Glen Hinson, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill folklore department, describes the lyric quality of the music of Piedmont blues musicians as a necessary, adaptive style. "The guitar was a lyric instrument," he explains. "You could make it talk. Ask any Piedmont blues guitar player and they will tell you that the one thing they listen for in a player is whether or not you can make the guitar talk. It was a voice for the poor people, a way that they could speak about their lives. They don't care about just banging out a beat or strumming chords. Anybody could do that. But could they make it talk? That's what Gary Davis did."

For several years both Blind Boy Fuller and Gary Davis, along with a number of other Durham musicians, thatched together their livings by playing at house parties and on street corners. Sometimes they were run off by the cops. Sometimes a letter from Social Services granted permission to play certain spots on certain days. But their identities, stories and voices might have blown away, unknown, with the passing years were it not for the arrival in Durham of J. B. Long.

Long was a young manager of a chain-store in Kinston when he got his first taste in recording music. At his store, he sold records ordered from the American Record Corporation, and they were popular with the tobacco farmers who came into Kinston. One day, a number of patrons asked if a song had been recorded yet relating the story of a recent disaster in Lumberton, in which six tobacco farmers were killed when their truck collided with a train. To supply that demand, Long got permission from the ARC to find an act to record a song. He looked up the story in an old paper, wrote the song with a newspaperwoman, and quickly recorded "Lumberton Wreck." Apparently the recording industry was a little easier to bust into back then.

Having been promoted to a Durham location several years later, Long happened to hear Blind Boy Fuller, wrapped in a blanket on a cold day, playing and singing on the street. Fuller's charismatic style caught Long's imagination, and they were soon together in a car, along with Gary Davis and another player named Bull City Red, making the long drive to New York to record. Long would take that trip many times in the following years with many different musicians, and it was through these trips that Durham blues would find its voice to the rest of the world and to history.

Although Davis helped teach Fuller the guitar and traveled with him, they had distinctively different styles, and they did not record as a duet. Fuller's charisma comes straight at you through his swift, danceable rags. He skats along the melody lines, and when he has pleased himself, he yelps out his patented yeah! He charms with a virility, an athletic style and, like a gangly-legged puppy tripping through the yard, with the raw joy he takes in keeping up with himself. In slower numbers, he twists your mood with his suddenly mournful monologues, banging the strings in spurts, Delta-style, between refrains like violent seizures of despair--the kind of thing that makes the blues the blues.

There is an undeniably sexual slant to Fuller's songs, which are strung with prurient lines that might have been encouraging at a house party. On his recording Rag Mama Rag, for instance, you'll find what might have been the first recorded instances of lines such as: "Shake it baby, all night long." They had to start somewhere. Should we be vague on what he means by "it" he elaborates: "Yeah, shake it for me." This stuff may not be so risqué by today's graphic bump-and-grind R&B standards, but it was enough to earn the "devil's music" title in the 1930's.

Gary Davis' recordings of that period are much more somber, introspective and articulate than Fuller's. He wows you by delivering deadpan virtuosity. He lattices memorable little phrases of striking beauty in with long, complex melodic lines. His playing reflects his personality--cerebral, austere and aggressive. To pull you into his songs, he utilizes the power of melodic suggestion and negative space, as Bach did in his Brandenburg concertos. His concern seems to be the attempt to rearrange and perhaps transcend the parameters of the blues forms.

Davis uses his voice rarely and there may be a couple of reasons for this. J. B. Long felt that Davis' voice was not as good as Fuller's and he was right, but that probably didn't matter much. You don't have to be a golden-throat to sing blues. A more likely possibility is that Davis might did not wish to sing blues anymore.

He was older than Fuller, had been through the grinder of a busted-up marriage, had been playing blues longer, and was coming around to a notion that hits many of the old blues musicians who live long enough: that, whatever blues music is, the lifestyle that accompanies it is none too good for their lives, their loves, their souls, not to mention their livers.

Davis took no part in any New York recording road trips with Long after 1937. Keen about not getting suckered (one witness recalls that, when a passer-by attempted to steal a dollar from him, Davis grabbed the man and stabbed him a number of times in the backside with a large knife before letting the thief go), he felt that Long wasn't giving him a fair shake. Naturally, he wanted a taste of the royalties.

Fuller, however, continued working with Long at $20 per recorded song, which made his net on a trip up North about $250. He and Cora Mae would stretch those paydays out as long as they could. There isn't any evidence to support the criticism that Long was dragging home a lion's share of royalties, although many blues musicians through the years were victimized by the leeches of the industry. In distillation, it seems most likely that Davis, who became an ordained minister in 1937, stopped playing blues to save his soul. The price he would pay for that salvation was his commercial success.

Reverend Gary Davis, as he would be known for posterity, would discover that recording companies were much less interested in making spiritual records. They just didn't sell the way the blues did. The sensuality of the blues rhythms, the low-down damned-if-I-do/damned-if-I-don't condition that accompanies that sensual freedom feeds the human compulsion towards turmoil and pain. We scratch our wounds, we pick at splinters, we sing the blues. The spirituals expressed trouble, passion and strife, to be sure, but somehow managed to take the fun out of the whole mess. The blues, however, had a good beat. You could dance to it.

But blues and gospel share common ground. They spring from the same eternal longing for transcendence and catharsis. If the gospel grants an individual transcendence from their troubles through the solidarity of a congregation, the blues, in turn, offers emancipation from the group through a thoroughly American rhapsodizing of one's own burdens. The difference is in the message. The gospel says "Love thy neighbor," the blues, "Keep an eye on thy neighbor for he may be loving thy wife while thou'st be away at work."

Gary Davis had weighed these matters when he cashed out of the blues life. He chose poverty, even the humility of life as a charge of the state, above playing blues. A social services worker who interviewed Davis just two months after his ordination wrote, "It appears that M. has scruples against this type of endeavor. When questioned about the guitar as a means of income, M. stated that he does not play the kind of music that meets public appeal since he has become christianized."

Blind Boy Fuller, ready to sin in a blink should the moment call for it, stuck in the blues vein right through to his last days--days which were not long in coming. Apparently he made a fair life for himself and Cora Mae and they were, by available accounts, a relatively cheery couple who leaned on one another, although he did shoot her in 1938. The sophist, here, will cock an eyebrow at the notion of a blind man toting a revolver. And might well wonder why Davis, not only blind, but an ordained minister, would carry a long blade. There is testimony that Fuller emptied his chamber in stray shots in a store one day when he believed that the cashier was trying to take advantage of him. Like Davis, he was trying to emphasize the point that his blindness did not make him helpless. Cora Mae, who wasn't seriously injured by the gunshot wound to her thigh, declined to press charges against her husband. Artist that he was, Fuller turned the story into a strong blues number, which he recorded as "Prison Bound Blues":

I never will forget the day they transferred me to the county jail

I shot the woman I love

ain't got no one to come go my bail.

He romanticizes a bit, however, because Long hurried down to bail him out and Cora Mae was plenty swift in letting him back in the house. She would stay with him as he grew very ill. It seems he had just dodged the bullet of syphilis, which was in arrest by 1940, only to discover that his bladder was quickly deteriorating. They moved into a house on Massey Avenue, close to the hospital, and there they remained until his death in 1941. He was laid to rest in the Grove Hill Cemetery, the grounds of which later became the Fayetteville Street High School.

Remembering the death of Blind Boy Fuller, Richard Trice (who died this past April) paused to stare at the tile floor. He recalled that, although Fuller recorded blues almost to the end, on his deathbed Fuller claimed that if he survived his illness then he would never play blues again. But this last shot at redemption would misfire; he died before his renunciation of the blues would be tested. Although Trice continued to record blues (he once recorded, although he says reluctantly, as Little Boy Fuller--in a producer's attempt to milk the legacy) for years after Blind Boy's death, he remembered those words. He also remembered Rev. Gary Davis' renouncement of the blues, and eventually he too would stop playing them.

It tired Trice to talk and he was uncomfortable without his legs, shifting around in his chair trying to get his weight right. "One day, when things was going downhill for me," he explained, "the Lord told me he didn't have no more use for the blues. He just didn't have no more use for me to play the blues."

Within two years after the death of Blind Boy Fuller, Gary Davis put Durham behind him, and made a fortuitous move to New York. As if being rewarded for his adherence to his convictions, Davis's career would be reborn during the folk music revival of the late 1950s and 1960s. In the next decade he would take part in numerous tours, record several studio and live albums, find himself the subject of a documentary film and would finally garner his due as one of the finest guitar players of the century. He took on apprentice guitarists like Stefan Grossman and Ry Cooder, passing along his finger-picking style, through Grossman's books, for future generations to study. Having swung across the spectrum of sin and sanctity, having been a swinging blues cat and a soul-saving preacher, perhaps he was seeing in life less of the stark contrasts and more of the gradient light that tends to illuminate old age. Either way, his guitar playing only grew better as he aged. In 1972, on a road trip to a gig in the Northeast, he died of heart failure.

Today Durham is enjoying a rejuvenation as, after some hard downtime in a post-industrial limbo, it has managed to lure hi-tech, academic, and medical monies within its domain. Yet a more macabre face appears when you notice the rise in violence and murders this year. Rev. Z.D. Harris, pastor of the Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church for 41 years, is a man who looks at that rising murder rate as a barometer of the success or failure of his day-to-day work. He also views music in Durham as an essential part of the story.

Harris explains the Baptist concept that people are commissioned to live their lives as a representation of the kingdom of God. In this paradigm, blues music and the blues lifestyle are indistinguishable. Music for music's sake is an empty idea. "Does the music of the people represent the kingdom of God?" he asks. "No." Harris admits that he will listen to the old blues songs when they come on the radio, but when discussing rap music, the progeny of the blues, he believes it is incontestably the music of Satan.

To clinch his case, he cites from Timothy, "Pearlish [perilous] times will come ... pearlish times ... when men will not induce sound doctrine. They will have a form of godliness, but they will be denying the power of God." EndBlock

  • The story of Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Boy Fuller, Durham's celebrated bluesmen.

More by Matt Jones


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