Harlem Street Singer: Film Review

Enjoyable if modest doc appeals to a range of music buffs.

A generation of folk and rock guitarists remember the influential Reverend Gary Davis.

A loving biography of a guitarist whose work was "not folk, not blues, not gospel," but drew from and colored those genres and more, Simeon Hutner's and Trevor Laurence's Harlem Street Singer gives some overdue doc attention to the Reverend Gary Davis, whose fingerpicking style influenced a generation or three of white rock musicians and whose songs and arrangements became staples of the 1960s folk revival. The doc will please at music-oriented fests and in specialty bookings, but should find most of its audience on video.

Born in South Carolina, Davis made his first guitar out of a pie pan and was gigging with pros as a child. Fully blind by adulthood, he did well playing blues for workers and just-got-paid farmers in tobacco warehouses. But by his 30s, he had given up earthly music for gospel. He found his way to New York City, where he played for change on street corners until, fairly late in his life, the folkies found him -- making him a star among the cognoscenti and, when Peter Paul & Mary insisted on getting him royalties for a song they put on their blockbuster debut LP, making him financially comfortable in his old age.

The story is told in part by biographers, but comes to life through recollections of musicians like Woody Mann and David Bromberg, who recall making pilgrimages to Davis' home for regular guitar lessons. Davis would change the way a song was played from one week to the next, challenging their improvisational skills; "you had to be pretty good even to be influenced by him," one musician says. (Audio and primitive video of some of these lessons is offered here, alongside more conventional performance footage.) These men, along with acolytes from Dave Van Ronk (an inspiration for the Coen Brothers' forthcoming Inside Llewyn Davis) and the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir, both ensured Davis' legacy and gave him a surrogate family, one Davis clearly took pride in. Bromberg happily recalls hearing him refer to these disciples at a performance, saying, "I have no children, but I have sons."

Production Company: Acoustic Traditions Films

Directors: Trevor Laurence, Simeon Hutner

Producers: Woody Mann, Trevor Laurence

Executive producers: Robert Davoli, Eileen McDonagh

Director of photography: Daniel B. Gold

Editors: Simeon Hutner, Trevor Laurence

No rating, 77 minutes