Davy Graham - Biography

By Bob Fagan


Davey Graham was a British folk and jazz guitarist who was the most influential musician in the early 60s English folk revolution. He was a proto-world musician who wove together strands of music as diverse as Moroccan, Middle Eastern, Scottish and English folk, as well as American forms like jazz and blues. He pioneered the use of alternative guitar tunings – most notably the well-known DADGAD tuning, which allowed more freedom for moving between the various genres in which he played. His unique blend of ethnic music and stunningly advanced fingerstyle technique influenced countless guitarists, including Martin Carthy, Richard Thompson, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Jimmy Page and Paul Simon, who recorded Graham’s signature tune “Angi” on the Simon and Garfunkel LP Sounds of Silence. The song, written before Graham was yet 20, was a veritable grocery list of Graham’s stylistic techniques, and learning to play it became a rite of passage for generations of aspiring guitarists.


Graham’s earliest influence as a musician was jazz, and he started out as a piano player before switching to guitar by his teens. He spent much of his late teens and early 20s vagabonding in India, the Middle East and North Africa, soaking up the musical styles of each place he passed through. He discovered that the semi-modal DADGAD guitar tuning (unlike the standard or “Spanish” EADGBE tuning), allowed him to imitate the drone sound of such instruments as the sitar and the oud, while also allowing him to play both the chords and melodies of traditional British folk songs.. Although he is widely credited with the invention of the DADGAD tuning, he typically shrugged off its importance, seeing it as simply one more tool in realizing the kind of music he wanted to create.


Comparisons between Graham and the American guitarists Sandy Bull and John Fahey have been made; it is not known whether each was aware of the others. Bull was similar in his use of ethnic styles and instruments, although he differed in that his approach generally involved the juxtaposition of forms and instrumentations, e.g., playing the oud in a rock context, or playing Bach Cantatas on the electric guitar. Fahey, in turn, while pioneering the concept of  acoustic fingerstyle guitar in America, drew his influences almost exclusively from blues, folk and modern classical music. Both Bull and Fahey also took interest in overdubbing and audio tape manipulation, while Graham seems to have been uninterested in the creative possibilities offered by the modern recording studio. Also, among the three pioneers, Graham was the only one who regularly sang on his records. If some listeners find his blues vocals a bit unconvincing, other singers from that period, notably Ray Davies of The Kinks, have gone on record as saying hearing Graham’s “White British” voice (he was, in fact, half Scottish and half Guyanese) gave them the confidence to sing in their natural voice rather than mimicking the vocals of American blues singers like Otis Redding or Big Bill Broonzy.


“Angi” appeared on his first release, an EP titled ¾ AD (1962 Topic). Advance tape copies of the EP quickly made the rounds of the British folk community, so quickly that Bert Jansch, for one, had mastered the song before the EP was released. Graham’s first proper LP – The Guitar Player (Golden Guinea) was released in 1963. His deft combination of blues, folk and jazz songs and styles made a powerful impact on the folk music community, although, like all of his records, it never earned any popular recognition or chart success. At any rate, Graham seemed ill-suited to the demands of a successful musical career; both his vagabonding spirit and use of narcotics meant he often missed gigs and indeed entire scheduled tours.


The Guitar Player had been largely a blues and jazz-based affair. His next release, Folk, Blues and Beyond (1964 Decca) was a cornucopia of riches, earning its title with its genre-bending exploration and combinations of folk and blues with ethnic music from around the globe. Along with his collaboration with English folk queen Shirley Collins, it is his finest effort.


His collaboration with Collins seems on the surface to have been an unlikely pairing. Collins was the pure-voiced doyenne of the English folk tradition, and herself an influential singer to later performers including Sandy Denny, Joan Baez, Maddy Prior, Mary Black and Linda Thompson. Graham was a drug-using hipster with little use for tradition. In fact, the meeting of the two performers resulted in the sublime LP Folk Routes, New Routes (1964 Decca). The role of accompanist helped to reign in some of Graham’s sometimes meandering improvisations and other excesses, while his atypical accompaniment, swooping and swirling behind, around and entwining with Collins’ voice, gave an edge to her more traditional singing style. Excepting Collins’ utterly unconvincing treatment of the blues songs “Jane, Jane” and “Boll Weevil,” the LP is a masterpiece. Graham’s guitar transforms the English folk song “Saro” into a sere, Middle Eastern-sounding ballad, and his warm, minor chord playing beneath her “Hares on the Mountain” serves to underline the playful sexuality of the songs’s lyrics. Each performer also gets a few solo pieces; Collins offers the modally-sung a capella of “Lord Gregory” and features her own unique banjo playing on “The Cherry Tree Carol.” For his part, Graham plays the Middle Eastern flavored “Rif Mountain” and a swinging solo version of Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk.” Both play it relatively straight on a deeply affecting version of “Love is Pleasin'.” The album showed British folk musicians that their material and approach to it need not remain trapped in the past and in the traditional, and led directly to the innovations of bands such as Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and Pentangle.


Graham released 5 more excellent LPs between 1966 and 1970. After this rich and productive period, his live appearances and recordings began to diminish both in frequency and quality, as his various drug addictions and possible mental health issues took greater hold of him. His The Complete Guitarist (1977 Kicking Mule) was a partial return to form. After this he seems to have fallen on hard times, living on general assistance and in poverty, not so much forgotten as lost.


The late 90s and the new millennium brought a rediscovery and new appreciation of many of the musicians he had originally inspired, particularly Bert Jansch, who found himself feted by and collaborating with such younger musicians as Johnny Marr, Bernard Butler and Beth Orton. The time seemed right for Graham’s rehabilitation as well. Sadly, his return to live performances too often revealed a shell of a man struggling in vain to recapture the technique and brilliance of his seminal 60s work. Conversations and interviews with him showed a still-inquisitive intellect and mind, now clouded and dimmed from decades of substance abuse and mental illness. Toward the end of his life, he performed with and recorded with Jansch, Martin Carthy, and singer/songwriter Mark Pavan, at times showing flashes of the compelling and superlative musician he had once been. He died of cancer in December 2008.

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