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Before Dylan, Dave Ray's Blues Rocked Minneapolis


Bob Dylan wasn't always the biggest act in town. When he moved to Minneapolis in 1959, the star of the city's folk music scene was a singer and guitar player named Dave Ray. He was best known for being part of the blues Trio Koerner, Ray and Glover.

A new box set traces Dave Ray's evolution from an imitator to an original blues voice. Tony Glover played harmonica with Dave Ray off and on for 40 years. And he picked the songs for this album. Minnesota public radio's Jim Bickal has the story.

JIM BICKAL, BYLINE: Tony Glover says that when Dave Ray learned he had lung cancer, he decided against routine chemo. His preferred therapy was to play as much and in as many places as possible. On November 2, 2002, less than a month before his death, Ray performed at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.


DAVE RAY: Thank you.

TONY GLOVER: It was pretty impressive because he was having more and more physical problems at that point. He had stage four cancer, and the tumors were growing in his brain and pressing on nerves and effecting his ability to manipulate his hands and so forth. But he kept on pushing.


RAY: (Singing) My baby is long and tall, shaped like a cannonball. Every time she love me now, you can hear me call. She says wee, I believe I've changed my mind.

BICKAL: Any exploration of the music of Dave Ray begins with Lead Belly.


LEADBELLY: Frankie was a woman, as everybody knows. She did all the work around the house and pressed her Albert's clothes. He was her man, but he done her wrong.

BICKAL: When Ray was in high school, he heard a tape of the older musician edition performing at the University of Minnesota. In an interview recorded in 1996, Ray described how that experience changed him.


RAY: It was the immediacy of the power of it. I was just captivated by it. I mean, it just knocked my socks off. It's like anything else, you know. It's like reading some great poet the first time you read it. It just kills you.

BICKAL: He spent all his spare time learning Leadbelly songs. Ray performed them at a place called the Coffee Break where a fan made this recording.


RAY: (Singing) Frankie was a woman, as everybody knows. She did all the work around the house and pressed her Albert's clothes. He was her man, but he done her wrong.

GLOVER: There are several tunes on the box set that are real faithful Leadbelly reproductions. If he was alive, he wouldn't want them on there. He was embarrassed by the kind of minstrel show aspect of it. I mean, that's true to an extent, but it's also amazing that a white, blonde kid who doesn't look old enough to do much of anything is able to get the sound of a southern black guy.


RAY: (Singing) Go down old Hannah. Baby don't you ride no more. If you ride up anymore, then baby, ooh, Lord, bring on the judgment day.

BICKAL: Leadbelly was just the beginning. Ray loved listening to obscure blues records in hopes of finding a hidden gem that he could learn to play.

GLOVER: At the time, that kind of music was sort of mystery music. It wasn't really widely available. He had to really look to find copies of the records anywhere. It was kind of like archaeology in a way. We were discovering a music that had been pretty much ignored.


RAY: (Singing) Yes, I was round in my Volvo. She goes faster than any car you ever seen.

GLOVER: The black people had moved beyond it. It was like outdated old slave time music to them. They didn't want anything to do with it. And the white people were listening to white stuff.

BICKAL: Nevertheless, Koerner, Ray and Glover introduced many white people to the blues. Members of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones cited them as an influence. Fellow Minneapolis musician Willie Murphy says they made a big mark on the local music scene.

WILLIE MURPHY: I know personally that around here, there were a lot of - quite a few people who kind of copied their style, especially Dave's style, and try to play like him and sing like him. Unfortunately, he was a white guy, and he loved black music, which is kind of an albatross to carry. That was Dave's soul story, you know.

BICKAL: Dave Ray's career spanned 40 years. Tony Glover says he spent nearly a decade listening to live recordings, outtakes and out-of-print records picking the 55 songs of the new set. He says it was hard.

GLOVER: In some ways, it was a real pleasure. I mean, I hear an old tune, a riff and, you know, say, wow, we really kicked the hell out of that one and find stuff that surprised me years later. But there's a lot of flashback stuff that kind of happens too. You're reminded on times and the playing and how we used to have them. And all that's missing now. It was an emotional event.


RAY: (Singing) If it's really going to be this way, I can take it. I know I'll just carry on day-to-day until I make it on my own.

BICKAL: Dave Ray passed away on November 28, 2002 at the age of 59. For NPR News, I'm Jim Bickal in Minneapolis.


RAY: (Singing) In my heart, there will always be a place. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Bickal
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