It's time to honor Doc Watson. From this region of the mountains, it was Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson. Doc is gone now and Ralph may not be far behind. Doc Watson seemed, somehow, immortal, like the right man in the right place in the right time. He and Bob Dylan started in the same approximate time, and by now with Ralph Stanley, the three great voices of Americana music are of an age to be dropping off. Strange to think of what it would be like to be 20 and listening to Bob Dylan at 70. Probably it would be about like listening to Muddy Waters at 70 or John Lee Hooker at 70. Before this generation of rock musicians, white entertainers had no career after 30. Bob Hope and them did it for the comedians. And Lawrence Welk, music for grandparents. Now white people can rock at 70. I used to wonder why black musicians could go on into their 70s and 80s, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, and many more, and white musicians were over at 30 or soon after, with some Vaudeville exceptions, Sophie Tucker, Jimmy Durante. I wonder if this period might be the beginning of white people being able to appreciate a writer or musician past 40. Bob Dylan played in NY coffee houses at the same time Doc Watson played in the NY coffee house scene too. Bob Dylan recorded his own version of Man of Constant Sorrow on his first album. He took Ralph Stanley's signature song and made it his own.
I've never been a Doc Watson groupie or fan club member or in the front row at a concert. I've listened to every period of his evolving musicianship and singing. Played him quite a bit on the radio show. Saw him at the Wayne Henderson fest in 08. He lived 50 miles down the road on the way to Boone. Jr Maxwell's first wife, Mary Magdeline Watson was Doc's cousin. Jr said the Watsons in Alleghany County are direct kin to the Watsons in Deep Gap. Arthel was going to blind school in Raleigh when they were married. A doctor in Winston-Salem who reads my pacemaker is a Deep Gap Watson, who grew up just down the street from Doc. I've put on my favorite Doc Watson album to listen to while I write. Mostly I don't listen to music while writing, because it takes over my attention and I start writing about it. I meant for it to happen this time. It is Doc Watson's first album, as far as I know, DOC WATSON AND CLARENCE ASHLEY 1960 through 1962. A 2cd Smithsonian Folkways album. Every song insists I listen to all the words. His delivery is such that he tells the words in subtle ways, emphases, that also reveal insight into meaning. Willard Gayheart is such a singer. More than once I've seen new insight into a song's meaning I never saw before Willard made it happen.
He just now finished John Brown's Dream, Doc accompanying his father-in-law who played the fiddle, Gaither Carlton. Field Recorders has a cd of Carlton. It is among the most beautiful albums of old-time music I know of. It is there with this one, Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, in the zone where it is so good it is always new. I've heard this album a lot of times and it is still new every time I hear it. I always hear licks I never heard before and lines in songs. Clarence Ashley becomes more amazing to me with each hearing, as does fiddler Fred Price, who has a sensitive, smooth bow with strong feeling. Another old-time album perhaps the equal of this one is Tommy Jarrell's and Kyle Creed's June Apple. Clint Howard, who plays rhythm guitar, has played at Merlefest with Doc Watson almost every year. They have been friends since that time. Ashley, Price and Howard were from the Mountain City region of east Tennessee, close to the border with Ashe County, so it's one county over, so to speak. The story is that Ralph Rinzler, a folklorist from NY came down to NC, got up with Clarence Ashley at Union Grove fiddlers convention and asked him to get some people together for a tour of the college and big city circuit to ride the wave of the then "folk revival" of the late 50s and early 60s.
Clarence Ashley was from the days of minstrel shows that he left home to join in his teens and took up pre-Vaudeville banjo. He is said to have paid much attention to how the black musicians played it, it being, then, a black instrument. A truly Southern old-time musician. I say that because there wasn't so much racial interaction in the music up north. He was of the generation that was the first to record in the late 20s. In the time Rinzler talked to him, he was playing with Dock Walsh of Wilkes County in The Carolina Tar Heels. Ashley suggested the musicians he knew at Mountain City, Fred Price and Clint Howard, and he recommended Doc (then Arthel) Watson, who at that time played rockabilly electric guitar. Watson told Ashley he couldn't play an acoustic guitar. Ashley told him he could and took him along. I don't know how many shows they put on, but they travelled all over the country to university auditoriums and big cities where enough people could gather who want to hear old-time mountain music to make it pay. They appeared on Pete Seeger's folk music tv show in NY without Ashley. Knocked Pete's sox off. The recording of 3 songs performed on the show, as well as 2 songs and an interview with Clarence Ashley in that time, is on a Vestapol dvd Legends of Old Time Music, featuring, Tommy Jarrell, Clarence Ashley, Roscoe Holcomb, Doc Watson, Sam McGee and several others, Jean Ritchie one of them.
It was from this tour that Doc Watson was invited to play at NY coffee houses in the early 60s, the time of Beatniks, pre-hippies. One of Doc's albums from that time is at Gerdes Folk City, quite a good one. I've been told that when his brother Arnold went with him to play banjo with Doc, Arnold didn't last long. He couldn't look at those people any more. They made him feel like he'd died and went to hell. He went home. Doc couldn't see, so they were all beautiful people to him. In my personal preferences, I like his early music the best, though that's not as dramatic as it sounds: The Best. I prefer his early music and the more homey music, esp the Smithsonian album of his family members, The Doc Watson Family. As a gospel singer, he's among the very best. He can deliver a gospel song with the soul of Ralph and Carter Stanley. I read an article today crediting Doc with the phenomenon known as Americana music via Merlefest. I've not read many of the articles turning up on facebook, mainly because they all write of him as unreachable hero. He's known around here as a man, as a good man, a master guitar picker. The guitar pickers around here look to him as the Master, up there with Maybelle Carter, another picker of the Central Blue Ridge. He has been known all the way along as one open to his fans, will talk with people he'd never met and be friendly. He jammed with local musicians. He was one of them.
In his concerts he gets a love circle going with the audience. The audience projects love to him, he projects love to his audience, and through the course of the concert that love circle gets to going and it can be responsible for a big feeling in the heart with all that love energy in the air. That is what I found most notable about a Doc Watson concert, the love circle he gets going with the audience. I feel no problem that he has chosen this time to leave the body. If he'd survived the operations, he could afford to be taken care of at home, but better not to be taken care of. He went under his own power as long as he could do it. Singing a whole concert and picking serious guitar the whole time is exhausting for a man in his upper 80s. But he was right there. He was a man of these mountains. Throughout his career of countless recordings, concerts all over the world, the red carpet everywhere he goes, he likes his home in Deep Gap with his family the way they like to live, not the way they live in southern California. Throughout his period of fame and fortune he never strayed to any degree from who he, himself, was. He was a true man of these mountains. I've mixed past and present tense throughout this writing. I decided not to correct it because it is correct as it is. His spirit is so recently free from the body that he still feels present.