On Reverend Gary Davis’s “I am the Light of the World”

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“I am the Light of the World” was recorded in New York City in 1935, and it is among the first examples we have of the man that many consider the greatest genius of the acoustic guitar ever to walk the earth.  Along with fellow Piedmont blues legends Blind Boy Fuller and Georg [sic] Washington (aka “Bull City Red”), the 41-year-old Reverend Gary Davis was driven north for the sessions by the enterprising Carolinian J.B. Long.  To the dismay of Long and the NY producers, Davis obstinately refused to play any but his spiritual music – a choice that perpetuated the abject poverty that accompanied him till Peter, Paul, and Mary covered his “Samson and Delilah” in the 1960s.  Though “I am the Light of this World” is a rudimentary piece of guitar-work by Davis’s standards (he doesn’t venture up the neck past the 4th fret), it is a tune of awesome and mysterious power.  A full explication of the elements that, braided together, constitute this awesome and mysterious power is impossible in so few words, but I’d like to isolate two of these elements: irregular tempo, and the fusion of multiple personae into a single “I.”

In a discussion of the role of tempo, we first ought to say that regularity of tempo is a convention that runs as a common thread through nearly every tune in the popular American songbook, be it rock-and-roll, jazz, blues, hip-hop, folk, or big-band.  When we say a drummer keeps “good time,” we mean he neither speeds up nor slows.  Why this correlation between “good time” and “regular time?”  Mere convention is the only answer.  Lest the intentionality of Davis’s flight in the face of this convention be doubted, it ought to be pointed out that the Reverend can be as metronomic as a clock when playing, for instance, a late 19th century style marching tune.  Therefore, the acceleration in “I am the Light” must be understand as a deliberate choice.  On a first listen, it is difficult to notice just how much the Reverend speeds up, but if you click on the track in its opening moments, listen for a few bars, then click ahead to a spot near the end, the final difference is astonishing.  More astonishing still is how such an increase in tempo could have gone so unnoticed: it is a testament to how regular the acceleration is.

The overall effect of this acceleration is an increase in intensity.  This isn’t surprising, as an increase in tempo (all other factors remaining equal) typically correlates to an increase in intensity.  Such is true in all areas of life and all forms of art – even those arts, such as painting, where tempo exists as a symbolic or inferred property.  In drama, for instance, one of the first exercises given to young actors involves performing common tasks (brushing teeth, washing dishes) first with unusual slowness, then with unusual speed. The actor is then asked to note the difference in how she feels.  In any event, I point out this increase in tempo because it’s a sine qua non of the song’s power; when I listen to the incredible Jorma Kaukonen’s impeccably picked cover of “I am the Light,” something is missing, and it’s more than Davis’s thick voice and the National resonator guitar Davis borrowed for the session from Blind Boy Fuller.  Kaukonen’s rendition seems to bask in light, like someone on a park lawn, as opposed to putting out light.  And the sparks Davis produces come from getting on top of the beat and driving it ever-so-slightly faster in a few sensible places, over and over.

The shifting personae and the emotional effect that this shifting has on Davis as a singer together constitute another source of the power in “I am the Light of this World.”  The song’s lyrical linchpin is the Gospel of John, 9:5, which serves as refrain: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  What is radical is the communion that occurs in the first person pronoun: there is no change from the first to the third person; there are no quotation marks, even orally approximated, to indicate a separate persona.  When Davis sings in the verses, “I have fiery fingers / I have fiery hands / When I get to heaven / Gonna join that fiery band,” the singer is clearly a man, Gary Davis.  In the refrain, however, the singer is the singer’s master and savior, Jesus Christ. Yet the words are formed by the lungs, lips, and throat of a blind African-American in the midst of the Depression-era American South.  Is this a cause for excitement for “Blind Gary Davis,” as he was then known?  Absolutely.  The excitement is palpable in his voice and fingers, and this excitement is reflected in the tempo and perpetuated by the tempo.  Moreover, because the conditional clause (“just as long as I’m in this world”) can both precede and follow the main clause (“I am the light of the world”) and make the same grammatical sense, Davis’s repetition at every chorus (an amazing 4x after every verse) produces a loop-like, Mobius-strip-like effect: you are in a sentence that neither begins nor ends but seems to go on eternally, with all the intensity of the eternal.

That Rev Gary, a blind street singer, would sing in part as Jesus Christ may seem unusual given the contents of John, 9, which detail the miraculous restoration of sight to a man who, just like Gary Davis, had been blind since childhood.  John 9: 5-9, in the King James version, reads thus: “‘As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’  When [Jesus] had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, and said unto him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.’  He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.  The neighbours therefore, and they which before had seen him that he was blind, said, ‘Is not this he that sat and begged?’  Some said, ‘This is he.’  Others said, ‘He is like him.’  But he said, ‘I am he.’”   To those that might be tempted to say that Davis’ treatment of the refrain is blasphemous, one can imagine the famously sly Davis saying the opposite: “No sir!  Such a communion is actually the essence of the Christian faith.”

-Matthew Yeager

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from THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ST. FELIX

If a boy of about twelve squeezes his right hand into a fist, and then goes on squeezing, tighter and tighter, imagining a maximum tightness as a possible outcome, awaiting like a rush at the top of the up-hill sprint of his squeezing, fixed in its existence a highest rung, and if he goes on clenching, sealing it tight, his fist, so tight that were it plunged into a sink of water his unfolded palm, afterwards, would show no beads of moisture, and if he squeezes further, if he squeezes to the point that a stone appears in his mind, then keeps squeezing till the stone disappears like blackness into air, till his mind aches like trapped air, and if the teeth participate, and if the jaw pulses and shakes, if the temples bulge, if the elbow quivers with hurt, if the heart pounds, and if he only keeps going and then keeps keeping going, one after another, from the tips of the five fingers on his left hand, five wicks will sprout.

matt1smallMatthew Yeager‘s poems have appeared in Sixthfinch, Gulf Coast, Minnesota Review, Bat City Review, and elsewhere, as well as Best American Poetry 2005 and Best American Poetry 2010.  His short film “A Big Ball of Foil in a Small NY Apartment” was an official selection at thirteen film festivals, picking up three awards.   Other distinctions include the Barthelme Prize in short prose and two MacDowell fellowships.  The co-curator of the long running KGB Monday Night Poetry Series, his first book, Like That, will be out in 2016 from Forklift Books.

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