There are very few people who can genuinely be accredited with changing the face of a certain field of music. Most of that rare breed become famous and rich beyond the dreams of licorice - or die. But in Camden Town there lives a man whose influence on the folk guitar scene is literally immeasurable. He was experimenting with Eastern scales and modal tunings while George Harrison was still playing the Ratkeller. He was the first guitarist to cross the boundaries of folk, blues, jazz and what is now horribly referred to as 'World Music'. He recorded with Alexis Korner in 1960 and Shirley Collins in 1964, wrote a tune called 'Angie' which every spotty twit who ever picked up a guitar tried to play. He gigged throughout the 60s at folk clubs and rock venues alike and earned a reputation as Britain's greatest exponent of the acoustic guitar. And yet he never really became famous, he certainly never became rich. In fact, he nearly died - but instead, he just became a junkie and an alcoholic. His musical output ground to a halt and the rumours began to abound. They said he'd lost it - couldn't play any more - had gone mad - that he was finished.
The man I'm talking about is Davey Graham. (sometimes Davy, once Davie, and preferably "just Dave")
A short while ago, a lovely lady called Aleisha, who was the lead singer of the 70's progressive folk band 'Magic Carpet' (but that's another story...) told me that she knew Davey quite well, and that contrary to popular belief he was still playing guitar, was as fit as a fiddle and would probably be pleased to do a Terrascopic interview. How could we refuse?
I found Davey to be a charismatic, charming and intense guy - a man who had learned a lot along the way and who didn't want to open up about everything. He'd dug out all his albums and his
scrapbook for me, had even written out a full discography and so, with the scrapbook on my lap, I suggested certain topics and Davey would talk. I'm now going to hand you over to Phil, who transcribed and edited the interview. Read on...
Davey Graham's mind is so filled with information, all of which comes gushing out in a seemingly unending flow once you tap into it, that it's actually rather difficult to get the man to stay on one subject. To edit the interview tapes down to something readable has taken me weeks; weeks in which I have learned an awful lot, but weeks in which I have also had to come to terms with discarding some startlingly original patterns of thought in order to make it all legible. Bear with me, it's been a painful process. The results are shown below, as untangled as I can make them without losing some of the essence but at the same time presented in such a way as to leave you wondering just what kind of questions were asked. The short answer is, very few. The few directional prods that were posed are replicated below, and aside from those the remaining words are those of Davey Graham, pretty much as they were spoken. Make of it what you will - we certainly got a lot out of this encounter.
When did you first start to get interested in playing guitars?
I started playing harmonica as a child, and then a little piano although I never studied formally. I found I could remember almost anything that I had heard. Both my parents were bilingual which started my interest in languages. My father taught Gaelic, and my mother taught me French. I went to France quite early on in my life. Did a lot of travelling around Europe, later to Turkey and Morocco and later still to India. Irish is related to the Indo-European languages, you know.
I'm still a perpetual student, learning more and more about less and less. I find musically that's true as well. Although I've had my detractors, I've also had my followers - I turned around to myself in about 1979 and asked, why are they following me? Even I don't know where I'm going. Why don't they go to some of the places I've been and find out for themselves? Quite a lot of them did go actually, Martin Carthy's been to Korea for example. Last year I went to a big folk festival in Canada and heard some amazing music from all over the world. Martin Simpson was there with his group. Early on, you know, The Weavers came to England and Roy Guest, the impresario, who's half Greek and half Welsh, brought over Sonny & Terry, Muddy Waters, Pete Seeger - a lot of folk singers from America.
But my own interest in the guitar, which was my third instrument, was initially in Spanish/classical guitar. I had lessons from Oliver Hunt, who became professor of guitar at college, and then quit and went my own way. I was as much in the dark as anyone else. There have been a lot of casualties from that era that I don't want to talk about, but which because of my interest in mental health I have to keep up with developments - for instance the benefits of a good night's sleep. I've managed to help a couple of alcoholics by getting them to take Skullcap, the mushroom, which is quite a good producer of sleep - unlike alcohol, which isn't.
I like to study medical textbooks, although it's true what they say - that people who study them sometimes think they suffer from half the things they're studying. A psychiatrist is someone who likes to have his wits about you!
Music is supposed to be a mystical path as well as a theraputic one. It seems to me that it should be the concern of musicians whether their music is producing the relaxment or excitement that it ought to be. There's a danger that the younger generation can't tell one from t'other. What upsets me about electric guitarists is that they're quite often amplifying what they can't do on an acoustic guitar. I haven't written a guitar book though because when I was a young man, there were thousands of guitar books, even then, and it struck me that I wasn't going to contribute to the substance of understanding by merely writing another one.
I used to do as many things as possible that I knew no-one else had heard of because they hadn't done the same research as I had into the blues.
I was told in 1960 that I sounded more like Big Bill Broonzy than he did himself. When you're that young and suggestive that sort of thing can happen. You can't function without heroes, and you can't separate heroes from the stuff of life. Just as with Jesus and with Lennon though, the detractors are the people who claimed to be the biggest followers in the first place. As soon as a hero gets too big, they get their detractors.
I never wanted to have a following. I was never interested in the big time, just to be good at what I was doing. I found that studying languages and music was the same thing. One should always learn another language, to release yourself from thought patterns in your own language. Speaking English, which is a forest of metaphor, is to some extent a mixed blessing. Every time you breathe out, some of your thoughts pass into the void where they're picked up on by those around you. Those thoughts aren't always understood when you're in another country. Learn to think in another language, and you'll be free of depression and obsession.
I did play at the Festival Hall in 1961. A big venue. I wanted to be famous then, just to impress my mother. That Hamlet thing of needing to impress her all the time. There were a lot of black artists involved in the King Kong show. They stayed here when King Kong came to Europe, to get away from Apartheid. Among them was Peggy Pandola, who married Johnny Parker. He was the pianist who did the solo on 'Bad Penny Blues', which in turn was the inspiration for the piano on McCartney's 'Lady Madonna'. I saw him at the Festival Hall in 1956 when Lionel Hampton shared the bill with the Humphrey Littleton band. Lionel was amazing on drums, throwing the sticks twenty feet in the air and catching them again. It was the most extraordinary thing I've ever seen.
An album title I once toyed with is 'Playing In Traffic'. Just how can you sit down and play a piece of classical or jazz music while there's such an incredible din going on? Titles were often inspired by the things around me. 'Holly Kaleidoscope'. 'Godding' and 'Boundary' were the names of two roads I saw on the way to a gig once.
I've never been very good at selling myself because I've always been so busy studying music and travelling. Basically I'm serious in a tragi-comic sort of way. I guess it's the Celtic blood in me. Something Alexis Korner said to me sticks in my mind. 'It doesn't matter whether people like you or don't like you. If they don't talk about you, you've got problems. You've got to be controversial'. That strikes me as a piece of horseshit from beginning to end. To want to be controversial is to invite people to assassinate you. We're back to Jesus and Lennon again. Alexis could be very difficult as well as amazingly good company.
You recorded the Davey Graham & Alexis Korner EP...
Yes. Henry Mitchell, who was an associate of Bob Monkhouse, introduced me to Ray Horrocks at Pye Records. I did a record for Pye, and then when Horrocks switched to Decca - he wrote a good book about Count Basie by the way, and disovered Kenneth McKellar - I made 6 albums for Decca. Then I did one with Shirley Collins, which has just been reissued on Righteous Records. Sixties fusion music was in no way my own invention though. The Mahavishnu Orchestra later did it much better, which is when I got interested in Celtic music. Martin Carthy had to teach me the tuning. But the thing with Shirley Collins was an experiment. Shirley doesn't care for jazz, and wasn't convinced that it would be the success that it was. The deal was set up by the Art and Design Editor for the Observor magazine, John Marshall. I was pleased with it because it was a chance to infuse a very pure English style of music with something more experimental. It doesn't seem to prove anything about Oriental music though.
Of all the people who play anything resembling Oriental music or instruments, the most interesting is Ross Daley who lives in Crete. He's very well versed in Greek culture, which is the link between East and West. If you wanted fusion music you didn't have to wait for McLoughlin or Davey Graham to lead you to it, it was there all the time in the shape of Ross Daley. I toured a lot in the Seventies and the beginning of the Eighties, collecting tapes from around the world on field trips.
Your best-known composition must be 'Angie'?
A medley of a hit is always a bit of a bore, but it's a little bit upsetting to be thought of in no other connection. As soon as you define something you've really said that it has no right to be anything other than what you define it as. I felt some of my twenty other compositions deserved more attention, perhaps '20 Ton Parachute' or 'Tristiana'. The inspiration for 'Angie' passed away about three weeks ago by the way, which is a bit sad.
I learned so many different types of music that it became difficult to compose any more. As soon as I sat down to compose a tune, I found that it was sounding like other classical pieces that I was thinking of at the time. The unconscious plagiarism that we're all capable of played a part. Who you are whilst you're asleep isn't necessarily who you thought you were yesterday. It's an optical illusion of the inner ear...
I've often wondered, should 'Davey' be spelled with an 'e' or without an 'e'?
I used to be called Davie because Angie spelled her name with an 'i'. I didn't know 'Angiography' was the study of blood vessels, did you? Actually, I'd rather be called 'Dave'. I'm not too concerned about the 'e', or the 'y' either.
I have a handbill in front of me from the Penthouse Club in Scarborough which lists Van Der Graaf Generator, Eclection, Free, Juniors Eyes, Strawbs and Davey Graham. Those must have been very exciting days?
In 1967 I became a casualty of too much self-indulgence. I was also capable of too much self-denial. I suppose I was a bit like Peter Green, who disappeared from Mayall's band. I felt that the guitar playing was getting out of hand. There were too many tragedies happening in the world to ignore them. What upset me was people like Lenny Bruce, who destroyed himself. I spent time doing charity work, finding something more interesting than just Davey Graham to be getting on with. There has been too much publicity for things I did in the Sixties that I've never done since. Some people like Smarties, and some people don't. If everyone liked tomatoes, there wouldn't be any tomatoes...
You're involved with mental health organisations such as MIND now?
I have an active role on the Executive Council. The problem of depression in the inner cities is very real... what life teaches you is very much in terms of what you lose, losing love, job, place to live, favourite motorcycle or whatever. People with problems of depression can't handle the laundry, and what they're taking for their depression is actually producing more depression - and of course the pharmaceutical companies are making millions of pounds out of it. And the problems are entirely due to being monolingual!
A CD reissue of some of your music is planned by the Polygram label. Are you hoping to record any new stuff?
I'm discussing the possibility. If you're just what you did twenty years ago, people will have decided for themselves what you are or are not. I don't see that my stereotype has to be what I still am. I'm still signing my own signature! So it's important that I get a new LP out. It's not how much money you make that leads to happiness you know. Even if you've got a million pounds in the bank and you wake up one morning depressed, and you get into bad company - I don't mean the group of that name by the way - then the problems of temptation are enormous. There are an awful lot of casualties of success.
The richness of life is a question of how few losses you sustain.
And there we leave Mr. Graham. He's learned a lot about us, and we've learned a bit about him. Long may he continue to wend his own unique way.
Nick Saloman / Phil McMullen, (c) Terrascope 1991
A DAVEY GRAHAM DISCOGRAPHY 1960 - 1991
DAVEY GRAHAM AND THE THAMESIDERS -
PFE 8338 (1960)
GUITAR PLAYER -
PYE Golden Guinea
GGL 0224 (1961)
3/4 A.D. - Topic EP (1961)
FOLK, BLUES AND BEYOND -
FOLK ROOTS NEW ROADS -
(with Shirley Collins)
Decca LK4652 (1964)
MIDNIGHT MAN -
Decca LK4780 (1965)
LARGE AS LIFE -
Decca (S)KL4969 (1969)
HAT - Decca LK5011 & SK5011 (1969)
HOLLY KALEIDOSCOPE -
Decca SKL5056 (1970)
GODINGTON BOUNDARY -
President PTLS 1039 (1971)
ALL THAT MOODY -
Eron 007 (1975)
IRISH REELS, JIGS & HORNPIPES (V/A) - Kicking Mule SNKF 153 (1976)
COMPLETE GUITARIST -
Kicking Mule SNKF 138 (1977)
DANCE FOR TWO PEOPLE -
Kicking Mule SNKF 158 (1978)
BLUES GUITAR WORKSHOP -
Kicking Mule SNKF 159 (1979)
BLUES, FOLK & ALL POINTS IN BETWEEN - (re-issue comp.)
See For Miles SEE 48 (1986)