Anyone looking to see Davy Graham’s name listed among the festivities at The Barbican’s Folk Britannia weekend would have been forgiven for missing him. With many of his contemporaries – Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch – receiving prominent billings, Graham himself is represented only by some grainy monochrome footage of his younger self in the screening room. The archived clip shows the young Graham playing Anji – the exotic, otherworldly instrumental that became a set text for virtually every other folk guitarist of the 60s.
And yet, as his old peers congregate a couple of miles down the road, it’s appropriate that the elusive Graham should be found where he has always existed – ploughing his own furrow, slightly outside the circle. This is how it was in 1964, when – with Folk Roots, New Routes – he and Shirley Collins demonstrated the resilience of British traditional songs by conferring a host of inspired jazz and eastern-influenced arrangements upon them. Over forty years on, supplementing his meagre royalties by teaching guitar, he’s all but left British folk behind. Very little of what he plays tonight is recognizable to owners of those early albums. But then, as this physically imposing legend, now 66, points out to a surprisingly young crowd, it’s not as though they were around back then either. Instead, much of the material he favours is centuries older: a Indian folk song hailing from Mahatma Ghandi’s birthplace Porbander is tackled with a elemental gusto more common to old bluesmen; another instrumental meditation signals an unannounced detour into Spanish classical music, a fine blizzard of sweet, scurrying notes punctuated by dramatic downstrokes that increase to signal imminent climax.
The longer he plays, the less blue space seems to divide the continents on the small illuminated globe placed beside his stool. It’s heartening to find him in far better shape than his well-documented heroin dependency would have portended – although his playing lacks the restraint and precision of his younger years. However, given the material he favours these days, that’s not always a problem. In fact, a string of indigenous Romanian and Armenian tunes benefit from his rough, visceral picking – their performer seemingly set on singlehandedly doing the work of three guitarists all at once. Under the circumstances, it’s hard not to sympathise with one of his students when – a propos of nothing – Graham calls his protege onto the stage to perform a couple of numbers while he has a rest. Whatever else may have changed, it still takes a brave man to follow Davy Graham. Just as it did 40 years ago.