Davis is the son of actors Ruby Dee and the late Ossie Davis. Both starred in numerous TV shows and feature films, including Dee's roles in A Raisin in the Sun and more recently as Mama Lucas in American Gangster. Davis played Da Mayor in Do the Right Thing. His parents filled his childhood with music and literature, he says. He learned to play by listening and watching other musicians. The first time he heard the blues it was from white college boys.
"It seemed to have this power that I couldn't explain. It was something so beautiful. I thought they'd invented it. I knew deep down it was special. When I learned it came from black folks in the past without any experience, that deepened it. It made it more beautiful," says Davis in a phone interview from his home in New York City. He performs at Unison in New Paltz this Saturday, June 6 at 8 p.m.
Davis has been nominated for nine W. C. Handy Blues Awards (now called the Blues Music Awards) over the years, including for Best Traditional Blues Album, Best Blues Song and Best Acoustic Blues Artist twice. His album Sweetheart Like You was the Number One most-played on folk radio in February, where he's the Number Three most-played artist.
Using his voice, guitar, mandolin, banjo and harmonica, Davis channels influences like Blind Willie McTell, Skip James, Mance Lipscomb and Mississippi John Hurt. He says that it's hard to say if blues music is a waning tradition. "The conditions that brought about the blues are not the same as they were 100 years ago. The art out of that time is called the blues; it's the music of survivors. Like the people who invented it, the music has changed also."
While it may be in danger of being extinguished, Davis says that he, and musicians like Alvin Youngblood Hart and others, are keeping alive the old sound that rose out of prisons and work farms in the post-slavery era, "so that it will not become alien to the ears of young people. This music has a sense of history; it holds the cultural DNA of black people in America," he says. "I think this DNA can only help us to understand ourselves."
In his 40 years of playing the guitar, Davis has also focused on ragtime, string banjo music and folk. Storytelling is a big part of his shows. Stories give people a glimpse of the lives of the people who invented the music, he says. And just because it's called the blues doesn't mean that there is no laughter. "It's a mighty good time. I think my sense of humor is broad enough for everybody. It's not an us-versus-them, black-versus-white. It's something that allows all people to appreciate it. What I do is larger than me."
Ticket prices are $16 for Unison members, $21 for non-members in advance, $2 more at the door. Call Unison at (845) 255-1559 to purchase tickets.