By Bruce Sylvester
Flatpick guitar legend Doc Watson was a walking encyclopedia of American music: the country, blues, and traditional songs he'd grown up with in the mountains of western North Carolina plus much, much more.
Blind since infancy, did Arthel Lane Watson (1923-2012) compensate for lack of sight through keen senses of touch and sound?
Discovered early in the '60s folk revival, he was then playing electric guitar in rockabilly and swing bands around his Deep Gap home. Urban folk devotees convinced him to focus on acoustic roots music, resulting in cross-country acclaim, a National Medal of the Arts award, and numerous Grammys, not to mention his becoming far better able to provide for his cherished wife and children. Recognition among folkies came fast. His early '60s trad music is preserved on an impressive number of albums – studio, concert, and field recordings – some with his extended family or other musicians from his Appalachian area.
On May 29, Smithsonian Folkways will release 15-track Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton from two 1962 New York City shows teaming Doc with his esteemed father-in-law Carlton (1901-72), whose banjo and fiddle work wasn't often taped. These were Doc's first Big Apple shows under his own name, earlier ones having been as a sideman to fiddler Clarence Ashley.
The repertoire includes trad ballads long-ago settlers brought with them from the British Isles (“Willie Moore,” “Handsome Molly”), modest humor, and regional identity (“My Home's across the Blue Ridge Mountains”). Maudlin “Dream of the Miner's Child” speaks to genuine fear and danger in coal-mining families. “Groundhog” shows resourceful mountaineers' repurposing long before it became a green goal. With a title based on Napoleon's retreat from Russia in 1812, “Bonaparte's Retreat” was also done on Smithsonian Folkways' The Watson Family and revamped on Doc and son Merle Watson's 1973 Then and Now, that time with phenomenal Dobro riffs by Norman Blake. (Doc and Rosa Lee Carlton Watson's naming Merle [1949-85] after Doc's guitar hero Merle Travis turned out to be propitious.)
It's often said that back in the '60s, Doc was introducing young urban and suburban folk fans to the music that he grew up hearing family and neighbors do. Actually, the image of musical isolation in the Appalachians was much more true for Gaither in his youth, when there'd been no access to radio or records. A generation later, Doc had benefited from both in his boyhood home.
Concerts like the two on the new disc meant a lot to Doc, a devoted family man in a marriage lasting over 60 years. Much later in life he recalled, “When I started out in the folk revival, my main motive was to earn a living for a sweet little woman and two children. And they were both young then. Every time I got a good concert done and made a little money, it pleased me.”
Today the good news is how clean this live disc sounds. Future record producer Peter K. Siegel (then 18 years old) had lugged a Tandberg 3B tape recorder to the shows. Says Siegel, “It's amazing the tape came out at all. It was literally the first thing I'd recorded and it was cheap equipment. I've loved these recordings for decades. They've been in a lot of different apartments and a couple of storage spaces. Once I gave them to a friend to hold onto for a few years. It's lucky they survived.”
Siegel continues, “This was music Doc had made at home with his father-in-law for years. It has a kind of warm, family feel to it, and he was discovering to his great surprise that people in the cities were really interested in this old-time traditional music. But people were just fascinated by this music. They couldn't get enough of it. Nothing surprised Doc more than that.”