James Davis (1931-2007) was from Perry, Georgia. Mid-Georgia remains a vast untapped area of undocumented musical traditions. His music stemmed from the fife and drum music, which is among the oldest African-American musical traditions. His father played the snare drum and his uncle played the bass drum. They used to go to the crossroads store on Saturday nights and play until Sunday morning, drawing crowds all night long. This music is simply called “Drumbeat.” When I first met James in ’96 I saw simple flyers that stated “Drumbeat at the Turning Point.” This is where James played every Saturday night for many years. James played the old melodies of the fife with his electric guitar while his partner performed the old rhythms on a trap set.
How We Helped:
Music Maker Relief Foundation assisted James Davis with obtaining prescription medicines, and also recorded James’ first CD. James has toured Georgia, and his song “Georgia Drumbeat” was covered by the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Folklorist George Mitchell first met James Davis in the 70s. Blues scholar Axel Küstner visited James in the 90s and exclaimed to me, “James Davis is killer! Man, this guy is as deep and anything that ever came out of Mississippi!” I soon made my way to his gig in Warner Robbins, Georgia. Vendors were frying fish outside, I met James in the parking lot, he was a hulking giant, intimidating, but when I introduced myself and we got to talk, he was soft-spoken gentleman. I asked about recording that night and he just smiled and said that was a good idea.
James once told the eminent British photographer Val Wilmer:
“The people around here call it the old country drumbeat. They like that old country-style playing. A lot of them say they’d rather hear my playing than hear them piccolos. I don’t know what the drum do to people but look like peoples just enjoy drums. Somehow the drum just draws peoples – it always did an I reckon it always will…Just’ bout all the records now that come out, you got some drums in there, it’s coming from the spirit.
I believe they sang blues before they sang spirituals, ‘cause most times somebody strikes a blues, they can’t even play a church song. Put it this way – the Good Book tell you if you’re going to be a devil, be a devil. You can’t serve two Gods at one time, so that leaves a gap. You either got to serve God or serve the Devil I know who I be serving, it be the Devil-God. The Devil we say. But I look at it on the other hand and see there be a time for all things, a time to pray, a time to sing, a time to do anything we want to do. He only asks you for one day, we got six days to do what we want to do. I don’t play none on Sunday, not no blues.
You know, a lot of the spirituals got the blues in it. Some songs, the guitar player be playing the blues right along in that spiritual. The blues bad? Not for me, because what you like, you like. People say that, but that be a lot of them been too old for anything else! When he say that, he done everything he could do!” -Timothy Duffy