Interviewing Gussie L. Davis
1. What events in your early life made you get interested in the arts?
I started preparation as a lyricist but ran into conflict when I applied to study music at the Nelson Musical College and was refused admission due to my ethnicity. Afterwards, I was determined to learn because nobody could stop me from my dreams. I thought it was very racist to say only whites could be accepted into college to learn music. In the end, I took a job at the college as a janitor and in return received private lessons. I was an intelligent and dedicated student and learned the craft of the piano and songwriting.
My first professional acquaintance was with James E. Stewart who was very inspirational. He was an important influence on my knowledge of songwriting. He was also from Cincinnati. He was famous for “Cricket on the Hearth” and “Jenny, the Flower of Kildare.” My dear friend died in a Cincinnati workhouse but I made it out, luckily.
2. What role did mentors play in helping you develop the interests and talents you have as an artist?
As a young lad I was always interested in music. I thought music was a fun and jamming art. I was determined to learn more, so I became a mentor to myself. I read books to educate myself and then applied at Nelson Musical College. I received private lessons which helped me. I was taught the skills of composition and the craft of piano.
James E. Stewart, who was my colleague, was the biggest mentor to me. I blame him for my success and how I became who I am. He passed down his knowledge of songwriting that was very valuable to me. Unfortunately, he died soon after we became colleagues. I will never forget his teachings and they will live along with me.
3. What was the world of art like in your particular art field when you entered it?
The world of composition was very rich when I entered. Artist from all over were composing music. There were so many different styles and ways to put the music together. All over people were learning new styles, Ballad, Folk dance, and so on. As music grew so did I as an artist.
The world of piano was not as rich as composition though. Most composers have learned the craft of the piano because it’s easier to hear chords and melodies. Without the piano it would be harder to compose music because you cannot hear melodies with a bass or a drum. The art of composition and piano both work hand in hand.
4. How did the major cultural, economic and political situations of the time impact your work?
During the 1800s the world's technologies and things were getting worldwide spread, especially music. At first music was weary and sad but then transformed to other styles. Operas and Old Folk Dance songs became popular. Negro music and opera always had fame, though. During, the 890s Waltz and Two-Step became popular. As for me, I enjoyed ballad.
The world economically was always growing. Since the economy was growing so fast the more money I received, not a lot but it got me through and the easier for my music to be spread. The world culturally wasn’t during so great, it was still racism. It was not easy being an African-American composer during these times. Certain musicians would not play my music, and certain publishers would not publish it because it was by an African-American.
5. What were your major accomplishments and the methods you used in you art?
My major accomplishment as a composer was when I performed at Tin Pan Alley and had great success. I was the first black male to receive financial rewarding on my music. If you do not know, in my time, Tin Pan Alley was the epicenter for music. It is located in New York City. I was not exactly a “free” artist, physically yea, but when it came to my style f music, no.
I had to write songs that were the style of the best selling songs at the time. It was not a racist predicament; every composer who worked for Tin Pan Alley had to open their variety of music. I composed all types of songs such as musical shows, an opera, comic minstrel songs, and chorus songs. I was more focused on the ballad, though. I thought of ballad as a way to express my emotions and it was very romantic.
6. What were the key opportunities you had that led to turning points in your life and art?
Working at Nelson Musical College transformed my life. Not only did I work there but, I received lessons and learned knowledge in music. I am glad I did not give up hope when denied admission and kept trying. I learned a lot that helped me on my skills and met interesting people. Without going to Nelson Musical College I would not be where I am now.
My dear friend, James E. Stewart, was my turning point. When I met him my life changed forever. I blame him for my success and fame. He helped me build on my character and made me a better person, composer and musician. Although, he died I will never forget his works and how much he has helped me.
7. What personal choices did you make to become successful?
My biggest choice I had to make to become successful was not to give up hope and to stay strong. The world gets tough at times, so tough you feel like giving up. I had to tell myself that this is my time and that I am going to make it to be successful. The last thing you want to do in your time of struggle is give up and I had to learn that the hard way. When I was rejected from Nelson Musical College I felt like giving up and thought that all hope was gone.
Besides being strong there weren’t a lot of personal choices I took. Being strong was the main thing to do as an African-American composer during the 1800s. The road gets tough and you have to learn to get through them. This is how I bettered myself as a person and musician. As soon as you stop complaining about what is not going right and think of a plan through it the better you will be.
8. What hardships or roadblocks did you have to overcome in order to be an artist?
Roadblocks being my skin held me hostage. I treated them as a red light, they might have held me for a little while but the light soon turns green with patience. Discrimination and segregation were huge roadblocks that stopped me. I never let them tie me down, though. I kept pressing forward trying to achieve my goal of becoming a great composer.
As an African-American in the 1800s I had to work to obtain knowledge. I had to work as a janitor at Nelson Musical College in order to obtain my education. When I first applied they denied me admission because I was an African-American. I never gave up hope; I kept pressing forward to better myself. My life has taught me that you have to work hard to achieve your goal and get where you want to be.
9. What kind of limitations did you run into as both an artist and a person?
Racism and Segregation limited me a lot as a person and artist. I am a person whether my skin was white, black, or brown. I had to walk through the back entrance, eat at certain restaurants, and even drink from certain water fountains. This was part of the reason why I wanted to become an artist. I wanted to show the world that just because I was black does not mean I can not become something, and do something with my life.
As an artist, or artist in training, it was not easy. African-Americans could not attend colleges unless they worked there. I had to work as a janitor at Nelson Musical College in order to receive my musical education. I was denied formal admission into the school because of my race. Although, denied admission I did not lose hope and received private lessons.
10. What personal stories (anecdotes) best illustrate how you became successful in the arts?
Since I was a little boy, music seemed to attach to me like Velcro. I just clanged to it like a child to its mother. I learned a little from books and decided I wanted to take it to the next level. I applied to Nelson Musical College, where I was denied admission. Instead of giving up hope I agreed to give janitorial services in exchange for private lessons. When I was eighteen I wrote my first song called “We sat beneath the Maple on the Hill” and became a hit.
In 1886, I was brought to New York City to perform at Tin Pan Alley, the center for publication and circulation of popular songs. In 1895, I won second place in a contest sponsored by New York World to find the ten best songwriters in the nation. My song, “Send Back the Picture and the Ring” won him almost five hundred dollars in gold. I wrote a variety of musical forms, including sentimental ballads, comic minstrel songs, art songs, and choral music. At my time of death in December 1899, I published more than two hundred songs.