Doc Watson and Son 41:390:00/41:39
season 1 episode 8 transcription
It occurs to me that not everybody listening to this podcast is a musician. So let’s begin episode 8 with a quick audio lesson on the difference between fingerpicking the acoustic guitar and flat picking the acoustic guitar. It comes up several times in this episode. Finger picking involves the thumb (which holds down the bass line), and usually the first three fingers of the picking hand playing the melody. Listen to guitar wizard Pat Donohue fingerpick the old Arkansas Traveler…
Steady bass with the thumb, melody with the fingers. The flat picking style involves more individual notes, played in runs with, well, a flat pick. Easier heard than described. Here’s the same tune performed by flat picking champion, Steve Kaufman.
Both styles can get pretty fancy—especially in the hands of guitarists like Brooks Williams. Here he is fingerpicking the classic, Beaumont Rag…
And here’s the late great Tony Rice flat picking the same tune…
OK. Just one more example. Here’s the amazing Dan Crary and his flat picking take on Deep River Blues…
All of these examples come from some of the top acoustic guitar players of all time. One thing they all have in common is the gratitude they have for the influence and the inspiration of the Godfather of them all, Doc Watson.
In my mind, any discussion about Doc Watson has to start with the music he heard as a very young boy. That music came from a baptist church 3 miles from the cabin his father built for his wife, Annie, and their nine children. Every Sunday, the family would walk the three miles where Doc’s father, General Watson, led the small choir in hymns from the Christian Harmony Hymnal. General, not a military title but a name, loved singing The Lone Pilgrim. Here’s how it might of sounded in the shape note style in that time and place 100 years ago…
A song Doc would continue to sing and inspire others to sing throughout his long musical career.
Arthel Lane Watson was born on March 3, 1923, just outside of Deep Gap, North Carolina. It’s not entirely clear if Doc was born without eyesight, or if it was the result of some kind of medical treatment administered to infants at the time. What is clear is that the, so called, disability never seemed to stop him—not as a boy romping with his siblings and friends, or as a musician touring the world. When Arthel—not yet Doc—was 5 or 6 years old, he was given his first musical instrument: a harmonica.
At the age of 11 his father built him a fretless banjo and presented it to him as a gift.
Doc first became aware of the guitar through the recordings of Riley Puckett and Gene Austin when he was just a small boy in the 1920s. Here’s Gene Austin and his version of My Blue Heaven. You didn’t hear this sound on the guitar that often in the 1920s.
According to an interview he did with David Holt, captured on a wonderful collection called Legacy, Doc recalled noodling around with an old guitar his older brother borrowed from a cousin.
I was fooling around with it, sitting by the fireplace one morning. Dad was finishing his last cup of coffee before he went to work. I was messing around I hit a chord or two, and messing with it, you know, and dad didn't realize about chords on the guitar. And he said, son, if you learn to play me at tune on that thing, by the time I get back from work, I’ll go to town with you on Saturday and e'll take the money outta your piggy bank and I'll finish it up and we'll buy you a little guitar.
It just so happened a friend had taught him a few chords—enough to play the Carter Family song When the Roses Bloom In Dixieland.
When he got back, I could play the chords to When the Roses Bloom In Dixieland and I could sing a verse or two of it. And he said, well, son, guess I'll have to keep my word. I had a little Stella guitar after that for a while. Traded it to a boy I went to school with in the last year I went to school and that summer, me and my youngest brother pulled a crosscut saw and cut cordwood and sold it.
And he ordered him a suit of clothes. And I ordered me a silver tone guitar from Sears & Robuck
Doc’s interest in fingerpicking was the direct result of hearing Merle Travis on the radio around 1939.
Merle Travis came on the radio on WLW in Cincinnati in, in 39. I, I believe, and he was working with Grandpa Jones, the Delmore brothers, and they did a quartet bunch of quartet recordings called the Browns Ferry Four and old Travis had picked one of them good fingerpick tunes every once in a while on there. Boy, I thought, man, there is a guitar picker. Chet said when he first heard him, he says for a long time, I wondered why people, everybody that played a guitar didn’t throw their straight picks away and play finger.
It’s becoming clear that I could talk about Doc Watson all day, but we have a specific recording to get to, so let’s fast forward just a bit. Trust me when I say that Mr. Watson got really good on the guitar. So good, in fact, that he kept trading up to better instruments. Better guitars are usually louder guitars so this allowed young Doc to play his music on the streets for tips—something else he learned to do well. In the 1950s, In pursuit of playing indoor parties and dances, Doc traded his Martin D-18 for a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar, and later, a Fender Telecaster. He played that Tele in all kinds of styles, including flat picking those old fiddle tunes. He was also sought after as a sideman. That’s how he met the man who would change the course of his life. Ralph Rinzler came down to Union Grove, North Carolina from New York City, to enter his band, the Greenbriar Boys, in the old time band competition at the Union Grove Fiddler’s Convention. It was there that that Ralph met the legendary banjo player, Clarence Ashley. Rinzler obsessed over Ashley’s take on the Coo Coo Bird which appeared on Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music—a collection that ignited interest in the old music in the New York folk scene of the 196os
Ralph Rinzler assumed Clarence Ashley was no longer living and here he was in the flesh. Rinzler arranged a recording session. Unable to play the banjo because of a hand injury, Clarence asked Doc Watson to play lead guitar. Doc showed up with his Telecaster. This took Ralph Rinzler by surprise to say the least. He couldn’t convince Doc to lay down the electric and pick up the acoustic, so Doc was off the session. That is until Doc started playing the banjo for Rinzler on the way to the studio in the back of an old pick-up truck. Ralph Rinzler recognized Doc’s genius immediately—especially his ability to bring the old songs back to life in a real and engaging way. A lifelong friendship was forged. Doc borrowed an acoustic guitar for the session and, as far as we know, never picked up the electric again. Rinzler paved the way for Doc Watson in the growing world of commercial folk music. Doc’s self titled first recording came out on Vanguard records in 1964. Doc was never comfortable touring. Not because of his disability, but because he missed his wife and family and the quiet country life he and Rosa Lee built for them in North Carolina. This was something he struggled with throughout his performing life.
That brings us to 1965 and the Vanguard release called Doc Watson & Son. Doc’s son’s Merle, only a teenager at the time, plays guitar on several tracks, but more importantly, allows Doc to take at least some of his family on the road with him. After the release of Doc Watson & Son, Doc had, not just a musical partner, but a road buddy—and it was his son.
Doc Watson and Son also marks the last time Doc stuck solely to tradition. He loved all kinds of music—both old and contemporary. He loved jazz, rockabilly—he loved good music. Ralph Rinzler encouraged Doc to stick to the old stuff. This collection of 14 songs and tunes demonstrates so well Doc’s ability to revive the music he grew up with while still remembering the importance of being an entertainer—that’s probably why the first line sung on Doc Watson and Son is this…
It doesn’t take Doc long to show his abilities as a solo flat picking innovator.
He switches to fingerpicking on Weary Blues, a song he does in an open D tuning with the capo on the second fret…in case you’re playing along at home…
A 16 year old Merle Watson joins Doc in a medley of fiddle tunes adapted for the guitar—a skill Doc Watson has been practicing since the very early days
Dream Of the Miner’s Child originated as an English parlor song, but was quickly adopted into the early 20th century American cannon of coal mining songs. This one is about an ominous dream.
Doc picks up the 12 string guitar for his interpretation of Clarence Ashley’s interpretation of one of the most recorded songs in roots music history, Rising Sun Blues. This song most likely got it’s start in England, but again can be traced to mining camps in America as early as 1905. Clarence Ashley recorded it in 1933. Here’s just a taste of Doc’s take on this popular song…
Doc turns to the first instrument he ever played on the next track, the mouth harp. According to Ralph Rinzler’s liner notes, Doc received a new harmonica, or French harp as his dad used to call it, every Christmas as a boy. Doc makes it talk on his interpretation of Mama Blues—first heard on an 1927 78 RPM recording of William McCoy…
Side 2 ends with another song from Doc Watson’s earliest memories of the music he heard in church as a boy—We Shall All Be United…
Side 2 of Doc Watson and Son opens with Little Stream Of Whiskey, also known as the Dying Hobo—a song that has traveled the world picking up different verses and tunes. Severl of the lines found it’s way to the popular Big Rock Candy Mountain…
The murder ballad, Little Sadie was very popular in Western North Carolina where Doc found his verses. It’s a song that has changed many times through the folk process and can be heard under almost a dozen different titles: Bad Man Ballad, Chain Gang Blues, & Bad Lee Brown, just to name a few…
The liner notes tell us that Beaumont rag was most likely a tune Doc picked up while listening to Mexican border radio station XERA—the station that brought the Carter Family into the living rooms of millions of folks throughout the U.S. and even into Canada…
Merle is back, supporting his dad with a second guitar. The outlaw depicted in the next ballad on Doc Watson & Son was a native of Wilkes County N. Carolina, not too far from where Doc Watson was born and where Tom Dooley was hanged. There were two versions of Otto Wood the Bandit. Doc sang the one he heard from the Carolina Buddies.
I mentioned the Christian Harmony hymnal a little earlier—it was the source of so many of the songs Doc heard as a boy. He would keep so many of them alive throughout his career, including The Faithful soldier.
Doc’s ability to play just about any instrument he put his mind to is well illustrated in his 38 studio albums, 16 live albums and countless performances. The raw power and beauty of singing might get overlooked.
Doc Watson & Son closes with the Delmore Brothers song, Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar.
Doc Watson played for the last time on April 29, 2012 along with the Nashville Bluegrass band at Merle Fest—the extremely popular music festival hosted by Doc and named in honor of his son. Doc Watson died exactly one month later at the age of 89. Beyond his expertise as a singer and player of multiple musical instruments, Doc’s love of life, music and family will continue to inspire for decades. It has made him one of the most beloved performers in the history of folk, roots & Americana music.
My special guest for this episode is multi instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter, Joel Mabus. Joel was born in Southern Illinois in a town that was, according to him quote, about 105 miles southeast of Mark Twain, 190 miles northwest of Bill Monroe, 110 miles southwest of Burl Ives and just over the river and up the hill from Scott Joplin Unquote. You can hear all of those influences in Joel’s music. Joel is a skilled, thoughtful musician and performer deeply embedded in the roots of American music. He is also a skilled writer of new songs and an innovative interpreter of tradition. Since 1977, Joel has made 29 recordings and has played venues and festivals all over North America—even a handful with one of his early heroes, Doc Watson…
We were, we were poor a poor family, you know, and this was back when, this record was recorded, I find out, in 1965. I probably heard it in 66, maybe 67. When I was a kid, our family would go to church on Sundays on the other side of town. And afterwards we typically would go to the local thrift store. It was called Save Mart. Now it looked a lot like a Kmart and, and a lot, like what would later be Walmart, but it was called Save Mart. They had a pretty good record section. My brother and I bought a lot of records there. I know that's where I bought Doc Watson and son, and I must have thought a lot about this because I bought the stereo version back in those days… It says like back here, Vanguard stereo lab also on mono VRS, 9170 oh instead of 79170. And I remember the stereo records were. $3.00, which on my allowance was a lot of money, but it was, you know, Sunday. I didn't have to buy clothes or food. So, you know, I could blow it on records once in a while. My brother and I would often see both versions of it at the store, and we would say, well, let's get the mono—it’s the same music. You know, I have a lot of old Flatt & Scruggs records in mono for that reason. But I must have thought a lot about this because it was actually doc Watson and this is the first time I heard him singing. It blew me away. There's a couple of great instrumentals on here, and I ate this whole album up. I played along with it on the stereo. I'd put it on play along with him and it remained a favorite of mine for, well, till today.
At that point, I had been listening to a bunch of Bill Monroe records. That's kind of an important detail because at that point, Bill Monroe was being produced by Ralph Rinzler and Ralph Rinzler did the first couple of Doc Watson records, including this one. And I didn't know the name. It was just a funny name, Ralph Rinzler. and I don't know who he is. He wrote the notes on this. I learned later on that he had a big shaping influence in several, folk artists of the early sixties, and bluegrass artists. And he tilted bill Monroe to doing more traditional music. In the fifties, bill Monroe was doing his own songs and covers of country songs, things that might make him a little more popular on the radio or with Grand 0ld Opry, and, and that was fading with Elvis Presley, as they usually say. And Rinzler said, oh, you gotta play some of the old ones. You gotta play those old songs and you'll make it in folk music. I have read that he sort of pushed bill Monroe to go out and research old folk songs that there were traditional, and I think he might have done that with doc. I wouldn't be surprised. The liner notes on this one start with, “there Isn't a song on this record that doc Watson didn't know 25 years ago. Most of them he's known for 30 or more”—and doc was maybe 40 when he did this—“What’s he been doing all this time, enjoying his life in the country, playing music with his family.”
And he paints the picture on this of the essential country, boy, which in a way, doc was. He leaves out some salient details about Doc's musical life is that, Doc played a Les Paul electric guitar in a country band in bars, around his hometown for a long time, and was kind of the featured artist.
He learned to play fiddle tunes on the electric guitar, flat picking it because they didn't have a fiddle player. People wanted to get up and dance at the bar, Doc would play maybe black mountain rag or whatever. And he got be really good—on the less Paul. When Doc was first discovered, he was using a borrowed guitar to play some acoustic stuff on the back of a flatbed truck and the city slickers came and heard him.
But Rinzler, doesn't like to talk about doc playing the electric guitar. This record is about the older music and the roots of where doc is from. And I appreciate that. I really do. I appreciated it then, and I still do. The career of Doc Watson shows, If anybody pays any slight attention at all, that he wasn’t the country bumpkin that fell off the turnip truck. What do you know? He can play guitar wonderfully, who, who knew? And a lot of folklorists in the early days were looking for people like that. They were looking for discoveries of the Uncle Joey Nobody up in the Hills who, knew dozens of tunes, but no one ever heard of them before they were discovered and made a record, and that was it. People came to learn their songs and keep the tradition going. But Doc, you see, Doc was an entertainer from the early days and especially the later days, Two or three albums after this, doc was doing Tom Paxton songs. Doc and Merl had their only radio hit with a Bottle Of Wine from Tom Paxton.
But I'm pretty sure, now this is my assumption, but I’m pretty sure Ralph Rinzler said, ‘no, don’t do those city songs. I want you to do the old ones that you've known,’ because he made a point of that on the liner notes.
Doc was not the first country player to use a flat pick and make a solo. He wasn't the first in bluegrass, wasn't the first in country music. But when we talk about flat picking guitar, it kinda starts with Doc Watson for most people. Because he really, he really captured the essence of a fiddle tune on the guitar like nobody else could do. People could play solos on a guitar often throwing in a strum—throwing a hot lick, that sort of thing. Doc played the melodies of these old tunes, and he played them well, with variations, with, ornaments, the way fiddlers do. I can't tell you how many people tell me that, he was the guy. He was the guy that made me want a flat pick. Norman Blake would be one of those. Norman had been a finger picker. Most guitar players in the country field were finger pickers or just strummers-- would strum the guitar. When Norman heard Doc play, he said, why, why he's playing it like a mandolin— that's what he said, Mandolin. I play the mandolin. I could play it like a mandolin too. And that's basically what are you doing—Down up, down up down up.
I remembered Joel Mabus telling me a story a while back about being on stage with Doc Watson when Joel was basically new on the scene. I asked him if he would tell it to you…
There's a festival, it's still going on, in Winfield, Kansas out in the middle of nowhere, a small town, just, uh, north of the Oklahoma border. They have the national flat picking championship held there. They do contests of every degree on every kind of instrument, flat picking, finger picking, fiddle contest, a mandolin contest.
If you're hired to play there, they put you in workshops and they make you judge some of these contests. I was in the flat picking workshop, THE flat picking workshop, which was a Saturday morning or afternoon, early in the day. And I didn't know who else was going to be in the workshop until I got there. And here's what happened. I'm sitting on the stage—Four of us. On the far end is, uh, Norman Blake. Next to him is Dan Crary. Next to him is Doc Watson and Doc is to my immediate, right, and I'm last on the other side. And I'm looking down here, thinking, Ooh, what am I gonna do here? It's an hour long thing. Typically at those workshops, we do a couple of things together that we pass around and everybody takes a break on, and then people are left to show off what they can do with their guitar. And we all did the things that we do best, you know, doc was by far the godfather of us all there. And Norman was the, the wise uncle on the end, and Dan was the MC. I'm sitting there on the end of this. And it occurred to me at the time, if this was Mount Rushmore of guitar, I would be Dan Quail, or something like that on the end. It was like, why am I here? Why am I here? I, I possessed my little corner of the stage as best I could. We went through the hour and, and towards the end or night at the end, Dan said, well, it's time to go. Let's do something we can all play together. How about that old Black Mountain Rag? Kick it off Doc…
Black Mountain Rag is Doc’s, Bailey-wick. He played it on every show I ever saw him do. He starts fast and goes faster. And I sitting there thinking, I do know how to play Black Mountain Rag, or I did know how to play, because I learned it off of Doc’s record. But sitting there that day, I truly had not played that tune on the guitar in maybe three or four years. So I'm I'm as rusty as can be and I'm going to be playing it with Doc Watson. So Doc kicks it off and he kicked it off. In a tempo about as fast as I've ever played. That's about as fast as I can go and I'm playing, strumming along and this is quick and Doc plays the official Doc Watson version of it, passes it off to Dan Crary.
And what Dan Crary does with it is just what Sam Bush used to say, he Craryized it—he takes it there and he puts the Crarey mojo onto it. And he's going up and down the neck, playing it fancy, playing it bluesy, playing jazz all the way through it. Perfect version of it. And I'm thinking when he's doing it, I'm thinking, what am I gonna do? I know, I'll play like the essential fiddle tune version of it. Bring it back. Well, that's what Norman does next. Norman takes the tune and just plays. Just the melody, just the melody, plays it right on pitch, right on rhythm. And then it's going to be my turn.
And I'm thinking, what am I going to do? I can't play it just like Doc that I learned from, I can't improvise on it anywhere near the way Dan has improvised on it. And I can't just play the essential fiddle tune version that Norman just played. And I'm thinking all this, and as I'm thinking this, and it's just about to come to me, doc leans over to me off the mic and says,
‘Speed it up when it comes to you son.’Speed it up when it comes to you son. Uh, so I did, I mean, we picked the tempo up and I'm playing faster than I've ever played in my life, on a tune that I'm, I'm barely remembering. And I truly don't remember what I did. You know, it's like, like when your car goes off the cliff and you're wondering, oh, what, what did I do with my life? I don't know. I don't remember exactly what it happened, but we got through it.
What you can learn from this is variety. A variety, both in style and tempo and mood and humor. But it's all Doc Watson and he's creating a voice. Well, I don't mean his singing voice, I mean he's creating a voice for himself that when doc does a song, you know what to expect. You don't know what style it's gonna be. You don't know what decade it was written, what century it was written, but it's, it's coming from Doc Watson. When Doc sings a song, it stays sung. What a young person who is thinking of being any kind of entertainer or a folk singer—If they still talk about that anymore—or a roots musician or americana. Yeah. If you wanna wanna learn from the best, or at least one of the pillars of roots in Americana music, this is a good place to start.