Stefan Grossman considers himself a “bridge”. In the early 1960s, Grossman studied with blues and gospel singer Reverend Gary Davis, who sang on the streets of Harlem and taught at his home in the Bronx. Davis’ fingerpicking style has influenced guitarists, some of whom have gone on to major careers in American roots music.
Grossman has made it his mission to pass on the teachings of Reverend Davis. “I want to pass on the joy of playing this music to others, just as Reverend Davis passed it on to me,” he says.
Grossman was 15 when he started traveling from Brooklyn to the Bronx to study with Reverend Davis. When he first called Davis, he received the same reminder that all of the blind Baptist pastor’s students received: “Bring your money, honey.
Sometimes Grossman’s lessons lasted all day. He often carried a tape recorder with him, and for several years recorded Davis at home, at church, and at Gerde’s Folk City, a Greenwich Village nightclub.
“In addition to being a master musician, he was a master teacher,” Grossman explains. “He taught music the same way all great traditional music is taught – by imitation.”
He treated his students like family
Davis’ song “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” was covered by Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. Another piece from Davis’s repertoire, “Samson and Delilah”, was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary. Although he did not write the song, the trio acknowledged him as its author and the resulting royalties enabled the once impoverished musician to buy a house in Queens.
A scholarly list of the many prominent performers who studied with Reverend Davis at some point includes Ry Cooder, Janis Ian and Harry Chapin. But Grossman says there were plenty of people who only had one lesson with the man.
“There were a handful of us who really spent time with Reverend Davis — personal time,” Grossman says. “We were like grandchildren to him and he treated us with such warmth and care. You couldn’t ask for anything more.”
David Bromberg was one such student. He recalled that during his time studying with the Reverend, the blind musician’s guitar was “continually stolen”. During one of Bromberg’s performances at a small club in Greenwich Village, Davis stood up in the audience and said, “I don’t have children but I have sons.” It was his way of claiming Bromberg and Grossman as his proteges.
A student becomes a teacher
Grossman says that once he became a decent fingertip, Reverend Davis warned him to perform in public until the Reverend told him it was fine – the idea being that Grossman would go by the name of Davis in the world and that he shouldn’t until his teacher thought he was ready.
In the late 1960s Grossman spent time performing in England where he was friends with musicians Eric Clapton and John Renbourn. His eclectic performance career includes being tapped for an acoustic band on the West Coast that included Janis Joplin and Taj Mahal, but due to contract disputes the band disbanded after initial rehearsals. Grossman ultimately decided to focus on teaching, not performance.
On his Guitar Workshop website, some of the instructors are guitar heroes like Bromberg. But others, like David Laibman, are hardly known. Laibman is a ragtime guitar master who was an economics professor at Brooklyn College. Although most lessons are purchased online, the company still sells DVDs and CDs. Many titles focus on the music of early 20th century African American artists.
“Fingerpicking was really explored and extended by black musicians in the 1920s,” Grossman explains. “They were very, very good players. That’s what really intrigued me.”
New technology helps teach an old style
Grossman’s Guitar Lessons were originally distributed on reel-to-reel audio tape via postal mail, but now, over 50 years later, the lessons are downloaded as video files. That’s also how technology evolved at Homespun Music Instruction, which was founded by Happy Traum, the Woodstock musician who played with his brother, the late Artie Traum.
“There are people all over the world who love this kind of music but they are isolated,” Traum told NPR. “Maybe they go to a festival and then come home all excited and say, ‘Now what do I do?’ I think in these cases [web videos are] the perfect outlet for people to get that kind of education. »
Playback software used for guitar instructional videos makes it easy for aspiring finger pickers to slow down the material they’re trying to learn, something much harder to do in the 1960s when students had to drop a needle phonograph at a particular location on a vinyl. registration.
“I used to sit down with an LP and keep putting the needle down on a Merle Travis record trying to figure out the licks,” Traum recalled. “It was work.”
With analog technology, the slowing down of the playback caused a change in pitch and certain octaves became inaudible, which does not happen with the software used for the playback of the video lessons.
Homespun began around the same time as Grossman’s instructional guitar business. Traum says he, like Grossman, is a conservative.
“Stefan is a master himself,” says Traum. “I have a lot of respect for what he does.”