It's not often that an artist names an album after his creative process, but that's what happened with Guy Davis' Be Ready When I Call You.
His parents, the actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, showed him how to tame his muse. "I think it all started with my mother, [Dee]," Davis says. "She taught me to be organized. And in some ways, she didn't succeed because I'm very sloppy. But whatever little organization I do have, and willingness to separate my stuff, to title it and date it, comes from her."
If Dee taught Davis organization, his father showed him preparation. The lessons began at 5AM, when Davis was ending his night and his father was starting his day. "My dad would have woken up, and he would be sitting downstairs at the dining room table with two yellow legal pads, some number two pencils, erasers, various things, and he would be writing," Davis recalls. "I'd come in, I'd say good night, he'd say good morning. And then one day I asked him, 'Dad, what is it you are writing that you have be up at five o'clock in the morning?' And he said to me, 'Talent is a mighty fine thing, but being a craftsman means you have to work at it. No matter what, no matter when. You have to constantly hone it. You can't just sit around and be talented. That's nice to be, but to be a craftsman, a true writer, you have to do it even when you don't feel like it. You have to practice your writing.'
Davis' path as a blues artist is unusual. While he's a prolific musician, with 15 albums, he's also an accomplished stage actor (like many in New York City, one with a brief soap stint on his resume). Where some artists might try to keep the acting and music worlds separate, Davis has worked to fuse them, through projects like Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil, an off-Broadway play where Davis portrayed the legendary blues singer/guitarist. In Bed with the Blues: The Adventures of Fishy Waters, was a one-man show with Davis playing a blues artist in the late 1950s, with the songs written and performed by Davis.
It all speaks to how Davis sees music not as genres, but as pure expression. That idea of a distinctive voice is evident on Be Ready When I Call You, which features a strong blues current, with outside influences. It often feels like an album from a classic blues artist who has the ability to travel forward and backward through time, with the lyrics often feeling ripped-from-the-headlines current, but also, somehow timeless.
In this interview, Davis describes his process, which is based on the advice of his parents. Davis takes themes, musical and lyrical, he wants to explore, and puts himself in the position for those songs to emerge. And while terms like craft and preparation might sound overly analytical and scientific, you can rest assured Davis is locked into creative energies, too. "[Blues guitarist John Fahey] wrote in a book, before he died, that his way of practicing and working is just to sit on the side of the bed for hours and hours, keep going over that same finger pattern," Davis says. "That same chord pattern or same two notes. [He'd] feel that music go backwards through the guitar, into [the] abdomen, and up the spine. And it made so much sense to me. That's kind of what I do. I don't have a highly technical sense of practice, but there's some sort of voodoo I put on myself, some sort of mojo, where [I'm] continuing to repeat a phrase. Just feeling how it rubs against me. And yeah, I do technical practice, too, but not as much as I do just playing a phrase or something that just elevates me musically, in general, not meant for an audience. Something that's meant for me."
Writing Be Ready When I Call You
Working Mojo: What was your process for writing Be Ready When I Call You?
Guy Davis: Let's just start by saying I was not limited to doing only the blues. I gave myself permission to write what was in me. So the fact that you've got a CD in your hands that's part world music, part Americana, part blues, that's what was in me. That was my truth. So the process for writing it was to put everything thing on the table I could. All the recording was actually done by the end of 2019. And the mixing had to be done during the Covid year, which was a slow, crazy process.
WM: When you write do you usually throw out songs that don't sound bluesy enough?
Davis: No, I do not do that. I put them aside if they don't seem to belong in whatever is the overall theme of my work, my opus, my gathering of songs. I'll put it aside for another CD, but I do not throw out anything [laughs].
WM: At what point in the process did you decide, 'I'm just going to keep what what feels true'?
Davis: Well, I don't know if it's a matter of reaching a point to feel that way. That's how I was feeling before I started the process of recording these songs. But I recorded more songs than just this CD. There's a whole bunch of songs I still have, but are not put together as a CD just yet. So I am giving myself permission to be the creator of world music, Americana, as well as blues. This is what came up: just be ready when I called it.
WM: Was that a hard thing to do, to give yourself that permission?
Davis: Well, I had not been in the habit of doing it. I've been told, 'Well, you've got to stick with the blues.' And that's fine by me, because I sure I love blues music and all ragtime and acoustic blues, especially. But in me, I have always known that there is more than just blues. There's blues indeed, but there is so much more. And my palette is wide and I think I belong in the world forum when it comes to music.
WM: Do you typically start with lyrics or with music?
Davis: It depends. Sometimes melody. A tune will come to me with no words. And sometimes words will come with no tune. Like, "God's Gonna Make Things Over." That had words to it before a tune. Some of those words go back more than 10 years, but a lot of those words did not make it into the song because it was only a little over two years ago that I decided that phrase 'God's going to make things over' would have to do with the Tulsa massacre. And when I did make that decision, suddenly melodies and words began to rise up a little bit together. I guess one kind of needed to hear from the other. But you can't know that ahead of time.
WM: So how do you keep track of everything if you have stuff that's 10 years old? Are you recording everything or using notebooks?
Davis: Some of both. I went to college and I learned how to write down my melodies and chord charts. But I really like these cell phones and tablets, where I can just push a button and record whatever I'm thinking at that moment. And hopefully, I'm awake enough to remember to give it a title and a date. And maybe some sort of mark that says 'This is important, it sounds nice.'
I can't tell you how many symphonies have gotten by me because I didn't wake up to write them down or to record them. I've been laying in bed at night all comfortable and waiting, anticipating a beautiful sleep, and a tune gets me and it bugs me. So I know that if I let it go by and I go to sleep and wake up, I will not remember it. I can say I will, I can pray will, I can hope I will. Who knows, maybe I will. But unfortunately, my job means [I've] got to get up.
WM: Where does "Spoonful" fit in? Because that's a pretty standard blues song. What was your thought process including that as a cover?
Davis: It wasn't very deep. I happen to like the song and I thought the band did a good job doing it. That was almost a vacation, to be able to record something that is a fairly standard blues song, and not have to explore, and figure out, 'Geez, maybe this flatted third chord will sound better than the major seven chord.' I didn't have to create as much. I was creative with it, but it didn't draw so much out of me.
WM: And what about "Palestine, Oh Palestine"? I was curious what that was about and what genre you would call it.
Davis: I call that world music. I sought to take what was in my heart, bring it out, and I took pains to make sure that this song calls for no one's blood. But it does call for everybody to have a voice. And to me, this is Guy speaking here, I've never really gotten to hear the voices of Palestinians. I've heard the voices of Israelis—some of them, not all. I've heard the voices of a lot of US citizens, and also people in the United Arab Emirates, and various European countries, regarding Israel and Palestine. But I would like to hear the voices of the Palestinians. Now the media is telling us that voice is Hamas. Hamas may be speaking, but I want to hear more. And I want to hear from Palestinian people.
Now, obviously, me writing this song does not mean that suddenly I gave voices to Palestinians. Because I'm not qualified, but I do feel qualified to raise up the sense of humanity. And any people that are thinking about their land, which may be expropriated for whatever reason, by whichever people, they're going to have very human thoughts. And I wanted this song to be that.
I wanted very specifically for the Israeli mother [to use] the same words as the Palestinian mother. And then at the very end, though their ideas are different about whose land this is, they sing in harmony. They sing in counterpoint, but in harmony, and that says something. I don't know, maybe it's me and magical thinking, but it says that if people really listen to each other, a way can be found. A song is not going to take the place of lives being lost, but hopefully, it will raise a consciousness that says all human beings need voices.
WM: You wrote it two years ago, but it feels so recent, because it's so in line with world events. Do you remember what sparked the idea for the song?
Davis: I don't know if I can remember what sparked the idea to write the song, so much as there was precipitating stuff.
I've been wanting to hear Palestinian voices since way, way back, since the 60s. I don't know what sparked it to say, 'Let's do it now. In this song. This CD.' I can just say that finally, I found a way to express what was in me about one thing: Palestinians have a voice. And not have to be forced to choose some kind of road that includes terrible violence. Then, with Israelis, I don't want them to have to choose a road that has to be of terrible violence.
People's voices matter. If voices were sitting at the table, people with voices, way more could get done. And I'm not hearing Palestinian voices. So that's something I've always felt, and I cannot tell you what precipitated it in 2019, for me to write this song.
You know, there is one thing. It's more artistic than it is political: The idea of people singing together, I get so much of that influence from Pete Seeger, the great folk singer. His greatest gift to the world, to me, was that he could walk into a room full of strangers and when he walked out, the concert was over, [and] everybody was friends. Because they had sung together. And not all of them necessarily had the same political persuasion. And I also do recall that Pete Seeger, back in the 60s, I think, took a trip to Palestinian territories and to Israel. He had people in both governments looking at him like he was crazy. Suspiciously. And I guess yeah, maybe it was following along the steps of my mentor, Pete Seeger, to a large extent. That song is a call for humanity.
WM: Do you think musicians are often like tapped into, I don't know how to describe it, so let's just call it energy. But the fact that you were writing about something years ago and then it kind of emerges right at a key point. Do you think there's anything to that? Or is it just coincidence?
Davis: Do you mean is there a greater power involved?
WM: Yes. Specifically with songwriters or musicians that either consciously or subconsciously tap into something. Not that you're predicting anything, but just that at this big world moment, you have an album coming out with a song that's fairly specific to that moment. Or is it coincidence?
Davis: It's some of both. It is some coincidence, and in many ways, it is purposeful. A musician's job, a songwriter's job, is to be ready. It is to write all you can, and to know all you can about what you write. Your writing might be literal, direct, historical, or it might be fictional. There are fictional ways to tell the truth. Songs can be done in many ways. Whether or not this song was meant to be here now, by the choice of some power greater than just my own, I don't know. But I do know that it was my job as I wrote this song, to give it everything in me. [To] make it a good song, if possible, beautiful, meaning something that rubs against your ear well, and makes you listen to the words maybe even harder, and appreciate the harmony of two voices singing. Divergences singing in one song.
No, I can't say that [uses a preacher's voice], 'The Lord laid his hands on me that day' [laughs]. I don't know. It could have been a sandwich I ate.
WM: I spoke to Robert Finley a couple of weeks ago. His new album is about growing up as a sharecroppers' son, in Louisiana. I asked him if he thought people were more ready to receive that idea after the summer of 2020, with Black Lives Matter; if there was more understanding. And he said musicians are often tapped into ideas that are a little ahead of the curve of the larger population.
Davis: If an artist is lucky, that is the case. Your ideas are plugged into a kind of energy, that gives you maybe a little bit of foresight that you might not realize you have and without trying to influence it in any way, you write what you see, what you feel, what you hear. And it comes out in such a way that it touches people. And that is a gift given to a musician.
The only thing a musician can do is to practice, get his chops going good, and be ready. If something good comes down the pipe and you're ready for it, so much the better. If you're not ready, and you write something, it might be a work that is inferior to your best. People might still heap praises on you, but I believe people deserve the best that I have to offer. So I hope that I'm ready.
Acting and songwriting
WM: You played Robert Johnson off-Broadway. How did that impact your writing?
Davis: I remember writing a song called "Wintertime Blues," and deliberately trying to evoke some of what I call Robert Johnson's sound, particularly in the guitar playing. But playing Robert Johnson did more for me as an actor than it did for me as a musician. I recall that when I played that part, back in the early 90s, very little was known about Robert Johnson's actual life. There were some biographical accounts of some things, like Son House saying how [Johnson had] come back to some juke joint, and he could play, and [before that he] couldn't play. But very little was known, so I actually borrowed the personality of a blues singer whose name I will not involve, who was always in trouble with women. Always. And I have borrowed, in my actor's way, my sense of his personality. And I use that to play the part of Robert Johnson. So doing Robert Johnson, yeah, I did pick up some things as a writer, but even more as an actor.
WM: Do you think there are parallels between acting and songwriting?
Davis: Oh, yes, I do. Songwriting is meant to tell a story. An actor is somebody who tells a story. Even if that story is shared by seven other people with you on stage, to some extent you are telling, by your words of dialogue, or by your actions on the stage, you are telling a story, even if it's just your part of a larger story. Me being on stage and singing a song is so much like acting because, again, I'm telling a story, accompanied by music; music of my own making. There's a lot in common between acting, between storytelling, between writing, and songwriting. There's so much overlap.
WM: Apropos of being on a stage, some of your songs are just you by yourself and some are with a band. So how do you how do you know when it's time to add in other musicians versus when it's just going to be you?
Davis: I can't say I really know. You could say maybe there's a formula. I'd say that for some of the harder hitting songs, like "God's Gonna Make Things Over," I know that 'Okay, this has got to have a bigger musical sound than just me.' Though most often when I sing that song it is just me. I think I follow my intuition more than any hard, fast rule. I knew that [with the] blues song, "I Got a Job in the City," I felt like a band was going to be at the center of that, even as I was writing it. Songs like "Palestine, Oh Palestine," I didn't know what I was going to do, but then one day this minor melodic guitar part came to me and it let me know that I was going to write it in such a way that I could do it by myself, or I could do it with an ensemble. And the very last thing that we put in, in that recording, was that percussion, with some of the drums and some of those wooshy sounds.
But there was one song I meant to do alone, but it worked out better with other instruments, and that was the song, "Got Your Letter in My Pocket." I'm not sure why, but even though that's just a song of a man singing sort of by himself to a woman, somehow expanding it out to the other instruments, which involved Hammond B3 organ and a full fiddle, and I think mandolin, it just worked at the time. I got the impulse while I was in the recording studio. At first, I wasn't going to do that, but I said, 'Hey, try this with me.' And I liked the sound.
WM: So with "Got Your Letter in My Pocket," you decided to try a different arrangement in the studio and you knew that was it. How do you know when a song is done and sounds like it should sound?
Davis: Oh boy. You don't always know when a song is done. I try to be wise about it. I think in terms of, 'Okay, if I'm writing a song, and I've got this narrative, I want just the right amount of words. I don't want so many words that it becomes a technical manual; I don't want so few words that nobody can quite place where they are or what's going on. I need just the right amount.'
I know that setting up, the song is ready. When I sing it, and I listen back, I listen first to any other instruments that are in the song, other than me, just to see if it flows smoothly and I like what I'm hearing. But then oftentimes, when the band ain't around, and I'm by myself with the recording engineer, I'm listening to my voice and [I think] 'I could have done that line way better.' Or 'Maybe I shouldn't be so excited and screaming, I should try a lower tone or something like that.'
I guess it comes down to a little bit of editing. Sometimes, intuitively, you know the song is done, but sometimes you don't, but you lay off of it anyway and you go to another song while that one just sort of ruminates. And you sit there and then you hear it again later, and you'll say 'Oh, yeah, I think the song is done. I don't think it needs anymore.' Or you might hear it after you've taken a break from it and say 'I think there's one other thing I need: a triangle should go 'ting' right here.' So it's not an automatic process, to know when your song is done. But over [the] years with experience, I've begun to sort of find out that if I can't tell that it's done, to take a break from it. To go to something else, and then come back to it later. And oftentimes, by then I know it's done. It's cooked. It ain't going to rub against my ear any better than this.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.