Doc Watson: More than a picker, an interpreter of American song
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., March 31, 2002) – Doc Watson is perhaps best known for his virtuosic, highly influential flatpicking guitar style. But as he demonstrated in two lengthy, spirited sets at the Mahaiwe Theatre on Saturday night, Watson is more than a mere folksinging picker. He is a premier interpreter of American song, with a range and command that embraces everything from Jimmie Rodgers to George Gershwin, gospel to blues, traditional folk to contemporary folk, country and hillbilly music, and even a bit of progressive rock.

He also is, indeed, a fantastic picker. But there was little flash in his playing on Saturday before a sold-out house, packed to the rafters, in a show produced by Club Helsinki. Rather, Watson’s playing was all about music: clear, crystalline bell tones that rang out as individual notes and then sustained themselves in order to form the suggestion of chords in listeners’ ears.

Singing in a clear, strong tenor that matched the clarity of his playing, Watson kicked off the evening with “Daybreak Blues” by Jimmie Rodgers, the first of a handful of tunes by the “Singing Brakeman” – commonly regarded as the father of modern country music – that Watson would play throughout the night. Watson yodeled and flatpicked his way through the tune, keeping the chords ringing and the rhythms chugging while he sang in a rich voice equal parts country and blues. Other Rodgers tunes he wound up playing included “Blue Eyed Jane” and “Frankie and Johnny,” one of several numbers on which Watson used his instrument to elicit some vaudevillian-style comic sound effects.

He peppered the verses of “Blues Walkin’ ‘Round My Bed,” an original tune, with witty asides that were a running commentary on the narrative, and bent blues notes and tremolos. “Movin’ On” was another humorous novelty describing animals and people getting themselves into awkward situations.

After a few funny stories, Watson changed the mood with a blues-drenched version of the Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Actually, it was hard work remembering this was a Gershwin tune, so deeply bluesy was Watson’s version, perhaps as much a tribute to the composers as to Watson himself.

Before playing Merle Haggard’s “Workingman Blues,” Watson waxed philosophical about his blindness. He followed it with a gospel number called “I Am a Pilgrim,” before several old-time country and bluegrass numbers by the Dixie Clodhoppers, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and the Dillards.

Watson was accompanied alternately by his grandson, Richard Watson, and singer/guitarist Jack Lawrence. Each played backup for about one-half of a set, with Lawrence spelling Watson for several tunes each time by taking the lead, although the 79-year-old Watson played along with Lawrence and thus only really got a break for intermission between his two, generous hour-long sets.

Watson’s second set included a set of darker tunes, including the gambling ballad “South Coast,” a tune by Gary Bruce called “Moody River” that boasted a sweet riff that contrasted starkly with the song’s mournful, death-haunted message, and a version of the New Orleans brothel classic, “House of the Rising Sun,” before which Watson acknowledged his debt to the folk-rock version by the Animals.

Watson ventured into relatively modern territory (meaning songs written after 1960) with versions of Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter,” one of several songs he played off Third Generation Blues, his latest album with Richard Watson, and a surprising reading of the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” that found the folk ballad hidden inside that seminal work of progressive-rock balladry.

The Beartown Mountain Ramblers, a quintet whose members hail from the Berkshires and the Hudson Valley region, warmed up the crowd with their classic-style bluegrass. The group’s two- and three-part harmonies were pleasant but lacked the soulful distinction needed to make the leap from journeyman outfit to star attraction. Same with their instrumentals, which though confident, lacked the sort of precision and drive that can make the music an exercise in ecstasy.

Once again a Helsinki-produced concert at the Mahaiwe attracted a sold-out crowd to a theater that has otherwise remained sadly underutilized, if not neglected, by its caretaker, the Berkshire Opera Company. While the community patiently waits to see what will become of the virtually dark Mahaiwe, Helsinki has programmed a virtual history of American music there over the past two years, including gospel by the Blind Boys of Alabama, folk by Pete Seeger, blues by the Holmes Brothers, funk by Maceo Parker, and contemporary roots music by Michelle Shocked. Next up, as part of Helsinki’s W.E.B. DuBois music series, is a blend of African roots and American pop by Oliver Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits on May 4.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 2, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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