Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


Ry Cooder, Rev. Gary Davis and the (not so) Lost Chord

I was trying to find an old tape in my-hah!-archives last nite when I came across a recording I hadn’t listened to since it was made in 1962. It was a lesson that an old L.A. pickin’ partner, David Cohen, and I took with Blind Reverend Gary Davis, one of the last great songster/bluesmen still alive then, and a formidable guitarist. Rev. Gary was in the tradition of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson and many think he played in their virtuosic league, as this uptempo blues clip demonstrates. He is almost unknown to the general public, but recognized as a monster player and major influence by almost anyone trying to play authentic roots or roots-inspired music.

I immediately made a protection copy of the lesson, in which the music ranges from brilliant to weird, recorded it into my computer, called my oldest son down to listen to it and went back to searching for the tape I’d been looking for.

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Cut to the next morning and the Travel Section of the Sunday New York Times. Most of the section’s front page is taken up by a huge color photograph of a California desert with a brushed aluminum “fuselage” of something they call a “belly tanker,” a racecar, in the foreground, and the headline, “Ry Cooder’s American West.” Whenever Ry slips into my radar range I involuntarily go to my most indelible image I have of him, that of a really good-looking guy about 18 or 19, wearing a soft leather jacket and playing a unique guitar style, three feet from my face.

It’s been a long time since then, but I remember sitting in the dim, half-curtained daylight of the empty concert room at the Ash Grove, the premier folk-roots club in Los Angeles, watching him punch out notes and chords in an exciting, hard-charging finger-picking style I’d never heard before. The thumb of his right hand seemed to be doing much more than just keeping a beat going on the lower strings, the usual pattern in finger-picking. Instead, his bass line had a life of its own, its own melodies and rhythms, which were always powerful. (I apologize for not having an example of Ry himself doing this on acoustic guitar 40 years ago, but I do have this ragtime nugget from Rev Davis, whom I think had a profound influence on Ry. I’ve never talked to Ry about it, but I think this hard-charging, all-of-the-guitar technique of the Rev’s left deep grooves in Ry’s personal recording matrix,  not to put too fine a point on it.)

At the same time, I also noticed that Ry’s chording hand, big and nimble, was all over the fingerboard. This is where I snapped my mental photograph of Ry Cooder.

Now, you have to understand, even though I’d only been playing about three years at that point, I was a hard working study, and I thought I knew all the chords I needed for folk,  blues and roots music, which is what everybody was concentrating on in those days. But Ry had a boxcar full of guitar technique that was brand new to me, including this one chord position from Mars, a real fingerbuster he used up and down the neck with speed and accuracy. As I said, I’d never seen it before, and only twice since. And he was using it a lot. It was an almost painful chord to watch being played, a twisted, unnatural bird’s nest of fingers and guitar strings.

(For you guitar players, it was the regular D Chord you usually play with your first three fingers on the top three strings, but Ry played it with his middle, index and pinky fingers, which left his index finger free to play the root of the chord on the fourth string. I couldn’t see that at the time; I just didn’t have the guitar knowledge then. But it was obviously important to Ry.)

I stared at his hands a lot, but I was too proud or something to ask him to slow it down and show me what he was doing, not that he necessarily would have. Even then, the folk music environment was very competitive. Anyway, I went away from my concert-for-one knowing I’d heard some really unusual playing from a talented player, but had no idea how he did it. “That’s why he’s hot shit, and I’m not,” I said to myself, and pretty much forgot about his style and the chord.
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Then, about six months later,  the friend I mentioned, Dave Cohen, and I took that seminal lesson with Rev. Gary Davis. He was a spellbinding  Mac Truck of a player-singer, and he was the real deal: a Black man (“Negro,” as we said in those days) in his late 60’s, tall, rawboned, and, as I said, blind. He was also irascible, contrary and liked his liquor. But what a musician. Listening to the tape I found yesterday reminded me of how explosively original he was, in a long line of original players, one of which Ry became one.

But back then, in 1962, I was thinking, Listen, I’m paying for a lesson (as I remember it was $15 for both of us, Dave and me) with Gary Davis, and I should be able to ask him to put the brakes on this steam engine of a gospel hymn he’d got going, which, of course, he wouldn’t do, cackling all the while as I tried to pick it up in real time. Which, in fact, I did, partly because of my earlier exposure to it, courtesy Ry Cooder, thank you very much.

And, by the way, I sure couldn’t miss how much Rev. Davis used That Chord as he moved up and down the neck with huge, powerful hands. In spite of him actually speeding up the passage I wanted to see, I copped the chord, as I think Ry might have,  a few months earlier when he’d taken his lesson with the Right Reverend.  So, with my two eyes and my trusty Wollensak tape recorder, I think I found where Ry got some pretty bedrock technique as well as  how to make what I’d begun to think of as the lost chord.

To be honest with you, I’ve never been able to integrate that chord formation into the rest of my playing. I can finger it, but my hand is either too small or not double-jointed enough to get in and out of it quickly. Also, I became a flatpicker, trying to learn from guitarists like Doc Watson and Clarence White, and that chord fingering didn’t seem to work as well in that idiom as it did in Gary Davis’s/Ry Cooder’s.
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I can’t tell by listening if Ry still uses that formation or not, though it would be hard to believe he doesn’t. What I can hear is how much he was influenced by Gary Davis, which I know he openly acknowledges, at least he did 40 years ago, and I’m sure he’s still a standup guy.

BTW, I said I’d seen only two other guitarists besides Rev. Gary Davis use that fingering, and now you know that one of them is Ry Cooder. The other one is Dave Cohen, the one-time-dawg/he-don’t-talk-to-me-no-more dude, I took the lesson with. Dave, a finger-style guitarist, has huge hands, strong and flexible. I haven’t seen him in more than 30 years, but before that I remember seeing him use that chord all the time, starting the day after we  took the lesson with Blind Rev. Gary Davis.

One-liner notes: A British percussionist in a live orchestral performance, after mistakenly hitting his triangle during a long rest: “Dinner is served.”

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