It’s not often that an obituary sticks in your head for more than a week, let alone six months.
I can’t get the life story of CeDell Davis out of my head. Davis was a Delta bluesman from Arkansas who used a knife for a guitar slide to create a sound, described by New York Times music critic Robert Palmer, as “a guitar style that is utterly unique, in or out of the blues.”
He passed away on September 27, 2017, at age 91. It always saddens me to hear of the passing of a Delta blues musician as it represents another lost link to the soul of America. Not only does it represent a lost link to an original American art form, but in the case of CeDell Davis, a loss of a living example of the fundamental American ideal that if you work hard and persevere, despite facing many obstacles, you can make a life for yourself and add to the wonderful cultural mosaic of our society.
Davis was one of those many blues musicians who, for many years, toiled in relative obscurity. According to Jon Pareles’ obituary in the NY Times (Oct. 12, 2017), Davis performed around the South in juke joints and house parties before a broader audience got a chance to hear his electrified rural blues in the 1980s.
That sounds like a fairly standard story for Delta bluesmen of that era. But as I read about the life he leads, my jaw dropped. While there are all types of colorful stories recalled when remembering blues musicians, never had I read a more inspiring story about the human will to persevere in the face of one daunting challenge after another. He was a model in sheer determination in pursuing his passion for music.
If curious, YouTube him. I’d suggest “CeDell Explains Boogie Woogie”. There’s no word to accurately describe how this cat approached, created, and performed music. In fact, I went to the dictionary and a book of synonyms to find one. There is no word. You’ve simply got to see and hear him.
Born in Helena Arkansas on June 9, 1926, he learned to play guitar and harmonica at an early age. But at age 10, he contracted polio leaving him with partly paralyzed arms and legs, requiring crutches to walk. Polio crippled his right (natural) playing hand to the point where he had to turn his guitar around and play left-handed. As if that wasn’t hard enough, his left hand, while less crippled, would still not allow him to play chords with his fingers in the traditional way. He improvised and began playing with a knife, sliding it along the strings.
As a teenager, he played street corners and juke joints in and around Helena and began appearing on live blues radio shows on KFFA such as ”King Biscuit Time” with Sonny Boy Williamson and “Bright Star Flour” with Robert Nighthawk.
So there here we were, challenged with the effects of polio, but making the best of it by adjusting his playing technique to where he was making a living as a musician. If the story ended there, it would be a great one.
But the story doesn’t end there. And in a nod to the time-honored lore of Blues history, the next chapter began with a gun being drawn in a nightclub.
(A side note: My personal favorite Blues story of a gun in a nightclub was recounted by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman in their 2004 biography of legendary Bluesman Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett, “Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf.” Wolf’s drummer at the time was Sam Lay, an eccentric sort, who was quite a “ladies man”. Lay always carried a snub-nosed .38 pistol in his front pocket as “insurance” in the event that a jealous boyfriend or husband entered the club looking to settle a score with him. The story goes that one night, in the midst of some particularly aggressive drumming, the gun discharged and he shot off his own testicle. Talk about hitting the downbeat!)
That gun in that nightclub in East St. Louis in 1957 started a stampede. Davis and Mr. Nighthawk were playing that evening and by the end of the night, Davis had sustained multiple fractures to his legs left him confined to a wheelchair.
But once again, he refused to let that stop him from playing his music. He continued to work the juke joint circuit and eventually was “discovered” by Palmer, who befriended him and championed his music. Shortly thereafter, Davis began working the national and international blues circuit. Mr. Palmer then brought him to the Fat Possum record label where he recorded his 1994 debut album, “Feel Like Doin’ Something Wrong”.
Along the way, musicians such as Mick Jagger, Yoko Ono, guitarist Peter Buck from R.E.M, and Mike McCready from Pearl Jam became admirers and/or collaborators.
So there you have the makings of a wonderful story of perseverance.
But that’s still not the end of his story.
In 2005, Davis had a stroke, which by most any standard classifies as a major set back. As a result, he lost the ability to play the guitar. All he had left was the ability to sing. So that’s what he did.
By then, he was living in a nursing home. Apparently, that didn’t slow him down either as he returned to performing in 2009 and released two more albums “Last Man Standing” in 2015 and “Even the Devil Gets the Blues” in 2016.
His story is worth recapping. He was debilitated as a result of polio, confined to a wheelchair as a result of a barroom stampede, unable to play the guitar after suffering a stroke, moved into a nursing home, and with only his voice to draw upon, still found the drive and courage to continue to perform concerts and record albums.
If I ever have to stay in a nursing home, I hope whoever is in the next room is some cat as inspiring as CeDell Davis.
CeDell Davis simply refused to give up. He lived a remarkable life, exhibiting the tremendous power the human will to persevere, to move forward and continue on the road ahead. It also illustrates the power and allure of music. He refused to let difficult circumstances or events keep him from playing his music and moving forward with his life. He not only left us with his music, but he also provided an inspiring life lesson and example of how to persevere in the face of profoundly difficult challenges.
That’s a powerful Life lesson from the Blues.