Of all the many thousands of guitarists who picked up the instrument during the 1950s skiffle boom, nobody took it on a bigger adventure or cast a longer shadow than Davey Graham.
If Graham had stopped after composing Anji, the piece he named after a girlfriend in France in 1959 and that went on to become the acoustic guitarist’s rite of passage (Paul Simon was among those who recorded it), he probably still would have become a legend. Anji, however, was just one milestone on a path that journeyed from the folk music of the British Isles through jazz, blues, Broadway show tunes, Eastern European traditions, Moroccan modes and down into the Indian subcontinent. Sometimes all of the above would combine in a medley.
On the way and to facilitate his musical experiments, Graham invented the DADGAD guitar tuning, which has become as prevalent among folk and traditional guitar players as the standard EADGBE tuning, a contribution whose value can hardly be calculated.
Graham had eclecticism in his blood. His father, Hamish, was a native Gaelic speaker from Skye and his mother, Winifred, born in Georgetown, British Guyana, brought the French language to the household as well as Oriental and Native American blood to the family lineage.
From the moment he first heard Lonnie Donegan, Graham was hooked. He could barely concentrate in school for thinking about the imagery that Donegan’s singing of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie songs conjured up and when he got his first guitar at the age of fifteen, it became an almost constant companion. He caught the travelling bug early, taking off at every opportunity from jobs as varied as librarian and crate humper for Paris and the Cote d’Azur, travelling on to Greece and being seduced by the sound of the oud, as well as the taste of Maajun (the sticky hashish confectionery) in Morocco.
Travelling as much in his imagination and musical appreciation as he did physically, he somehow developed the ability to hear a Thelonious Monk blues, a Charlie Mingus jazz rumble, a baroque piece or a slow air on the uilleann pipes and orchestrate it – and this isn’t overstating matters – for the guitar in a style that was completely his own.
His first recording, an EP with his sometime musical partner and bandleader, Alexis Korner, featured Anji, a composition all the more impressive considering he’d only been playing guitar for three or four years when he developed something so intricate. By this time he’d also got his first real professional break, accompanying Australian singer Shirley Abicair on a television series and in major concerts, and had already wowed television viewers with his rendition of Cry Me a River for Ken Russell’s BBC arts programme, Monitor. Through his regular solo residency at Nick’s Diner in Earls Court, Graham’s name began to reach record company executives and film producers (he turned up singing and playing the blues in the Dirk Bogarde movie The Servant) as well as awe-stricken fellow guitarists.
If his first album, The Guitar Player … Plus, confirmed Graham’s abilities with jazz and blues standards, it was his next two recordings that really established his reputation, firstly, Folk Roots, New Routes, which pitched Graham together with English rose par excellence, singer Shirley Collins, in daring settings of traditional songs, and in 1965, the classic Folk, Blues and Beyond …, which gathered traditional ballads, Bob Dylan, Leadbelly blues, Mingus gospel shout and a precursor to world music in Maajun into a collection whose original vinyl copies can now fetch hundreds of pounds.
Thereafter, Graham’s recordings were often patchy affairs, given to flashes of brilliance mixed with tracks that might have reflected his willingness to embrace contemporary songwriting by The Beatles and Joni Mitchell but didn’t always convince. For an example of what he could do, the 1997 release of a private recording from February 1967, After Hours at Hull University, is hard to beat. By now, though, he’d led a whole movement of guitarists, including Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Martin Carthy, Jimmy Page, Archie Fisher and Wizz Jones, into previously unimagined realms of virtuosity. He was a hero, a legend, albeit also a fading star.
Part of what Graham referred to as the “ravage” that interrupted his career was due to his insistence on becoming a heroin addict. If being a junkie had, he reasoned, made Charlie Parker an even better musician, then he would try this, too. It didn’t hasten Graham’s end, as it had Parker’s, but he became unreliable and wayward.
In the 1970s promoters and audiences didn’t know which Davey (he’d changed the spelling from Davy around this time) might turn up. It might be the stoned, denim shirted bluesman who, if really inspired, could recreate his best magic. It might be the tuxedo-wearing, dodgy joke telling accompanist to his then-wife, Holly. Or it might be Davey Graham, the classical player, who could conjure Bach pieces from the guitar with extraordinary delicacy and fire but then literally punch out the stage lights.
Later, callers to his London number might be greeted by an answerphone “message” consisting of a recording of an Indian raga – played at its considerable length with no “beep” to speak after. This could have been because he’d disappeared to somewhere exotic or equally because he was busy, as reported, teaching guitar in the West Highlands.
Then, with the new century, came word that Davey Graham was back and reproducing his form of old – and when he appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe, with Bert Jansch, in 2005, this seemed plausible. Though obviously nervous, he played a brief set that was typically eclectic, including a devilish Eastern European dance tune. But when he returned to Edinburgh for a full concert of his own a few weeks later, though still able to summon up his eccentric colonel in reduced circumstances persona, musically he was a sad shadow of his former self and subsequent visits didn’t exactly enhance his reputation either.
By his own admission, he found it difficult to live up to the legend but perhaps we should just be grateful that he created music worthy of his legend status in the first place because Folk, Blues and Beyond … even now, can still induce goose bumps.
Davey Graham, guitar pioneer, born November 26, 1940; died December 15, 2008.
From The Herald, January 20, 2009.