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‘Harlem Street Singer,’ Life Story of the Rev. Gary Davis – NYTimes.com

‘Harlem Street Singer,’ Life Story of the Rev. Gary Davis – NYTimes.com


‘Harlem Street Singer,’ Life Story of the Rev. Gary Davis


The Rev. Gary Davis, whose life fills the documentary “Harlem Street Singer.” Credit Acoustic Traditions


Opens on Friday

Directed by Simeon Hutner and Trevor Laurence

1 hour 18 minutes; not rated

A labor of love and respect, the documentary “Harlem Street Singer” chronicles the life of the Rev. Gary Davis, the blind singer and guitarist who inspired and influenced  a generation of folk musicians in the 1950s and 1960s.

Born in South Carolina in 1896, Davis, who taught himself to play guitar, was in a string band by his early teens and was a street musician in Durham, N.C., in the 1920s and ’30s. By the 1940s, he had become an ordained Baptist minister and moved to New York, playing on the streets of Harlem and preaching in storefront churches. Thanks to the folk revival movement, Davis’s circumstances eventually improved, and his songs, including “I Am the Light of This World,” “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and “Samson and Delilah,” became standards of blues, folk and rock.

Admittedly, the film, directed by Simeon Hutner and Trevor Laurence, has a hole at its center: a dearth of interviews with Davis, who died in 1972. It compensates with reminiscences by Bob Weir, David Bromberg, Happy Traum and other musicians who took lessons from Davis. Another student, the guitarist Woody Mann, not only performs songs Davis taught him, but he’s also a producer of the film.

The best material is footage of Davis’s opening-night performance at the1965 Newport Folk Festival, better remembered as the one where Bob Dylan went electric. In Davis’s comments to the crowd, his virtuosic fingerpicking and his gruff, raw vocals, viewers are given a glimpse of a singular artist whose music reaches us still. DANIEL M. GOLD



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