At a moment when folk song is another kind of pop music to millions of Americans, when young musicians with talent and determination sit down with impresarios to figure out new angles, gimmicks and tricky arrangements for folk type songs, along comes an unassuming man from a little community thirty-three hundred feet up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and brings us an insight into a way of life and art.
In anticipation of the catch phrases which writers tend to pin to artists of all sorts, let's begin by pointing out that Doc Watson is not "the real thing,'' ''genuine article,'' a ''pure folk singer.'' Even before his appearance on the concert stage, Doc had learned his techniques and songs from recordings as well as from local and family tradition. The radio provided him with a fair share of material, and his experience playing with a local group at dances enabled him to develop his knowledge of pop-music guitar styles and harmonies, In short, Doc has all the earmarks of an academic's ideal ''folk informant'' but along with these he has the perspective and insight of the ideal academic folklorist and the training to match the best jazz and pop guitar wizards. He sings folk songs because he has always sung them without considering the existence of an urban folk music boom. Doc could as easily enter the field of pop music or jazz and he would be welcomed by his colleagues in that field, but he chooses to perform folk music. So, he is a unique sort of populariser; a folk professional with rural roots and urban perspective; a performer too distinctive to be labeled with a catch phrase.
"I'll ruin my image if l'm not careful,'' says Doc with a grin when he uses a "two dollar word'' on the stage or turns down a request from a fan in the audience to play a far out jazz or pop-song as a guitar instrumental. In this amusing statement, Doc, with usual perceptiveness, sums up the attitude of the general public towards this legendary ''pure folk singer'': one who learned his music from his family, grew up in the country, is not well educated and perhaps not intelligent either, is not a particularly good musician and who sings in an unpleasant nasal fashion. Few might confess their belief in this stereotype, but it has been reinforced by countless patronizing articles on country life and music in popular periodicals. I have been confronted with it frequently during the past years and often in the offices and homes of educated and sophisticated people.
A few years of collecting and working with traditional musicians con- sistently prove the inaccuracy of this image; Doc, his music, his family and his way of life champion this proof. Possessed of a brilliant mind which has been well educated both in terms of formal schooling and through per- sonal research and inquiry, Doc could be a winning performer if he never played or sang a note of music. As a raconteur in the style of Will Rogers, he could spin yarns, set a mood and take an audience on a fascinating trip down home, introducing local characters from past and present, recounting local lore and legend, joking his way down dirt roads and through the rolling hills of the Blue Ridge which he has wandered since childhood and knows so well. The smell of wood smoke on the clear mountain air, the crackle of leaves and twigs under foot, the sound of a Sunday evening hymn sing drifting across the valley -- all are among the treasures of Doc's childhood and present life. His love of these treasures of country life, his understanding of the people who surround him and their distinctiveness... all these pour out in his speech; no difference if he sits before thirteen thousand at the Newport Folk Festival or in the company of a few friends in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.
Doc was indeed surrounded by folk music from birth. His mother sang him to sleep to the ''House Carpenter'' (she may be heard singing this on Folkways 2366, ''The Watson Family'' ), "Katie Morey,'' "Omie Wise, "The F.F.V.'' and other ballads and songs current around their home. When he grew older, he would sit by and listen to her sing the younger children to sleep for the sound of music always rang in his ears. His father, a religious man who led the singing at Mt. Parron Baptist Church on Sundays, gathered the family around him every evening to hear a reading from the Bible and sing a few hymns before bedtime. Granny Lottie Watson would sit on the porch or in the kitchen and sing while churning butter, sewing or preparing a meal, and Doc sat by and listened to her sing "The Wagoner's Lad," "Tom Dooley'' or perhaps a sacred song.
As a boy, Doc received a new harmonica every Christmas, and when he was about nine or ten, Dad made him a fretless banjo, bending a piece of hickory for the hoop, stretching a groundhog hide over this for a head and carving a neck and pegs out of maple. A few years later, after his second year at the Raleigh School for the Blind, a cousin came by with a guitar and Doc immediately started to experiment with it. Dad, looking on, said: "Son, if you learn a tune when I get back from work this evening, or maybe this week, I'll add whatever it needs to your savings and buy you a guitar in that furniture store down the road.'' By that evening, Doc accompanied himself on the guitar and sang ''When The Roses Bloom In Dixieland'' as he had heard it on a Carter Family record. He got the guitar, and six months later his older brother, Linney, purchased an instrument for himself. The two sang together working out two part harmonies (Linney sang tenor and played back-up guitar while Doc sang and picked lead guitar). The current tunes of the Carter Family, and of the Monroe and the Delmore Brothers provided a wealth of material.
A few of the songs on this record were learned from early recordings of country music. The family had acquired a wind-up machine and about seventy-five records when Doc was about six years old. The ''Grand Ole Opry'' provided favorite Saturday night radio entertainment presenting the antics and songs of the legendary Uncle Dave Macon, the McGee Brothers, the Crook Brothers and an array of old time fiddlers, banjo and guitar pickers.
Doc performed with a few local groups from time to time playing old time and contemporary country music, but it was not until after his marriage to Rosa Lee Carlton that he began to practice with a group on a reguIar basis, and then this only offered occasional jobs. Jack Williams, a talented musician and close friend, had a small combo and together they would play current pop and dance tunes for local dances. Here Doc had an opportunity to learn an entirely different type of music, and did so out of necessity. His acumen of technique in this field is no less impressive than that displayed on this recording.
It was in September, 1960, that the noted discographer, Eugene Earle, and myself met and recorded Doc and his family while we were visiting with and recording Clarence Ashley and his old time string band. (Doc can be heard with this group on Folkways 2355 and 2359) . Although he had played old time music around home with his father-in-law, Gaither Carlton, and his brother Arnold, Doc had not been called upon to perform this type of music for quite a few years.
His first urban appearance was with Ashley, Clint Howard and Fred Price (old-time string band ) at a Friends of Old Time Music Concert, N. Y. Spring of 1961. His first solo appearance was at Gerde's Folk City, December, 1962, and his New York concert debut as a soloist was in November, 1963, when Harold Leventhal presented a double bill at Town Hall: "Doc Watson and Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys.''
During the past three years, Doc has traveled from coast to coast per- forming at festivals, college concerts and clubs in the major cities and towns with unfailing success. His impact has been profoundly felt, for there is hardly an artist in folk or country music who combines musical integrity with such total mastery of technique on several instruments and presents the whole with such warmth and honesty.
Ralph Rinzler, Deep Gap, NC, Mar 1964.
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