Dead Musicians 5/11/11: Davy Graham Makes Everyone Look Like They're Trying Way, Way Too HardBy Michael Leviton
Those immersed in a music scene often hold unexpected opinions and perspectives. Anyone who spent the late 1960’s in San Francisco will tell you the best band was Quicksilver Messenger Service. “Their records weren’t that great,” they’ll say. Those in Seattle for the late 1980’s claim that everyone, including Kurt Cobain, agreed on the greatness of Screaming Trees, a band I can’t understand at all. But I suspect that, if I’d been there at the time, I’d have witnessed something different from what I hear on their records or what I see in their Letterman performance. If you come upon someone who hung out in London’s music scene in the late 1950’s and ask him to name the best guitar-player, he won’t say Jimmy Page or Eric Clapton; he’ll say Davy Graham. Supposedly, when London musicians would pass around a guitar at parties and take turns playing, no one was willing to follow him. If Davy Graham showed up and performed, the guitar would sit untouched for the rest of the night. I heard these sorts of Davy Graham myths before I listened to his music. I wondered, naively, why a guitarist who could intimidate Page and Clapton wasn’t famous. Graham’s records didn’t kill me, so I doubted, naively again, that he had really been as impressive as the stories claimed. It wasn’t until I came across this footage of nineteen-year-old Graham playing his instrumental blues interpretation of the jazz standard, “Cry Me a River”, that I understood.Graham plays very little and expresses a lot. He doesn’t need epic solos. He just sits there and plays the melody and bends a few notes and it’s the coolest. Perhaps this is why Graham scared guys like Clapton and Page: he exposed the desperation behind virtuosity. Watching Graham’s performance here, I can’t help but see Clapton and Page as talented young music-nerds playing a lot of notes to prove they can play the blues. This performance clip comes from a 1959 BBC documentary about guitar-playing in Britain. It was supposed to be the world’s introduction to London’s greatest guitarist, a big break for Graham. But it didn’t work out that way.