You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone, and when folk guitarist Davy Graham died in 2008, relatively unknown compared to the likes of Bert Jansch, Jimmy Page and Johnny Marr, who all owed him a debt of influence, it was too late for most. This two-CD collection helps rectify the balance, cherry picking from the eight albums he recorded before or during 1970, by which time drugs had all but ended his career, after which he largely made a living teaching guitar.
What made Graham such an unknown giant? Well, the giant part is easy: although the jury is out on whether he actually invented it, Graham certainly popularised the DADGAD guitar tuning that became the default setting for any finger-picking guitarist; plus he wrote Anji, his first ever composition, aged just 19, which went on to become a folk standard recorded by Simon & Garfunkel, Jansch and Chicken Shack, and performed by myriad others.
The unknown part is harder to fathom. Never having an American recording contract didn’t help, but Graham was too eclectic for some, able to cross from jazz to folk to rock to raga to blues to ragtime in a heartbeat. Towards the end of the 60s (his first album, The Guitar Player, came out in 1963) his behaviour was eccentric at best, reflected in the music, rather like a folk Syd Barrett.
But that doesn’t mean he’s difficult. There’s no mistaking how effortlessly smooth his playing was, and while Graham never claimed to be much of a singer, one listen to his limp voice on Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright or his struggle with The Beatles’ Getting Better confirms why he mostly recorded instrumentals. Even so, the tracks here from his 1964 album with doyen Shirley Collins, Folk Roots, New Routes, are among his best.
Over these 36 tracks, his abilities and vision can be breathtaking. From the first flourish of Anji through his introduction of jazz and blues to folk traditions, not to mention bringing far more exotic influences to the Brit folk scene – on Maajun (A Taste of Tangier) you can almost smell the ground cumin years before Page, Brian Jones or Jimi Hendrix ventured to Morocco – he was as instrumental in bringing world music to the West as Peter Gabriel was over a decade later.
To ‘scholar’ and ‘gentleman’, for once the word ‘pioneer’ can be added without fear of contradiction. --Andy Fyfe
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