Obituaries

CeDell Davis, 91, bluesman who played guitar with a knife

After polio constricted his hands, Mr. Davis developed his own technique of using a knife along his guitar’s fretboard.

FRED R. CONRAD/New York Times/file 2001

After polio constricted his hands, Mr. Davis developed his own technique of using a knife along his guitar’s fretboard.

NEW YORK — CeDell Davis, a Delta bluesman from Arkansas who used a knife for a guitar slide, died Sept. 27, his Facebook page said. He was 91.

He had been hospitalized since Sept. 24 after a heart attack.

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Mr. Davis spent decades performing around the South at juke joints and house parties before a broader audience got a chance to hear his electrified rural blues in the 1980s. His voice was a grainy moan as he sang about woman troubles and hard luck; his guitar could drive dancers with boogie and shuffle beats or play leads that were lean and gnarled, gliding smoothly and then coiling into a dissonant sting.

After childhood polio constricted his hands, he developed his own technique of using a knife along the fretboard of his guitar. New York Times critic Robert Palmer called it “a guitar style that is utterly unique, in or out of the blues.”

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Ellis CeDell Davis was born in Helena, Ark., on June 9, 1926, though some sources say it was 1927. His mother was known as a faith healer and his father ran a juke joint. Although his mother thought the blues was devil’s music, he took to the style early, starting on diddley-bow, a one-stringed instrument made by nailing a wire to a wall. He moved on to harmonica and guitar, often sneaking into juke joints to listen to music.

He contracted polio when he was 10, leaving him with partly paralyzed arms and legs and requiring crutches to walk. But he was determined to stay with music. He told Palmer: “I was right-handed, but I couldn’t use my right hand, so I had to turn my guitar around. I play left-handed now. But I still needed something to slide with, and my mother had these knives, a set of silverware, and I kind of swiped one of them.”

He reinvented his playing using the handle of a table knife. “Almost everything that you could do with your hands, I could do it with the knife,” he told David Ramsey in the magazine The Oxford American this year. “It’s all in the way you handle it. Drag, slide, push it up and down.”

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As a teenager, Mr. Davis played street corners and juke joints around Helena, which was at the time a bustling Mississippi River port, “wide open” with gamblers, bootleggers, and honky-tonks, Mr. Davis recalled in the 1984 documentary “Blues Back Home.”

There he met some of the era’s leading blues musicians, and started appearing on two live blues radio shows on KFFA in Helena: “King Biscuit Time” with Sonny Boy Williamson, and “Bright Star Flour” with Robert Nighthawk, a fellow slide guitarist. From 1953 to 1963, he and Nighthawk performed together, and they moved for a time to St. Louis.

In 1957, Mr. Davis was further disabled after he was trampled when a brandished gun led to a stampede at a bar where he and Nighthawk were performing. Multiple leg fractures left him using a wheelchair.

In “Blues Back Home,” Mr. Davis said, “Whether I could walk or not, I had to make my place in this world, and find my own way, and I found it.”

He continued to work the juke-joint circuit. In the early 1960s he moved to Pine Bluff, Ark., where he would reside for decades until he moved to a nursing home in Hot Springs, Ark. He made his first recordings in 1976 for journalist and folklorist Louis Guida; they appeared on the 1983 collection “Keep It to Yourself: Arkansas Blues Volume 1, Solo Performances.”

Those recordings reached Palmer, who went to hear Mr. Davis at Delta juke joints in the early 1980s. In The Times in 1981, Palmer wrote about a juke-joint gig in Little Rock. Palmer called Mr. Davis “a virtuoso with the table knife.”

Palmer befriended and championed Mr. Davis, drawing attention to him. Soon Mr. Davis was working the national and international blues circuit. Some listeners complained that he was out of tune, but Palmer observed that Mr. Davis played in a consistent, precise “alternate tuning system.” Eventually, Palmer brought the bluesman to the Mississippi label Fat Possum and produced his 1994 debut album, “Feel Like Doin’ Something Wrong.”

Mick Jagger and Yoko Ono attended Mr. Davis’s first gigs in New York City, in 1982. Other musicians became admirers and collaborators.

Mr. Davis had a stroke in 2005, and could no longer play guitar. But he continued to sing, and although he was already living in a nursing home, he returned to performing in 2009. He released two more albums, “Last Man Standing” in 2015 and “Even the Devil Gets the Blues” in 2016.

Mr. Davis told The Oxford American he had been married twice and had two children and had helped raise some stepchildren, but was not in touch with them. He was scheduled to perform Oct. 6 at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena.

“I play the blues the way it is,” Mr. Davis said in “Blues Back Home.” “It tells it all.”

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