For Doc Watson, latest folk revival is just one of many
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 28, 2002) -- At age 79, and after having been a performer of national stature for 40 years, singer/guitarist Doc Watson has grown accustomed to the ebb and flow of interest in American folk and roots music.
So for Watson, the latest folk revival, spurred on in large part by the unlikely success of the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? – which only just last month was named Album of the Year at the 2001 Grammy Awards -- is just another reason to shrug his shoulders and marvel over the inscrutable taste and buying habits of the American public.
“I really don’t know why these things happen,” said Watson in a recent phone interview from his home in Deep Gap, N.C.
Watson, a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, a National Heritage Fellowship, and five Grammy Awards, performs on Saturday night at the Mahaiwe Theatre at 8. The Beartown Mountain Ramblers, a local bluegrass band, open the show, which is presented by Club Helsinki. For reservations call 528-3394.
“This is one time I can truthfully say I don’t know how it happened,” said Watson, who although he hasn’t seen the film suspects that the action is in some way meant as a satirical contrast with the songs.
“Like ‘Man of Constant Sorrow,’ I knew the song in its original form, when Arthur Emery originally recorded it long ago, before the Stanley Brothers were even performing it. I haven’t sat through the movie, but I have listened to the CD. I like some of the music on it. I’m familiar with the performers, and lots are friends. That’s about all I can say.”
Blind since shortly after birth, Arthel “Doc” Watson was one of many Southern musicians “discovered” by musicologists and brought north to play at the Newport Folk Festival during the folk revival of the early-1960s.
Nearly 40 at the time, he was one of the youngest of the “authentic” folkies. But what few people knew at the time was Watson wasn’t discovered sitting on a front porch picking his acoustic guitar. Rather, he was a veteran guitarist in a honky-tonk dance band, playing blues, country and (gasp!) early rock ‘n’ roll on electric guitar.
“When I found out that college audiences would sit and listen to old-time music, I had to go back and listen to that music,” said Watson. “I hadn’t played it for a while. I’d been playing for a rockabillly dance band.
“Some of the songs I’d heard years before and had to brush up on. Some of it I had to really learn and work on and practice like a beginner almost. I was interested in the music for two reasons: because I really loved it, and I found out what it was really like to sit and pick for an audience that was really there to hear you.
“I was skeptical when Ralph Rinzler said I had something to offer as a
folk entertainer. But I said I’d do it. I was just so happy to make enough money to pay some income tax and get off the charity list.”
This isn’t to suggest that Watson didn’t have a deep, rich background in folk music. He grew up listening to roots music: his mother sang traditional secular and religious songs, and his father played the banjo.
At age 13, Watson taught himself the chords to “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland” on a borrowed guitar. He played it for his father, who was so delighted he bought his son a Stella guitar for $12. Watson began playing country songs by the Delmore, Louvin and Monroe brothers, as well as the music of the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Merle Travis.
While Watson continued to play traditional music with family and neighbors, in the 1950s, with a family to support, he worked with pianist Jack Williams in a rockabilly/swing band.
But when Rinzler heard him backing up banjoist Clarence “Tom” Ashley in a recording session, he invited Watson to come to New York along with Ashley and a few others for a folk music concert.
Within a year, Watson was was headlining his own shows at Gerdes Folk City, a period of time documented on the recently released Doc Watson at Gerdes Folk City (Sugar Hill), vintage live recordings that capture Watson at the beginning of his public career as a folksinger and guitarist.
Watson emphasizes that he never would have played folk music if it was only a job.
“I wasn’t in it just for the money,” he said. “I’m a visually handicappd person with no resasonably good means for providing for my family. Whatever talent we’re given we’re supposed to use. I needed to earn a living, yes, but I needed to do something I truly loved, too. Earning a living would take priority over the other because any man worth his salt had to provide for his own house.”
As interest in folk music waned in the late-‘60s, Watson got an emotional and practical boost when his guitar- and banjo-playing son, Merle, joined him on the road.
“One of the things that really helped me was when Merle overnight became a fine musician,” said Watson. “Thanks to him, and my sweet wife at home, I succeeded. Without Merle helping me pay my dues I would’ve given up. It was too hard to get around. I couldn’t keep expecting friends to meet me everywhere like they did at the beginning.
“I’m so thankful that I had a wonderful friend and fine musician playing with me, as well as a son, all rolled into one. No man could have been more blessed with their children when we are.”
Merle Watson was with his father when folk-roots music got another boost in the early-1970s via the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken album. The record, which also included roots legends like Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements, and Merle Travis, was the O Brother, Where Art Thou? of its day, and gave a real shot in the arm to Watson’s flagging career.
Tragically, Merle Watson – who preferred working at home on the farm to touring – died in a tractor accident in 1985. Ever since, Watson has cut back on the number of his live appearances, perhaps only feeding his legendary status and the pent-up demand for his music and its legacy that gets fully showcased at the annual MerleFest – the Merle Watson Memorial Festival – in Wilkesboro, N.C., which annually attracts upwards of 40,000 people as well as an all-star roster of American roots-music performers to the small town of 4,000 people.
Watson’s repertoire spans the categories of folk, blues, gospel, spirituals, work songs and contemporary songs.
“If a song has something to say, whether it’s sad, happy or in between, I’m liable to learn it and play it,” said Watson. “I love to play a lot of it. Some of it I can’t play. I can’t play classical. I don’t really have a particular favorite kind of music. There’s good music in every kind of music.
“Music expresses for the most part feelings between the joys and sorrows and in betweens. Older music was more down to earth. A lot of the modern music touches on superficial things and doesn’t get to the depth of what life is. A lot of music is the story of life set to music. If the song doesn’t have much to say it isn’t much of a song.
“I’m very opinionated about songs. If a song doesn’t have something to say then to me it’s not worth learning.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 29, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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