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Davis not quite the activist his parents were

Davis not quite the activist his parents were

Blues guitarist and vocalist at 8th Step on Saturday
Davis not quite the activist his parents were
Blues guitarist Guy Davis will play the 8th Step at Proctors on Saturday.
Photographer: provided photo

Social activism may run in the family, but Guy Davis would be first to tell you he's not the force for good his parents were.

"I don't think I'm as involved as my mom and dad were, but the world was a different place back then," said Davis, whose parents were Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, two actors closely aligned with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. "When they were involved, they were really cutting their teeth in the movement. Integration wasn't something you took for granted. It had to be done and developed. I also remember them taking me along with my sisters to antiwar marches and peace rallies. I'm doing what I can. I guess the struggle continues."

Known primarily as a blues guitarist and vocalist, Davis says he likes to play any kind of American roots music, and he promises to do just that Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the 8th Step at Proctors. The performance runs for around two hours and takes place in The Addy on Proctors' third floor.

"I'm pretty focused on the blues, but I also play folk songs and I like to tell people, 'I play American music,'" said Davis. "I think my music is rooted in the acoustic sound and I'll play a variety of stuff, maybe something that Pete Seeger wrote or collected. It's real American music."

Davis, who turns 67 later this year, grew up in the 1950s when his parents were on their way to becoming successful names on Broadway and in Hollywood. Davis passed away in 2005 and Dee died in 2014.

"I would say they were successful actors when I was growing up, but I remember there was a time when my father needed to work at the post office," he said. "But it always seemed like one of them or both of them had an acting job, and part of their success was not sitting around waiting for Hollywood to call. They had a lot of friends, and an agent who used to send them to schools and libraries and hospitals, where they would give readings and recite poetry. They were always able to practice their craft and maintain the family, so in that way I feel like I was privileged to be a part of that."

His parents weren't the only family members who had the acting bug. Davis has two Broadway credits of his own, from 1991's "Mule Bone" by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and 2009's "Finian's Rainbow," in which he had one of the lead roles in a production nominated for three Tonys, including Best Revival of a Musical.

"Neither one was a project of mine, but I can say I had a personal stake in both of them," said Davis. "My parents knew Langston Hughes for years and my father was a real champion of his, so I took that into that show. And for 'Finian's Rainbow,' I didn't even have to audition. I got the role originated by Sonny Terry back in 1947, the blind harmonica player, and he's always been an inspiration to me. I've been stealing his music for years. And maybe I didn't have to audition, but I went home from rehearsal each day and continued to practice. I knew I had to become a better musician to do that role."

Davis has been playing music for nearly as long as he can remember.

"I must have been 5 or maybe less, but I loved listening to music on the radio and I would conduct my own symphony that I was listening to on the radio," he said. "I'd be standing in the living room by myself pretending I was conducting, and I'd put a butter knife on the table with the handle off the edge, and I'd hit it and listen to it vibrate. Then I would slide it to change the pitch. That was a great sound."

Davis also got an early introduction to the music of Pete Seeger, as well as the man himself.

"I went to his brother's summer camp in Vermont and the counselors there were all into music," remembered Davis. "So even though I don't think I realized it immediately, Pete Seeger was a huge influence on me. There were always lots of guitars and banjos all over the place, and not so many violins and mandolins. I learned some songs that Pete either wrote or collected, and that summer camp in Vermont was also the first time I heard a Bob Dylan song."

Davis got to know Seeger pretty well. When he got older, he served as Seeger's opening act on numerous occasions.

"He was a wonderful, homespun kind of guy," Davis said of the iconic folk singer and activist. "He had me do some opening sets for him back in the '70s, and through that I got to meet other people in the music business. I met John Denver, Don McLean because of Pete. I even met Jack Lemmon because of Pete. He was a great guy. A real gentle person."

Davis said he played somewhere around 150 gigs last year, and while he doesn't see himself slowing down in 2019, the number of his public performances might take a small hit.

"What I might want to do in 2019 is increase my personal time," he said. "I didn't get the time I wanted to do more writing and creating, so I may want to decrease my time on the road. But I do truly still love going out on the road and performing. Sometimes it feels like I'm performing a bit more than I ought to, but it's still what I love to do."

Guy Davis

WHERE: 8th Step at The Addy in Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

HOW MUCH: $45-$27

MORE INFO: www.proctors.org, (518) 346-6204



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