Still Around Here
By David Ramsey
CeDell Davis, Hot Springs, Arkansas (October 2016). Photos by Matt White, @mattwhitevision
When CeDell Davis was a boy, his mother told him he would go to hell if he kept on playing the guitar and messing around with the devil’s music. Davis was born in the Delta town of Helena in 1926, and there was no shortage of devilment. A bustling cotton port on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River, Helena was like a Chicago or Memphis in miniature, home to scores of white saloons and black juke joints where bootleggers, gamblers, and hustlers gathered. It was violent and wild and music was everywhere, from the clubs downtown to the street corners by the docks. “Back then, Helena was wide open,” Davis told me. “If you had the money, you could get whatever you want.”
Davis contracted polio when he was around ten years old, which should have ended any hope of playing the guitar, regardless of what his mother had to say. But he invented a workaround for his gnarled and weakened hands, a bizarro guitar style that gave him one of the most distinctive sounds in Delta blues. “See,” he explained, “I stole one of my mama’s butter knives.” He flipped a right-handed guitar upside down to strum with the thumb and index finger of his left hand; meanwhile, he gripped the knife with his right hand and used the blade on the fret, over the top of the neck instead of from underneath like a slide player. Davis developed unique tunings to make the whole operation work.
The resulting sound was noisy, rugged, greasy, and weird. There is incredible movement in Davis’s music, by which I mean not the driving rhythms of boogie (though that’s there, too) but an oscillating and clanging inconstancy, a playful chaos. While Davis is firmly rooted in the rural blues tradition, his music can sound jarringly unfamiliar—at times dissonant, or even seemingly out of tune, as if he is picking up alien frequencies.
“A guitar style that is utterly unique, in or out of blues,” wrote Robert Palmer, the late New York Times music critic and author of the seminal book Deep Blues. “Some people who hear CeDell’s playing for the first time think it’s out of tune, but it would be more accurate to say he plays in an alternative tuning. Because the way he hears and plays intervals and chords is consistent and systematic.”
Palmer also described it as “a welter of metal-stress harmonic transients and a singular tonal plasticity.” I will confess to not following precisely what that means. But, yes.
I recently visited Davis, now ninety years old, in the nursing home where he lives in Hot Springs, Arkansas. He was dressed for a show later that evening: lime-green sport coat, striped brown tie, a gray ball cap pulled slightly to the side. Leaning forward in the wheelchair where he has been confined for decades, Davis likes to tell and retell the story about his mother warning him against playing the devil’s music. She came by her objections honestly—she was a religious healer in their community (his father, estranged from her, ran a juke joint, so our blues mythmaking bases are covered). “She said she was a healer, but she didn’t heal me,” Davis said. “But I don’t know. I didn’t believe it, I don’t believe in that die and go to hell stuff. I don’t take no stock in that. I don’t plan to go to hell, or to heaven. I don’t plan to go nowhere but the ground.”
Davis’s music is inevitably described as gritty (Palmer again: “some of the grittiest music imaginable”). I thought of that when Davis said this to me—nowhere but the ground. There is no hellhound on CeDell’s trail, no mystic crossroads, no spooks, no devil. He’s had a hard life, but he kept on living. And kept on playing—often in obscurity, Davis has been playing hardcore, wacko, lowdown Delta blues for more than seventy years.
“I plan on living,” he told me more than once. “Live as long as I can, die when I can’t help it. You don’t got to plan to die, you gonna do that anyway.”
He kept saying it: “I plan to live, I plan to live.”
Growing up, Davis split his time between Helena and plantations just up Highway 61 on the Mississippi side of the Delta. His stepfather in Helena “didn’t approve of raising children,” as Davis once put it, and when he was around six years old, he was sent to the E. M. Hood plantation in nearby Clayton, Mississippi, outside of Tunica, to live with family members who worked as sharecroppers picking cotton, corn, and peas. There he befriended a boy named Isaiah Ross, who would later gain fame as blues legend Dr. Ross the Harmonica Boss. When they weren’t in school or working in the fields, Davis and Ross played ball, chased rats and rattlesnakes with sticks, hunted coons, possums, and birds, and began to experiment with music.
Davis first learned to play the diddley bow, a one-stringed instrument likely with West African roots. Ross’s sisters had made one, hammering two nails to the back wall of their house and tightening a length of broom wire around them. They would use a snuff bottle or a bullet as a bridge and a vanilla extract bottle as a slide. “I played that thing and went home and made me one,” Davis said. “Unless they tore it down, I believe that nail is still in that door.”
He later took up the harmonica after hearing someone blow in the pea fields—Davis followed the sound and found a lost instrument in the dirt. When a neighbor down the road got a guitar, Davis fell in love with the instrument and began to teach himself to play, inspired by the Charley Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson records he would listen to on his family’s windup Graphophone. “I couldn’t rest unless I was trying to play music,” he later told blues scholar Barry Lee Pearson.
Davis started sneaking out at night to see shows. “Back then, they had juke joints, used to call them breakdowns, barrel houses, honky tonks,” he told me. “Me and my brother would slip in there.” Davis would hang around the musicians, watching and learning, until someone would spy him and run him out of the joint.
Davis was just beginning to learn how to play the guitar when he contracted polio. Out in a cotton field, his muscles stopped cooperating; he had to wait in a truck bed while the day’s work was finished. It wasn’t his first health crisis—about a year before, he had battled through a bout with yellow fever. “Looks like trouble just hit me, period,” Davis remarked in the 2002 documentary on Fat Possum Records, You See Me Laughin’.
When the polio struck, he was sent to the children’s hospital in Little Rock, where he spent two and a half years, undergoing multiple operations. He ended up partially paralyzed, with severely limited use of his hands, reliant on crutches, and in pain for the rest of his life. “I hated that, but I couldn’t do nothing about it,” he told me. When I asked about his treatment and prolonged stay at the hospital, all he said was, “ain’t no place like home.”
When Davis returned to Helena, he still had the music bug. “When I had polio, I thought I never would play a guitar,” he said. “Well, I learned.” Lacking dexterity in his fingers, Davis found that subtle manipulations of that butter knife could produce all manner of sounds—varying the pressure, aligning it straight across or at angles, switching between the dull and sharp sides of the blade.
“It just came to me when I was a kid,” Davis said. “I could do almost everything that you could do with your hands—I could do it with the knife. It had a steel guitar sound to it. It’s all in the way you handle it. Drag, slide, push it up and down. If there’s anybody else that sounds like me, I don’t know. Never met nobody could do what I did.”
Davis had his first paying gig as a teenager and began to perform in and around Helena, playing clubs in town, backwoods jukes, log camps, country stores, fish markets, and street corners. “I was playing joints, playing in the streets, out at the plantations, all over,” he said. “All over. Saturday nights I’d play the Hole in the Wall in Helena, might make two dollars to play all night. On the streets, some guy would give me a dollar, some would give a dime, whatever they had.” When his hands gave him trouble, he would tune the guitar with his teeth.
Beginning in 1941, KFFA in Helena began broadcasting the Delta blues across the region on King Biscuit Time, hosted by Sonny Boy Williamson, and Bright Star Flour, a rival show hosted by Robert Nighthawk, the blues slide guitarist who had become a star thanks to records he’d made for Bluebird and Decca. When he was around seventeen years old, Davis stood outside KFFA and waited until Nighthawk came down from broadcasting upstairs to ask him if he could have a job playing with him. The star was skeptical. “He ain’t ever heard me play,” Davis recounted. “He said, ‘You can’t play nothing.’ I said, ‘You wait and see.’”
Nighthawk saw. Davis became a regular on Nighthawk’s show as well as King Biscuit Time. He began playing with Nighthawk around town, becoming known as “Little Nighthawk Boy.” Nighthawk often had to convince the proprietors to let Davis in the joints because he was underage. By 1953, Davis had a permanent gig touring with him and for ten years, they played at juke joints, roadhouses, clubs, and taverns all over the South and Midwest, traveling through Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas.
“Robert Nighthawk tried to get me to change knives, but I wouldn’t do it,” Davis said. For seven years, he played with the original knife he’d nicked from his mother, until someone stole it after a show. Davis remained particular on this topic, finding a knife that suited him and sticking with it, though no one could quite figure out what the criteria were. “Just a simple knife,” he said. “I kept ’em two or three years, somebody would slip it, and I’d go get another one.”
One night in 1957 they were playing at an East St. Louis club that had a gambling operation in the back. In the middle of a bandmate’s saxophone solo, a gunshot rang out. The crowd stampeded out of the club and in the chaos Davis was knocked over and trampled, breaking both of his legs and severely injuring his knee. He spent five months in the hospital with his leg in traction and another several months bedridden at home in St. Louis, where he had moved earlier that year. Looks like trouble just hit me, period.
The injuries from the incident left him even more limited in his mobility, but that didn’t stop him from performing. “I figured I would keep playing,” Davis said. “Back then, the only way I could see to make my living is playing. So I been at it ever since.”
The first mention of CeDell Davis in a national publication, as far as I know, is an offhand comment by Delta bluesman Houston Stackhouse reminiscing about the old days in a 1974 interview with Living Blues magazine:
Cedell Davis, he’s crippled. He can’t walk unless’n he walk with his crutches. His legs are little, then his hands are all crumped up. Now he’d take a case knife, a silver case knife, and play a guitar. You ought to hear him play it. It’s just amazin’ the way he can play all that stuff just with that knife. ’Cause his hands are wrought up, you know, his thumbs and things. But he got strength enough to play the guitar.
You ought to hear him play it. This is the sort of tease that readers of Living Blues can’t resist, and at that point most of those readers had probably never heard of CeDell Davis. He had come back to Arkansas in 1961, settling in Pine Bluff, a malodorous paper mill town. While the blues revival brought some of Davis’s contemporaries worldwide fame, he remained in relative obscurity, playing country jukes and house parties in the area, as well as a regular gig playing at the Jack Rabbit nightclub. The audience was local, and typically all black. “I’d play six nights a week,” he said. “Eight dollars a night. Some weren’t paying eight, some were paying four.”
In 1976, Louis Guida, then a journalist in Pine Bluff, received a grant to do field recordings of blues in Arkansas—locating, interviewing, and recording dozens of musicians over the course of eight months. Having read the Stackhouse interview, Guida was eager to track down Davis. It wasn’t easy—by that time, the local blues scene in Pine Bluff was mostly moribund, and it had been about a year since Davis had played out at a gig. Some folks said he had left town, others said he was dead.
Guida put out television and radio advertisements to spread the word that he was looking for blues musicians. Eventually, someone gave him a lead on Davis. When Guida knocked on his door, Davis answered and said, “I figured you’d be finding me.” A few days later, Guida returned lugging a Pioneer reel-to-reel. For the first time in his life, Davis had a recording session, in his living room.
The tapes that Guida made caught the attention of Robert Palmer, and Guida introduced him to Davis in the late 1970s. Palmer was fascinated by the notion of the talking guitar, music as language, and tones in lieu of words as a mechanism for expression and communication—themes that are all over Deep Blues, and which Palmer traces to pitch-tone languages in Africa. No wonder, then, that Palmer became a devoted fanatic of Davis’s music, the way the caterwauling notes from his guitar would wander and peek, as volatile and alive as laughter. His singing style, meanwhile, was often as slurred and blurred as his playing, with much of the same variance and jaunty range, so that guitar and voice are in spirited conversation.
Palmer concluded that Davis was “a wonderfully inventive and pungently idiomatic player” and “quite possibly the greatest hard core vocalist around.” He wrote about Davis in the Times in 1981, describing a Little Rock show at the White Water Tavern (Palmer himself joined Davis onstage to play the clarinet). Davis was a “virtuoso with the table knife,” Palmer wrote. “The scraping of the knife along the strings of his bright yellow electric guitar makes a kind of metallic gnashing sound that conspires with his patched together guitar amplifier and his utterly original playing technique.”
In May of 1982, Palmer arranged for Davis to play in New York City at Tramps nightclub. Davis, who had never ridden on an airplane before, packed his things in a cardboard box tied together with hay twine. When Palmer went to pick Davis up from the airport he was surprised: Henry Kissinger was pushing Davis in his wheelchair out of the gate. Kissinger happened to be on the same plane, and Davis had introduced himself: “Mr. Kissinger, I’m CeDell Davis, I’m the bluesman from Arkansas.” They talked the entire flight. “I had never met no ambassador,” Davis told me. “I asked him questions about his duties, but he got around it, because they ain’t gonna tell you nothing about their business.”
Davis was treated like rediscovered royalty at Tramps, where he did a two-week stint of sold-out shows headlining along with one of his idols, Big Joe Turner. Yoko Ono and Mick Jagger came to see Davis play and pay their respects, but he was more impressed by Turner. (Davis stayed with Turner in an apartment in Lower Manhattan; Turner was on the wagon at the time, an arrangement that did not last while he was rooming with CeDell Davis.)
Despite all the attention, when Davis returned to Pine Bluff to keep playing the local circuit, his available recorded output remained slim. While in New York, Davis recorded an album’s worth of songs at Brian Eno’s studio, with Palmer, the outré jazz trumpet player Gary Gazaway, and famed session man Belton “Sticks” Evans on drums. But for one reason or another, nothing ever came of the project. The tapes ended up lost in storage, and for years the sessions were nothing more than a whispered rumor. (Gazaway recently found the master in Palmer’s archives and hopes to eventually release the material. He played me some tracks and they’re stunning—Davis at his peak, anchored by a trippy, blithesome fusion that wasn’t exactly in fashion at the time among blues hunters.) Four songs from Guida’s field recordings were eventually released on Rooster Records in 1983, and a scattering of later field recordings were included on compilations by an obscure German label. For years, that was it.
In 1994, Palmer produced the critically acclaimed album Feel Like Doin’ Something Wrong, one of the first releases from Fat Possum Records. Pitchfork called it “timeless,” which I think is a way of saying that it’s out of time altogether—traditional music so singular that it’s a tradition all its own. Davis became a new cult favorite, a latter-day fixture in the blues pantheon, touring around the country and across Europe. He followed up with two more Fat Possum records and in 2002 released When Lightnin’ Struck the Pine, featuring members of R.E.M. and Screaming Trees as a rollicking, fuzzy backing band.
Among Davis’s admirers and collaborators during this period were avant-garde iconoclasts like Col. Bruce Hampton and Ornette Coleman, which seems fitting. The oddity of his sound made him an acquired taste (he never had the crossover success of labelmate R. L. Burnside). There’s a great moment in the Fat Possum documentary when Iggy Pop says, “The records they’re putting out really are the most interesting records that anybody’s putting out. You know—when CeDell Davis gets way out of tune, I have a little trouble with that.”
Once upon a time, the story goes, more than a hundred years ago, W. C. Handy was waiting for a train in Tutwiler, Mississippi, and heard a man in ragged clothes play the blues. It was, Handy said, “the weirdest music I had ever heard.” May it ever be so.
Davis hasn’t been able to play the guitar since a stroke in 2005. He was alone in the house when it happened, and he was incapacitated there for two days before a girlfriend found him. While he was hospitalized, his apartment was robbed. “They stole my canes, an amplifier, eight guitars, my passport,” Davis said.
With no one able to care for him, Davis was discharged to a nursing home in Pine Bluff. Fat Possum kept sending royalty checks to his old address, but no one was home. Greg “Big Papa” Binns, a Hot Springs slide guitarist, inquired about Davis to the label’s general manager Bruce Watson; Watson said he hadn’t heard anything in months and had no idea where Davis was.
In 2006, Binns tracked Davis down and found him in bad shape at the nursing home, struggling with his speech and vision. Binns began to visit him periodically and as Davis’s condition improved, he eventually brought his guitar. After a while, Davis started singing along. They did an impromptu performance in the cafeteria and turned the place into a geriatric juke joint. “I just remember all these slippers were tapping,” Binns said. “Old white people, old black people, slippered feet tapping all around the cafeteria. Mr. Davis, he was digging it. And they were picking up what he was laying down.”
Davis, who relocated to Hot Springs in 2009, suggested that they look into booking some shows, and Binns put together a backing band (the harmonica player is a nurse in his day job, which helps). They began to play blues festivals, then club dates in Arkansas and eventually around the country, plus two European tours. In 2015, Davis released a comeback album, Last Man Standing, again featuring members of R.E.M. and Screaming Trees. A new album, Even the Devil Gets the Blues, came out in October, and a documentary film of the same name is in the works.
On the way to a recent show, I rode with Davis and Binns from Hot Springs to Little Rock. Davis talked a blue streak on the drive, sometimes answering the questions I asked, other times extemporizing in his own direction. On stage, Davis never plays a set list and has a knack for making up lyrics on the spot. He has the same improvisational flair in conversation, unspooling wild old stories, laments about women, and rants about, say, the food in Europe: it was nearly impossible to find fried chicken on the bone, the beer tasted like peanuts, “and they didn’t know nothing about a biscuit.”
He told us about a show he played in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in 1982, when a state trooper stopped them on the way. Davis’s wife at the time was in the back; his stepson, behind the wheel, was around twelve years old. “He was a good driver though,” Davis said. “My wife was white. It scared me. White woman back there. Shoot. But he waved us on.”
He told us about Sonny Boy Williamson (“you go to sleep around him, he gonna pick your pocket”) and Elmore James (“used to play at my Daddy’s place, man he’d raise the devil”).
Matter-of-fact violence runs through many of Davis’s tales. The time that Williamson lit a bale of hay on fire in front of the house of an adversary, sat on a stump in the yard, and waited: “Guy come running out of there and Sonny Boy shot him, boom!” The woman notorious in the Helena dives for cutting rivals with a meat cleaver: “She was a funny woman, always laughing, but rub her wrong and she’d get you. She killed three people.” The time that Davis got a ride home after playing a house party in Pine Bluff only to be chased down by a gunman who was in a dispute with the driver over a woman. The driver prevailed: “Shot that guy right in the neck. Guy in the field fell over like a chicken. Never did have no trial. He paid them $600 and that was it.”
Davis says he saw Robert Johnson play once or twice, when he used to sneak in through the back of Helena juke joints as a child. (Johnson played in Helena multiple times during this period.) Davis also says that he was well acquainted with Craphouse Bea, the woman who allegedly poisoned Johnson’s whiskey. He doesn’t know whether she did it, but he never took a drink from her. Davis didn’t tell me this, but a musician who played with him recounted that he used to tell stories about his mother being Robert Johnson’s lover. Well—pity the fact-checkers on the subject of the blues.
By far Davis’s favorite topic of conversation: women. Pretty ladies, no-good ladies, sweet ladies, lying ladies, do-right ladies. Ladies far and wide—“Dutch women, they like to court. German women do, too. But they sort of mean. And some of these Italian women mean.”
Davis told me he has been married twice (in a 2000 interview he said he’d been married nine times). He said he had two children, plus stepchildren he helped raise, but is no longer in touch with any of them. “You never understand a woman,” he said. “I’m putting a song together now: ‘If you understand a woman, please let me know.’ I think that would be a good one.”
He has a lot of opinions, in particular, about the women in Pine Bluff, his former longtime home. “Very few women isn’t crackheads in Pine Bluff,” he said. I asked him about one of his signature songs, “If You Like Fat Women,” which goes: “If you like fat women, come to Pine Bluff, Arkansas / You know there’s more fat women down there than any place I ever saw.”
“I written that song because there were so many fat women in Pine Bluff,” he said matter-of-factly. “Same way in Hot Springs. Big fat women. I often wondered why they so fat. So I fooled around and wrote a song about it.”
The White Water Tavern, normally closed on Sundays, had opened for Davis’s show. It’s the same dive that Davis played for the show Palmer wrote about in the New York Times thirty-five years ago: “a rickety frame building on an unpaved Little Rock back street . . . a typical juke joint.” The street has been paved and there’s a cozy outdoor seating area in the back now. The bar still displays a Busch bottle containing the ashes of a former regular along with, supposedly, four women’s pubic hairs (three red, one black), “some good kine bud,” and a line of cocaine.
“Yeah, I played here many times,” Davis told me over Budweisers at a table in the back. “But different owners. Burned down a time or two. Before they remodeled, all this wasn’t like this. Long time ago.” He likes a little beer before he plays to calm his nerves. He loves whiskey, too. But not wine. “Wine will sure kill you,” Davis said. “If you go fool around and get hitched on wine, it will kill you. All them I know that drink that stuff, they died.”
Davis performs as often as he can. He loves the audience, loves that old jolt of energy. Plus he appreciates the break from the monotony of the nursing home. “I get tired of it,” Davis said. “Same thing every day. I’m still living life, it goes pretty good. But I’ll tell you, it sure ain’t nothing like home. But see, you can’t do no better. I can’t do no better because I can’t handle myself like I want to. Out of all these years—sometimes I get lonely. Sometimes you get lonely, and other things.
“When you handicapped, believe me, you live in a different world. But I did all right. There’s always something you can do. I do music. Think I made the best choice because I’m still going.”
He downed his beer in one long pull. “I’ve had polio, I’ve had stroke, I’ve had high blood, everything in the book almost.” He started laughing. “Everything in the book, but I’m still around here.
“A lot of people can’t sing after they have a stroke,” he said. “I can! Lot of people don’t know the music like I do because it seems like it dulls their thinking. Ain’t dulled mine. I can still do pretty good.”
Davis continues to undergo various treatments in hopes of giving him enough flexibility to play guitar again, although it’s now been more than ten years since the stroke and he hasn’t regained the strength in his grip. Relying on others to play the guitar for him is a challenge. Davis still abides by the no-set-list rule. He’ll call out a song—or vague instructions—and like a surfer waiting for the right wave, he won’t start singing until the moment grabs him (occasionally, it doesn’t, and after several minutes he raises his hand like a conductor to stop the band).
“I know how I want it,” he said. “But you have to do what you can. Nobody really plays guitar like I did. But when you can’t do it yourself, you get somebody else to do.”
The place was packed when Davis was wheeled up to the stage, backed by Binns and the band. Davis remains a rich and wily vocalist. Now more than ever, his singing dips and swings, channeling distorted tones and rhythms. He still has the instinct for oddity, the capacity to surprise. He would wait a beat, turn his head, open his mouth wide, and wail—like sudden thunder cutting through the familiar rhythm of the rain.
The crowd got snookered in the low light, and they stomped and swayed and screamed. “I know what I know,” Davis sang. “One minute you’re here, the next you’re gone.” That voice—seeking the bending, winding possibility in every vowel. His very first instrument, and his last. The way he sang reminded me of the way his guitar used to sound.
Let me acknowledge that it is possible for a fan of Delta blues to become a little self-conscious at a show like this, arriving to bear witness to the ninety-year-old, post-stroke bluesman. There we were in the White Water Tavern, perhaps waiting to be transported to the show Davis played there decades ago. And at that show decades ago, perhaps they were waiting to be transported decades before that, to a plantation juke, to a breakdown somewhere out in the Mississippi mud.
But Davis has always been too strange and too alive to be reduced to an avatar of authenticity. He is, as ever, a rascal, a psychedelic outsider. Moans and hollers that evoke not so much the past as another planet.
“When my mama didn’t want me to play, when she said I’d die and go to hell, my stepfather told me, ‘You keep playing,’” Davis said. “We was sitting on the front porch, and he told me, ‘You keep doing like you doing. Guys gonna be coming for you, wanting you to play everywhere, take you wild places.’ He knowed, I don’t know how, but it sure has come to pass.”
“One of These Days” by CeDell Davis, a previously unreleased recording from The New York Sessions, is Track 12 on the “Visions of the Blues” Southern Music Issue CD.
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