Guy Davis sings the blues, travels to a spiritual realm

OSWEGO, N.Y. – Even with an affluent childhood, a career adorned with awards and nominations, and a life traveling across the country, the highest point of Guy Davis’ life was when he drove a taxi in New York City.

Davis said while he was a taxi driver from July to August 1988, he experienced several out-of-body experiences behind the wheel.

“It was as if the world around the taxi went into slow motion,” Davis said. “And I could see life happening all the way down the avenue and I knew where the car would have to stop. I knew that I would make lots of money that day, but I didn’t care because I was in a blissful state.” 

Davis is not a professional mystic; he is a blues guitarist. He won two Grammy nominations, had a lead role in the 1984 film Beat Street, and in 1993 won the Blues Foundation’s “Keeping the Blues Alive” award. He is the son of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, two of the most prolific black actors and activists of the 1960s. His career briefly faltered by the time he was driving that taxi, but to Davis this does not matter. He said he learned more from the taxi than he did during college.

In the Oswego Music Hall dressing room, prior to a performance on March 11, Davis talked about his turbulent life as a singer-songwriter, actor and playwright. He wore a leather jacket, a beret, and a gray T-shirt from the “Blues in the Gorge” festival. He laughed and agreed to the label of “spiritual.” He felt there was a spirit in the dressing room.

Davis played a twelve-string guitar, a staple of the blues he has played since he was a child. In tune with his parents’ activism, Davis’ music frequently discusses issues of racism. His latest album “Be Ready When I Call You” included a track about the 1921 Tulsa race riot. 

He compared his songwriting method to the “vomitation” method of Bob Dylan. He explained it as taking everything in his mind, unedited, even if it is illogical. Then, he decides what the meaning of the song will be and sorts the writing accordingly.

“[I] take chaos and just decide what I want that chaos to say,” Davis said.

Davis has practiced meditation since the 1970s. He described it as violently banging on a door until a hand reaches through and grabs you inside a room. 

“In that room you are all-seeing, all-knowing and all-powerful,” Davis said. “That’s the state I was in in that taxi, several times.”

During one instance, which Davis described as “an ultimate experience,” he heard a voice repeat, “Open up your life to the light of love.” Davis said he wrote about the voice in a diary he left in the taxi and never saw again.

He clarified that being spiritual does not make him holier than anyone else. He claimed heritage in every major religion, but he also criticized clergy as not being trustworthy.

“The only preacher I would ever trust is one who’s got his name engraved on a bench right outside the door of Hell, next to my name,” Davis said. “He says, ‘Well, I can try to save people, I might not make it myself.’ I say ‘Alright, I can trust you, because I think you are being honest.’”

This was not his first time in Oswego; while Davis was an up-and-coming performer, his uncle Thomas lived in Oswego as an IBM employee. Davis saw this as more than a coincidence.

“On a professional level I am here because my manager and agent set me up this gig,” he said. “But spiritually I think there is some stuff going on here.”

Fellow blues guitarist Larry Kyle opened for Davis at the Oswego Music Hall concert. Kyle first saw Davis at the New York State Blues Festival. Kyle said it was “an honor and a privilege” to share a stage with Davis. 

“I just love his old school approach to music,” Kyle said. “He’s right down to the basic roots.”

Davis had his start in music at a very young age. As a child, Davis attended Camp Killooleet, a summer camp run by John Seeger, singer Pete Seeger’s brother, in Vermont. The camp introduced Davis to the five-string banjo. The camp leaders also led sing-alongs, which was how Davis had already learned many of Pete Seeger’s songs before he met him. Seeger, an old friend of his father, was standing in the Davis family room and shook hands with Davis when they met for the first time. 

Davis recalled the second time he met Seeger, his “first real exchange,” on a family visit to his log cabin. Davis was sitting in the back of Seeger’s car when Seeger asked him what music he listened to. Davis was a fan of Seeger’s brand of folk music, but he answered: “James Brown.” Davis said it was his way of jokingly asking “Have you ever heard of him, old man?”

In 1977, Davis began opening for Seeger’s shows. Seeger introduced Davis to many high profiles, including John Denver, Don McLean and oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Charles Averett of Folkways Records discovered Davis at Pegasus, a nightclub in New York City. In 1978, Davis released his first studio album “Dreams About Life,” on the label.