Davey Graham

TrackAlbum
AnjiAnthology: 1961-2007 Lost Tapes
Nottamun TownFolk Roots, New Routes
Proud MaisrieFolk Roots, New Routes
The FakirMidnight Man
She Moved Thru' The Bizarre...After Hours
Bruton TownLarge As Life & Twice As Natural
Sunshine RagaLarge As Life & Twice As Natural
Buhaina ChantHat
The Gold RingThe Complete Guitarist
Lute PreludeDance For Two People

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Contributor: Andrew Shields

He recorded as Davy (no ‘e’) Graham on his first seven albums up to 1970 and, thereafter, it was Davey Graham. From the early to the late 1960s, he was the undisputed king among British acoustic guitar players. His wide-ranging and free spirited musical curiosity, combined with his supreme technical skills as a guitarist, ensured that he became a pioneer in virtually every field which he entered. One of his own favourite quotations was that ‘definitions are limitations’ and it is unlikely that he ever met a musical boundary which he did not immediately wish to cross. From inventing DADGAD in the early 1960s, to playing anything from Bulgarian folk tunes to tunes adapted from the playing of Irish uileann pipers like Seamus Ennis on his later records, on through to his later experiments with playing the Indian lute, the oud and the sarod, Davey Graham’s restless innovations regularly opened up new musical horizons for those guitarists who followed in his wake. In a sense he was also one of the founders of the idea of ‘fusion’ music as we understand it today, although his willingness to immerse himself in the music and culture of other countries was far removed from the half-baked versions of that concept, which are so commonplace today.

As John Renbourn, one of his most fervent disciples, was later to argue, perhaps Davey Graham’s greatest legacy to those guitarists who came after him was this musical open-mindedness. This was reflected in his willingness, in Renbourn’s words, to play “pieces of any origin, from virtually any period, style or country” and to do so in a way which would allow parallels to be drawn between them which might not otherwise have been apparent. Despite this musical eclecticism, however, there was nothing of the dilettante about Graham. As the selections here show, when he became interested in a musical style, he was determined to master it and his extraordinary versatility allowed him to achieve this end with amazing speed. He also had a temperamental inability to stand still and continued to refine and refresh his musical skills right up until his death in 2008.

Like many other pioneers, however, Davey Graham never really received the kind of critical acclaim or commercial success that the excellence of his work merited. It was also the case that, early in his career, the novelty of his musical ideas meant that record companies had little idea of how his talents could best be utilised. This was despite the fact that his superb talents as a guitar player had been almost immediately apparent on his emergence on the London folk scene in the late 1950s. At the outset, his repertoire was heavily dominated by an unusual combination of the blues and of the type of sophisticated jazz music which would nowadays be described as ‘lounge’ or ‘supper club’ music.

A classic example of this early Graham style was captured by the filmmaker, Ken Russell, in Hound Dogs and Bach Addicts: The Guitar Craze in which the former made a brief appearance. In that short segment of the movie, Graham played two pieces; one an intricate blues arrangement and the other, his rendition of the jazz standard, Cry Me A River.

The couple in this clip from Russell’s film are Troubadour folk club founder Michael van Bloemen and his wife Sheila. Given the recent posts here on Toppermost (see Toppermost #159) about the Led Zeppelin ‘plagiarism’ issue, it may be of interest that some recent commentators have suggested that the passage from 00.20 here formed the basis for the intro to Stairway To Heaven.

Afterwards, many musicians were to point to this appearance, and the evidence it gave of Graham’s remarkable virtuosity on the guitar, as being the spark that led them to pursue musical careers themselves. Even by this point, however, Graham had already begun to explore the connections, as he saw it, between Irish and Scottish folk music and oriental music. In the next few years, these explorations were eventually to bear extremely significant and musically innovative fruits.

It has been argued by some that Davey Graham’s abiding interest in various forms of ‘world music’ (for want of a better term) owed a good deal to his own family background. His origins were indeed diverse, with his father being a Scots Gaelic teacher from the Isle of Skye while his mother, and sometime manager, Winifred, came from Guyana. Whatever the merits of such arguments, a wide-ranging musical curiosity and eclecticism were to be central features of Graham’s work from the very beginning of his career. His flair for innovation was demonstrated by the fact that, by the age of only 19, he had written what was to become the classic instrumental piece of the British folk revival, Anji, which confusingly has since been recorded by other artists under the titles Angi and Angie.

The version I have included here is included on the posthumously released compilation Anthology: 1961-2007 Lost Tapes. It was recorded by Bill Loader in 1961 and is of considerable historical significance for two main reasons: first, this was the version that was heard by Bert Jansch and is, thus, the one on which he based his own classic cover; the second, that Davey begins it by giving a brief account of how he came to write it and, given the central place it holds in the history of British folk-influenced music in the 1960s, this makes it a hugely valuable document. Of course, the fact that Anji is performed with Graham’s usual dexterity and skill as a guitarist here, also goes without saying. He was later to record a beautifully mellow rendition of Anji on his 1976 retrospective album, All That Moody, and I would also highly recommend that version to readers. Anji can also now be found as a bonus track on the CD of Davey Graham’s second, and highly influential, album, Folk, Blues & Beyond.

After writing Anji, Graham then moved on to experimenting with new types of open tunings and this was to culminate in his celebrated invention of DADGAD in mid-1963. According to some observers, this innovation was a result of trips which he made to Morocco and Algeria, where he had been struck by what he saw as the similarities between eastern music and Irish and Scottish traditional music. One of his intentions in inventing (or adapting) this system was to be able to play pieces on guitar that he’d heard on more exotic instruments, such as the oud. One of the first pieces which he was to play in public using this tuning was the old Irish folk song, She Moved Through The Fair. One of his earliest performances of it was captured on British television and can be viewed here. Later, in live performance, Davey Graham was to combine this brilliant instrumental, which he had retitled She Moved Through The Bizarre with his equally ground-breaking rendition of the Indian piece, Blue Raga, which he had learned from Ravi Shankar himself. I have included his superb version of this piece from the posthumously released After Hours: at Hull University, 4th February 1967, a recording of a post-concert performance that Graham gave to a small audience in a student’s room. It seems to me that when Graham went into this improvisational mode, the only people he can really be compared to are not his fellow folk musicians but rather the great jazz masters of improvisation such as John Coltrane or Charles Mingus.

Following on in this pattern of ground-breaking work, Davey Graham’s 1964 collaboration with the great English folk singer, Shirley Collins, Folk Roots, New Routes, was a landmark album in the history of the second wave of the British folk revival. The combination of Collins’ pure singing voice and Graham’s masterly guitar work was a brilliantly effective one. Also, the way in which Graham brought in influences derived from jazz and eastern music into what was largely a traditional repertoire was to pave the way for more commercially successful bands such as Pentangle and Fairport Convention. He also brought a new complexity into the arrangement of British folk songs and this was to allow such ancient songs as Nottamun Town, included here, to be seen in an entirely new light. Proud Maisrie, which I have also selected from this album, is another fine example of Collins’ excellence as a singer and Graham’s brilliance as an arranger of folk songs.

Throughout his early career, the albums tended to be rather uneven, with the flashes of occasional incandescent brilliance (as for example, in his magnificent version of the Lalo Schifrin instrumental, The Fakir, from Midnight Man in 1966, where he is brilliantly accompanied by the great Danny Thompson on bass) on them alternating with occasionally rather humdrum versions of songs by contemporary songwriters like Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. However, even on such tracks, Davey’s guitar playing always remained impeccable.

My personal favourite of his 1960s albums, and probably the most consistent of them in terms of quality, is Large As Life And Twice As Natural, which was first released in 1968. From it I have included his stunning performance of his own composition Sunshine Raga, and possibly his best solo performance of a folk song, the classic Bruton Town. Davey Graham may not have been the greatest singer technically, but certain songs suited his voice far more than others and this stands out as one of his best vocal performances. Although Hat, the album which Graham released after Large As Life… was not quite as good as its predecessor, it has, nonetheless, some moments of brilliance. Of these, his version of the great jazz musician, Art Blakey’s Buhaina Chant is yet another example of his extraordinary deftness and dexterity as a guitarist.

If I were asked to choose Davey Graham’s best albums, however, I would go for the two magnificent albums of instrumentals; The Complete Guitarist and Dance For Two People which were released in 1978 and 1979 respectively. In my opinion, these are extraordinary albums and they show one of the greatest guitarists who ever lived at the peak of his powers. They are also a striking testament to his extraordinary versatility and consummate musicianship. On them he moves seamlessly between Irish folk music, as in the superb version of the Irish uileann pipe tune, The Gold Ring (a piece particularly associated with the great Irish traditional musician, Seamus Ennis) which I have included here, through classical pieces such as Down Ampney by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Lute Prelude by Johann Sebastian Bach, which I have included, on through jazz/blues tunes like Horace Silver’s Sarah.

It was, perhaps, fitting that after having slipped out of the public eye for long periods from the early 1970s onwards, in the last five years or so of his life up to his death in 2008, this great musician finally began to receive some of the accolades which his work had long merited. This was due, in large part, to the dedication of a small group of people who championed his work and who persuaded him to return to public performance. It also reflected the esteem in which he was held by his peers, including fellow musicians like Martin Carthy and Bert Jansch who frequently admitted that Graham had been a crucial influence in their own musical development.

Generally speaking, it remains hard to overestimate the influence which this enigmatic, elusive, occasionally wayward but always brilliant musician had on the shaping of modern British folk music.

 

John Renbourn’s sleeve notes for Davey’s 1976 album All That Moody

Extract: “The immense impact Davy Graham had on the guitarists emerging from the British folk scene in the early days has long been acknowledged and is fairly well documented. Back in the sixties he was so far ahead of just about any would-be picker that it was practically miraculous. I can’t think of any of my contemporaries from those days who weren’t completely knocked over by his playing, and we all owe him a huge debt.” John Renbourn

 

Davy/Davey Graham 1940-2008

Davey Graham biography (iTunes)

John Renbourn (see Toppermost #253); Bert Jansch (see Toppermost #234); Martin Carthy (see Toppermost #256); John Coltrane (see Toppermost #169); Charles Mingus (see Toppermost #202); Seamus Ennis (see Toppermost #TBA); Shirley Collins (see Toppermost #303).

TopperPost #291

9 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Jun 2, 2014

    Another fine piece. “After Hours at Hull University” was recorded by John Pilgrim, late of the Vipers Skiffle Group who was a mature student and old friend of Davey’s. “Before hours” was at the university folk club, a performance I saw earlier the same evening.

  2. Roger Woods
    Jun 3, 2014

    Excellent article Andrew. I saw him perform shortly before he died. The warmth of the crowd towards the guvnor of the guitar was moving.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Jun 3, 2014

    Thanks for these comments. Peter – Given what a fine album ‘After Hours’ is, wondered what your memories are of the concert itself…

  4. Peter Viney
    Jun 3, 2014

    If only I could remember! We went to every folk club show, I remember seeing him, but around the same time John Renbourn, Bert Jansch … it was all great. As the sleevenotes say, John Pilgrim hadn’t been at the concert earlier and hadn’t known about it. He was doing postgrad. Davey knew he was there and went looking for him after the show. I corresponded with John who asked me the same.

  5. Andrew Shields
    Jun 3, 2014

    Must say I envy those of you who got to see Renbourn, Jansch & Graham in the 60s… My first folk gig was Clannad in their early days (before the whole ‘Celtic twilight’ and Bono-induced decline) in about 77/78…

  6. Rob Millis
    Jun 4, 2014

    A lovely piece, and yes – arguably the most important UK fingerpicker. I prefer Jansch myself, but he’d have been the first to tip his hat. Sadly, Graham was not in good shape towards the end. My wife used to help the late Bob Brunning run his various blues clubs around SW19, and although not directly involved in the midweek acoustic venue, she (and I) would still take an interest and often go down for a pint. On returning home from work one night, she remembered seeing at Colliers Wood tube station, a very ‘fragile, ‘hollowed out’- looking man of a certain age, with guitar case” asking for directions to the Kings Head pub. She continued walking home and put two and two together on who it was, remembering he was booked to appear around that time. We didn’t go, fearing he would be a shadow of his former self. It turns out we were quite right; club regular and friend Simon Prager (notable fingerpicker and known for association with harmonica player Steve Rye as well as Dave and Jo Ann Kelly) was thankfully one step ahead of the game and had gone down with his guitar lest Graham was incapable of carrying the whole night himself. By all accounts Graham started capably enough with some of his solo set pieces but was pleased for somebody else to take the lead and see the night through. I’ll hopefully see Simon in the next couple of weeks and get a more accurate account than mine here to update with.
    As for “Given the recent posts here on Toppermost (see Toppermost #159) about the Led Zeppelin ‘plagiarism’ issue….formed the basis for the intro to Stairway To Heaven.”, surely we are all agreed that Spirit deserve that one?

    • Andrew Shields
      Jun 4, 2014

      Not going to adjudicate on this one, but it has been suggested that both the Spirit track and ‘Stairway’ owe a debt to the short passage in the Graham instrumental mentioned above. His version of ‘Cry me A River’ did come well before the other two. Of course, Jimmy Page was very familiar with the work of the folk revival guitarists…

  7. Peter Viney
    Jun 4, 2014

    Mention for Will Hodgkinson’s “Guitar Man” the entertaining story of a 34 year old journalist deciding to learn guitar, with “Anji” as a centrepiece. Along the way he took lessons fromJohnny Marr, Bert Jansch, Roger McGuinn and Davey Graham. He says Jansch taught him the most and that Davey was “a wayward pioneer” who showed him that “genius comes at a high price” (in personal terms).

  8. Colin Duncan
    Jul 22, 2014

    Really enjoyed the article. Thanks very much. Saw him twice around 1971 in Dundee. Remember the first concert well as being something very different to what I had ever seen before. I think it was all instrumental that evening, he was wearing a black suit, and there was little communication with the audience. Before this time, I had really only collected singles of the Beatles, Kinks, Stones, Tamla etc. and seen more traditional folk. I was also lucky to see the last tour before he died where friends supported him, and by chance spoke to him in the bar. I took him back to Dundee and he was genuinely pleased when I told him how much I had enjoyed the early concerts. I think his use of heroin would have been a major contributor to why he never received wider and greater acclaim, and I might put up a shout for Bert as the greatest, but this may be because his recordings are more consistent. I only have ‘The Guitar Player’ now. Thank you, again.

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