A creative soul

Whether it’s classical, hymns or even country music, Cass native John Davis makes playing the piano look effortless. Above, he plays at his home as he reminisces about all the music and poetry he has memorized over the years. S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer
Some individuals are born with a natural talent – whether it is for music, acting or art. Cass native John Davis was born with a talent, and love for all three, although he is best known for his talent as a pianist.

When Davis is introduced to people, the first thing usually said is, “you should hear him play the piano.”

Davis began his musical journey as a pre-teen when he started taking lessons from Vera Swadley.

“I didn’t get started early enough,” he said. “We just couldn’t afford a piano. I’d sit around and [miming playing piano] do this on the arm chair and, so bless their hearts, some way my parents got me an old upright when I was in the sixth grade.

“The other person that went the same course I did – you’d probably know her as Gwendolyn Friel – but back then, she was Gwennie Blackhurst,” he continued. “We went through twelve years of school together, and she was taking piano lessons at the same time, so we alternated as to who played for church on Sundays.”

By high school, Swadley had moved away, and Davis picked up lessons with Mildred Seagraves in Marlinton. Despite spending three years learning classical songs and hymns with Swadley, Davis had to start over with his new teacher.

“Here I am, a freshman in high school and I changed teachers,” he said. “I’m already up to the third level in the John Thompson series, which is a lot of classical stuff. I went to Mrs. Seagraves and I was playing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat.’ The fingering wasn’t correct. The technique was not correct. The phrasing was off. She took me right back to the beginning.”

Davis said he loved learning classical music, as well as the hymns he played for church, but surprisingly, he also loved to play country music with his dad, Carl.

Carl was an excellent guitar player and could easily pick up tunes. At one time, he played in a band with Lefty Meeks and Chipmunk Irvine.

“I don’t even like admitting it, but I was [on a high horse] about playing country music,” Davis said. “I studied classical music. Dad – he played along with a lot of the hymns, but he loved his country music. Finally, I got off my high horse, and Dad and I just loved playing country music. Hank Williams is one of my favorites. So we had a lot of good times.”

When Davis wasn’t playing with his dad or in recitals for Seagraves, he was playing piano at the Cass United Methodist Church and other Methodist churches in the charge.

“Gwennie and I alternated all the way through school,” he said. “We started that in about the seventh grade. At that time, both the Presbyterian church – which is now the community center – and our church had a full choir.

“We would frequently go with the pastor to four churches,” he continued. “Even outside of our denomination, we would visit the little churches with him, like on Easter. We’d leave five in the morning and visit the churches for sunrise service. That’s one experience I’ll never forget.”

One church they visited sticks in Davis’ mind as a one-of-a-kind experience. The church was located in Clover Lick and it has an old pump organ.

“That’s kind of bad because your fingering is critical,” he said. “But it wasn’t just an organ. It was an old organ. You’ve got to keep the feet going before you get any sound. You’ve got to spread your legs for volume because there’s a board on either side of you. So while your feet are going up and down, and your knees going apart, you’ve still got to play music.

“It was bad,” he chuckled. “Of course, the people thought, ‘how nice.’ Gwennie and I both just had a fit. We thought, ‘oh, my gosh, they’ll never want us to come back.’ But they loved it. We had a lot of good times like that.”

At one point in his life, Davis thought about pursuing a career as a musician, but, instead, opted to study astrophysics at Marshall University. That is, until he was introduced to the theater department, where he found his second love – acting – which soon became his first love.

“Acting is my first love,” he said. “The only time I felt really alive. Of course, I started in grade school. I remember our eighth grade play was ‘Mulligan’s Magic.’ Then in high school, we did a junior and senior play.

“I went to Marshall,” he continued. “I was going to study to be an astrophysicist. I did real well my first semester. I was carrying eighteen hours and had a three point eight grade average. It was short lived because I was introduced to college theater.”

Davis performed in four plays at Marshall before he dropped out of school after the first semester of his junior year.

“We had semester break, and I never went back,” he said. “Hindsight – come to find out, the head of the speech and drama department had already made arrangements for me to do summer stock, at the end of my junior year, at the Red Barn which is an off-Broadway theatre group in New York.

“But that probably wouldn’t have worked anyway,” he added.

Instead, Davis moved to Washington, D.C. where he worked at the Army Map Service which is now known as the U.S. Topographic Command. He was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War and when he returned, he moved to Bethesda, Maryland, and later Rockville, Maryland. 

In 1986, Davis’ dad passed away and because their anniversary was in July, his mother, Edythe, would spend the summer month with Davis in Maryland. One year during his mom’s trip, he had a disagreement with his boss and quit on the spot.

“I was planning on working through retirement,” he said. “Something had gone wrong at the office. I was vice president of the company. The president made a call one day and I didn’t agree with it. He was as stubborn as I was. He wasn’t going to change his mind, and I wasn’t going to change my mind. I said, ‘okay, here are my keys.’

“I went back to the apartment and said, ‘Mom, do you have room for another person at your home?’” he continued. “So that’s how it happened. I had planned on coming back, just not quite that soon.”

Davis moved in with his mom and never regretted his decision to return to Cass earlier than he originally planned.

“Not one minute have I regretted that decision,” he said. “Mom was sitting at the kitchen table one day and she was crying. I said, ‘Honey, what’s wrong?’ She said, ‘these have been the best eighteen years of my life.’ Mom died in 2006 and I was sixty-five years old. Mom and I spent every Christmas of my life together for sixty-five years. Not many guys can say that. Especially considering, I was in the Army, too. I always managed to be home for Christmas.” 

While living in the D.C. area, Davis joined a theater group, but it wasn’t until he returned to Pocahontas County that he really got back into acting.

“I was in every play,” he said. “I think I’ve done twelve here. When I started with the group, we were in the room above the fire hall. That’s where we did ‘Arsenic and Old Lace.”’

That particular performance will always be memorable because the actors were able to really show their professionalism when the fire whistle went off during the performance.

“Naturally, the fire whistle goes off,” Davis said. “We were doing the play and these are people who are community theater actors. Talk about a bunch of amateur pros. These guys were fantastic. Everybody just froze, held their positions, everything. Didn’t move until the sirens were gone away and they picked up and went right on with the play.”

Davis has also performed in shows at the Dunmore Community Center and the Pocahontas County Opera House.

He returned to playing piano locally, as well. Davis played at Cass UMC until recently, because the church has lost so many members. Davis is usually the only person who shows up on Sunday’s now, so instead of playing music, he discusses scripture with Pastor David Fuller.

Davis has also substituted for pianists at other churches when he is able.

“When Becky O’Brien could not be available, the Liberty [Presbyterian] church and the Baxter [Presbyterian] Church asked me to fill in,” he said. “I just loved playing for those people. I just loved playing for both of those churches – good people.” 

Davis has slowed down in the past decade. His last theater appearance was in “A Nice Family Gathering” at the Opera House in 2012. 

Davis has been diagnosed with emphysema and he isn’t able to get out much.

But that leaves room for his third love – cross stitch. Davis is an avid cross stitch artist and one look around his living room is proof. At first glance, the framed pictures on his walls look like posters, but on closer examination, they are intricate cross stitch scenes.

Not one to simply order kits or patterns, Davis creates his own from photos he and friends have taken. The brightly colored fall scenes act as a nice contrast to the black and white stark scenes in a triptych on the opposite wall. 

Davis said he enjoys stitching the scenery and has an affinity for the fall scenes.

In addition to keeping busy with cross stitch and maintaining his piano skills, Davis has also been planning his funeral. While it may make some squirm to even consider the thought, Davis has a very specific ceremony in mind and, much like the theater productions he acted in, his funeral has its own kind of script. 

“I’m not having a preacher stand up there and talk,” he said. “I don’t want all the typical church music. ‘Unchained Melody’ will be played. I love that song. ‘Piano Spellbound Concerto,’ I want that. Two songs from 4-H camp. I was a Seneca, so our High Tribal anthem and a song called ‘Blue Sky Way Up Wonder.’ I just loved it. And ‘My Way’ by Frank Sinatra. So those are going to be played.”

Davis also wants several pieces of prose read, including work by Kahlil Gibran, Ayn Rand and a portion of Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant.

“Tweard Blackhurst made us memorize that in school and I still know it,” he said.  

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join. 
The innumerable which moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take 
His chamber in the silent halls of death, 
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon; but, sustain’d and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

“I haven’t decided yet, but I might have that printed on the program,” he continued. “It will definitely be read.” 

Whether it was music, theater or art, Davis put his heart into it and has spent a lifetime sharing his talent with others.

And, with his final plan, will continue to share his life’s interests.

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