Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Doc Watson and Bluegrass

  I first heard Doc Watson at the UCLA Folk Festival, I think before he appeared in the Newport Festival (which was in the Summer of 1963).   The UCLA Folk Festival was something to present mostly old-time music and Doc's musical mastery figured right in the center.   This is a 1991 video of Doc playing Black Mountain Rag.  Listen for the triplets that he throws in just for embellishment.   I had two conversations with Watson - at the UCLA folk festival and then at the Ash Grove which was a folk hang out in Hollywood.  In both cases he was patient to listen to a young bluegrass musician babble on about how I loved his music.

Doc lived in Deep Gap, N.C.  He died at the Wake Forest Hospital - which is in the town where part of my family came from.

The UCLA Folk Festival was a great experience.  The first year I went, I think I was 17.  I played in a bluegrass group called the Orange County Cross Junction Fruit Stompers .  For most of Easter Week there were concerts and workshops.   I went to see the New Lost City Ramblers (Mike Seeger, Tom Paley and John Cohen) who was my favorite group at the time (they remain high on my list) but in the mix I also got Doc and Libba Cotton and a raft of other traditional musicians - some famous, some not.   Fame for many was not rock stardom but an audience that knew some of their tunes.

At that first year I also had the chance to meet the Rev. Gary Davis. There were some parallels between Watson and Davis - both became blind at a very young age.   Both lived for a good part of their life in North Carolina (Davis was in Durham.) Davis played a Gibson (Hummingbird) rather than a Martin as Doc did.   One afternoon we were walking back from lunch and set up outside the main conference hall to jam.   Davis and his handler came up and asked "Do you boys mind if I play with you?"   We were flabbergasted.  Davis first asked "What do you know?" and then he would play along and embellish.  And then the UCLA Chimes sounded and he asked if he could riff off those - we watched in amazement as he caught the tone perfectly and then improvised off the hour sounds.   Luckily for that event a photographer from the Saturday Evening Post took a shot.  You can see from the picture that the musicians (including me) did not really understand the concept of Jam.  Davis started to play and we just sat there in awe.

One of the other amazing things was the ability to get the photo.  The Post never did publish the photo but I wrote the Post and asked for a copy - which is reprinted above.

1 comment:

Mary Souza said...

R.I.P. Dear Doc --
How inspiring it was to sit a few feet away from you at the Ash Grove in the 60's, mesmerized by your lightening-fast picking and your gentle soul -- while sipping apple cider (we were young and innocent but they let us in anyway).
With Earl Scruggs, Doug Dillard and, of course, Merle Watson, there's a great jam session somewhere.
'Keep pickin' and carry it on . . .
(the girl singer back in the day)