You may see directors Simeon Hutner and Trevor Laurence’s documentary Harlem Street Singer
, and you may wonder: how many? How many unsung heroes of blues and rock n’roll, black musicians who played instruments like they were extensions of their limbs, who wrote and performed songs that set the standard for those who came after them, how many have been forgotten? How many, their songs living on only through the white rock musicians who covered, copied, and profited from their distinct styles, have lived and died without full acknowledgement of their contributions?
In a way, the guitar player and singer Reverend Gary Davis (the subject and titular Harlem street singer) is emblematic of those forgotten musicians in the way that Elvis is emblematic of the mainstream artists who benefited from black music by not actually being black. Davis, a Blues Hall of Fame inductee who influenced countless rock and folk musicians including Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, was a man who during the latter half of his life enjoyed a modicum of fame amongst those in the know but today, as the documentary reveals, is a mere musical history footnote.
But know this: the film is not a bleak but joyful portrait of a talented, charismatic, and fascinating figure, a man as entertaining and complex as the furious and innovative guitar-picking that became so synonymous with his style of playing. Hutner and Laurence employ interviews with music historians and biographer who explain Davis’s impoverished childhood in the deep south, his time as a blind street singer in 1920s North Carolina, his eventual conversion to Christianity which contributed to the string of prolific blues and gospel songs that he produced throughout his lifetime.
Students and admirers, too, are interviewed - people like Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead, and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary. It’s through these interviews, particularly with Davis’s student and professional guitarist Woody Mann, that we truly begin to get a sense of a man who was at once deeply religious but also conflicted by a love of women and whiskey.
While his students may lend to the overall impression of Davis, though, it’s him, and particularly his music that carries much of the documentary, which for the most part has a straightforward and unvaried approach to storytelling. Davis, though, tells us all we need to know, through beautiful archival footage of him performing his most affecting songs, including gospel tunes like ‘12 Gates to the City’ and ‘There’s a Destruction in This Land’ or blues songs including ‘Candyman’ and ‘Cocaine.’
It’s only when we see him play, hear him sing howling and growling and then suddenly thinning his voice to only a whisper, that we fully understand the extent of his talent and ultimately the extent of his influence of the musicians of his day. Much of this footage of him performing won’t be found on a YouTube search, beautiful grainy black and white reels of Davis seated alone, dark glasses on, holding his guitar like some men hold their lovers. Even rarer are audio recordings of Davis talking about his life, or teaching his students with all the idiosyncratic charm that we usually attribute to geniuses.
What Harlem Street Singer may lack in overall inventiveness it more than makes up for with a sincere admiration for its subject that a viewer can’t help but begin to share by the end of the documentary. Hutner and Laurence have done a fine job of introducing Davis to those who may not know him, of remembering him with those who do, and of celebrating the legacy of just one of the numerous musicians whose talent and influence have shaped rock ‘n roll music as we know it today.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.