Doc Watson: At Gerdes Folk City

Doc Watson
At Gerdes Folk City
Sugar Hill

America has been blessed with more than its share of roots music troubadours. In their hands the entire panoply of American song blends together into a euphonic repertoire of staggering power and dynamism. Love songs and murder ballads, blues and rags, hollers and calls, spirituals and hymns pour out of these bards like psalms. They are beyond category in all respects. Musicians like Leadbelly, Lonnie Johnson, Mance Lipscomb, Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Dylan, Mississippi John Hurt, Townes Van Zandt, Woody Guthrie . . . and Arthel “Doc” Watson.

At the time that the recordings comprising this album were made, Doc Watson was a 38-year-old guitar picker trying to make a living for his family. The previous year, 1961, found Watson journeying far to the north of his North Carolina home. In yet another attempt to get his family off of the “charity list” at home, he had agreed to bear with his chronic stage fright and accompany veteran banjo player Clarence Ashley on a trip to New York City. All he had with him were a borrowed acoustic Gibson, a few bucks, and a musical mind that was filled with more songs than damn near anybody else around.

Watson had been playing instruments as long as he could remember. Blind since infancy, he had the de rigueur exposure to the Grand Ole Opry, as well as the blessing of a musical family. Proficient on harmonica, banjo and mandolin, Watson found his true calling when he received his first Stella acoustic at age 13. Joining in with his family on standards by the Carter Family, Louvin Brothers and Jimmie Rodgers, Watson began learning song after song . . . and seemingly never forgot a single one.

Listing Watson’s influences is an exercise in futility, as he apparently picked up something from every significant guitar stylist from the first half of the 20th century. Naturally, there are some that he took and held closer to his heart. He became a gifted disciple of Merle Travis’ high-velocity fingerpicking, and always kept some Travis in his live sets. But it was as a flatpicker that Watson was to make his largest technical contributions to the canon. Transcribing fiddle tunes to six-string much the same way that Bill Monroe did to the mandolin, Watson developed a style emphasizing dazzling intricacy matched with near-perfect cleanliness. The result was accompaniment with strong rhythmic drive beautifully complimented by shimmering fills and filigree. This combination of technical virtuosity and catholic repertoire is the foundation for one of the singular careers in American music.

As Watson headed for the Big Apple with Clarence Ashley and company, he had little material or commercial success to show for all his years of playing. He was blessed with a loving wife from another gifted musical family, but his meager earnings meant that they had to accept local charity to make ends meet. Like many a musician before and since, Watson rode towards not just New York, but also toward a crossroads. He knew that he had to make it in the city. He couldn’t keep his family on that charity list in Deep Gap, North Carolina. This need to prove himself and to succeed was so strong that it allowed him to confront the only other force nearly as powerful as his ambition . . . his fear of playing on stage.

Embarrassed on stage at age 12, Watson had struggled with his fear ever since. He often shielded himself from the audience by hiding behind fellow musicians, but his blindness convinced him that all eyes were constantly on him. Now he was motoring toward an alien city to play before an audience whose likes he had never faced. Looking back, he should have probably been reassured by the fact that they had certainly never seen anyone like him, either. But at the time there were just those two elements: his naked desire to succeed as a musician and a family man versus the gnawing fear of the empty stage.

That first tour went well, as the keen-eared folkies in the Village were quick to notice the fleet-fingered guitar player. For his part, Watson learned to manage the stage fright fairly well. Encouraged by his fellow musicians and appreciative crowds, he even started to play a solo tune or two in addition to accompanying various members of the touring crew. About halfway through the engagement, Clarence Ashley, the aging bandleader, fell ill. This left the balance of the dates to be handled by his backing trio. Most importantly, it left a lot of extra room for Doc Watson to stretch his musical legs. By the end of the engagement, Watson was mastering his jitters and winning audiences hearts. He was quickly invited back for a return trip with his father-in-law and brother. And it was the success of those shows that led to an invitation to perform solo at Gerdes.

The Doc Watson who arrived in Greenwich Village in 1962 was extremely conscious of the opportunity before him. He was no naïve country boy. He was an ambitious, self-aware virtuoso. He was starting to make some real money, however meager, as a musician, and he was aware that there was an audience of Yankee intellectuals hungry for his style of music. Watson was still intimidated by the prospect of playing on stage, especially alone. But he had last-year’s success to bolster his confidence, as well as his unfailing musical tools.

There is a moment of between-song patter at one point on this album that is tremendously illuminating. Before “The House Carpenter”, Watson is recounting how he learned the song from his parents, with his mother singing and his father playing banjo. Except when he says “banjo” in his always clear, ringing speaking voice he catches himself. “On the banj-er, pardon me,” he says, slipping into full southern dialect and chuckling. For a moment, the veneer of mountain “authenticity” slips away and is shown to be very much a theatrical creation of the artist. For in much the same way that Muddy Waters learned to stow away his electric guitar for college and coffeehouse audiences, Watson knew intuitively what it was that his audience was looking for. Ol’ Doc was going to please this audience come hell or high-water, and if it’s old-timey that they wanted, then it’d be old-timey that they’d get . . . in big, old, oak buckets. Sure Watson was ripping off chords on a gold Les Paul in rockabilly bands back home, but in the Village in ’61 it was all about the acoustic Gibson and, as Louis Armstron used to say, the good ol’ good ones.

The history and development of American music are rife with events like this, with gifted artists making tremendous music under the constraints of commercial demand. Indeed, many a musical gem has been compressed between the plates of commercial pressure. The purist’s epithet of “sell out” puts the musical cart before the horse, as if art’s raison d’etre and context is more important than work itself. In reality, magic can happen when an artist’s work is tempered by the concerns of the market just as easily as self-indulgence can emerge when the artist is set free from such constraints. Luckily for fans of American roots music, Doc Watson chose to feed his family on the cover charges of countless college students, young professionals and intellectuals. For in doing so, he preserved and showcased one of the great bodies of music in all of the world.

The first impression one gets from this album is the dazzling quality of the recordings. These recordings were made in a dingy little club 40 years ago, but the sound is almost impossibly clear and deep. There is just enough of the room in the mix, and one gets a very palpable sense of the ambience of the club. All in all, a finer sounding live recording would be hard to come by.

Watson effortlessly kicks off the proceedings with “Little Sadie”, a murder ballad characterized by his trademark flatpicking. He delivers the felonious lyrics with a sly sense of humor that undercuts the song’s menace. The result is more pulp fiction than the classic melodrama of the genre, and is appropriate given the ebullience and friendliness that are the hallmarks of Watson’s stage presence. One can’t imagine a performer (outside the famous example of Sir Lawrence Olivier) who does a finer job of hiding his stage fright. According to Watson, he has never really lost much of his apprehension at playing live, but these recordings are evidence that he appeared very much at ease on stage.

“Blue Smoke” is a Merle Travis-penned instrumental number based around the classic Travis style of fingerpicking. Apparently, Watson liked to perform his solo instrumentals in that style as opposed to his own flatpicking because of the fullness of sound possible from Travis’ style. He demonstrates more of his effusive stage presence by making spoken asides throughout the tune, lending an “aw shucks” element of self-effacing humor to this otherwise staggering display of virtuosity.

Watson introduces “St. Louis Blues” with a statement that could very easily apply to his entire catalog of songs. “I don’t know of anybody who has recorded this tune exactly like I do it”. And until he recorded the song, nobody probably had. The classic melancholia of the lyrics is undercut by Watson’s spoken asides and easy-going rhythm playing.

“Sing Song Kitty” is another showstopper. Joined by John Herald of the Greenbriar Boys, Watson takes this children’s tune apart at the seams. Combining a nonsensical chorus with silly lyrics in the vein of “Froggy Went A-Courtin'”, the tune provides a rollicking foundation from which the two guitar players can lay out progressively more complex figures, before culminating in a double-time breakdown of fret-board sizzling intensity.

“The House Carpenter”, “Tragic Romance”, and “This Old Wooden Rocker” are sentimental ballads of ageless beauty. On these songs, Watson displays the true mark of a master by directing his virtuosity away from awe-inspiring technical playing to elegant beauty which serves only to emphasize the lyrics. His vocals are never as spectacular as his playing, but he compensates with careful and engaging phrasing that, like his accompaniment, faithfully serves the song.

Displaying his full-range of instrumental facility, Watson picks up the mandolin for a rousing breakdown on “Liberty” (accompanies by the Greenbriar Boys). He busts out the banjo for “The Wagoner’s Lad” and plays some bright, lively first-position harmonica on several tracks as well. The effect of his rather effortless mastery of these varied instruments is to eliminate any doubts regarding the fact that one is in the presence of a genuine genius.

Watson’s improvisatory prowess is brought to the fore on his version of the chestnut “Milk Cow Blues”. Beginning with a classic country blues guitar lick, he shows that he has fully internalized the blues both vocally and instrumentally. His approach to the genre is marked by the willingness to play around the beat, as well as a tendency to switch from playing steady bass lines to lightning-quick fills. The small phrases with which he ornaments the tune echo his vocal phrases in the timeless manner of all bluesmen.

“The Lone Pilgrim” is the penultimate track, but more thoughtful sequencing should have made it the last. It is an a capella reading of a staple of the old shape-note hymnals on which Watson, and indeed almost all of the first several generations of country-born musicians, was raised. After an entire set of magnificent, mesmerizing guitar, the void into which Watson hurls his voice on this track is dramatic.

I came to the place where the lone pilgrim lay
And pensively stood by his tomb
When in a low whisper I heard something say
How sweetly I sleep here alone . . .

The intricate melody driven by Watson’s raw, simple voice carries the listener along for four minutes. Each line ends, leaving one leaning forward awaiting the next. For four minutes, Arthel “Doc” Watson of Deep Gap, North Carolina is transcendent. The mundane surroundings of a former Italian restaurant, the long journey from home, the time away from his family, and most of all the twin hellhounds of stage-fright and self-doubt all blow away like so many old leaves on the wind.

Doc had stepped up and joined that hallowed chorus of American troubadours. For the next four decades and counting his astonishing gifts would bring joy and wonder to music fans around the world. Listening to his earliest recordings reminds that the circumstances that conspired to get him “discovered” were not only good luck for him, but for us as well.