The upward inching of the bar marking the topmost limit of speed and clarity in acoustic country music, these last 50 years, has altered our relationships to most of the eminent artists at the far end of that span. Performers whose prowess once hit us like a shock to the heart, if they're to be appreciated by listeners born in later days of heightened amperages, have to be heard with a little contextual perspective and imagination, and doesn't that just take half the fun out of the thing. But I don't think this has happened as much with Doc as with other players -- I think people who are accustomed to Cody Kilby can still easily feel the heat of Doc's 1964 recording of "Black Mountain Rag" without recourse to mumbo-jumbo.
If Doc's playing is so ahistorically intelligible despite the advances of prodigies who succeeded him, that's because, for musicians and general listeners alike, the sense of the personality behind the playing is so primary to the impression it delivers. Doc never seemed to stop radiating social ease, community-mindedness, modesty, practicality, consideration, humor, and brains; and his resiliency in the face of two of life's hardest adversities -- the losses of son and sight -- was about the first thing people knew about him. Most of those people were as likely to be obsessively ardent about ancestral North Carolina fiddle music as most of Einstein's and Hawking's admirers are about pi mesons. But somehow, I believe, a piece of the personal charisma that attracts the admiration of non-specialists slips into the specialty, and accounts for a lot of its appeal and quality. I could be wrong on this, because it sounds not only unprovable but crazy to say that there's more community-mindedness or personal virtue in this version of "Black Mountain Rag" than that...but it could be.
Doc was great at clawhammer banjo, harmonica, singing, electric guitar (apparently -- I never heard this), Travis-style acoustic fingerpicking, and a spectrum of flatpick styles that prominently included fast fiddle tunes, Alton Delmore-style jazzed-up melodies, crosspicking, and single-note blues pentatonics. From this I infer that his capacity for focus and self-discipline was extraordinary (I'm reminded too that music, as a pastime and career, is especially attractive to people born into privation and brutalizing work). In most of the instrumental techniques he took on, Doc emulated and adapted established and usually documented approaches. For example, his "Spikedriver Blues" raises John Hurt's original from Ab to Bb, steadies out the tempo a little, lays a little less stress on the thumb, but keeps Hurt's lines intact and is a respectful homage to Hurt's style; in his famous rendition of "Deep River Blues" he infuses Travis picking with a few of his own beautiful riffs (the elegant 6th- and 5th-string pull-offs) and timefeel.
In his treatments of fiddle music, though, he broke new ground. This translation between instruments was about as implausible and as wildly fruitful as the importation of folk piano styles to guitar in the 1920s. Doc's most indelible fiddle-tune performances don't exactly move fiddle lines to the guitar fretboard, though; it would be more accurate to say that he redrafted the tunes to fit the 6-string's strengths. The trademark final 8 bars of the body of Doc's "Black Mountain Rag" are distinguished less by fiddlistics than the attack of the pick in service to Doc's relentless-but-relaxed, alternating-motion eighth-notes, and the dark authority of the E and A strings. The jaunty flatted 6th (four notes in) on the tag is the kind of thing that would probably sound stupid bowed but sounds terrific plucked. The double-stops he plays in the C section, because of his right-hand choke, sound to me more like steel-guitar chimes than plucked violin. The use of the 1st string as a drone, or to spike the melody with some easy thirds here and there, is fiddle-based, and is so clever -- I'm not aware of anyone who used the high open-string third in the great, casual way that Doc did in his fiddle interpretations (keyed as so many were where they were playable out of C or G shapes).
On "Billy In The Low Ground," in the B section, he arpeggiates the IV on his top three strings in the manner of a bow slicing back and forth across a triad (as fiddlers do on this tune or a thousand others, "Orange Blossom Special" to "Monroe's Hornpipe"). But on the guitar, the effect is quite different -- I'd ascribe it to the pick attack, the shorter note length, and the peculiar timbre of those particular gauges of steel amplified by the bigger wood box...or, metaphorically: instead of being buffeted on a smooth but swift-moving whitewater raft, you're being pelted by hail, but hail made of candy. In this tune too, you can hear Doc replacing what the scale of the rest of the tune would indicate as a 4th with a flatted-5th, a quick pass-over on the way to the 5th, but actually and arrestingly there. Doc canonized this gesture, which I feel is a nod to the tonal infinity embodied in the instrument that is the song's source.
Doc learned these fiddle tunes from fiddlers he played with. Some of the songs he recorded were remembered from his mother's singing, some were afoot in the community where he lived (Deep Gap, North Carolina), some he heard on the Opry or other radio shows, and a lot (more than half, I'd blithely guess) he learned from records. This mix of sources is striking. Up until the 20th century, musicians learned only from other people, and now we're -- where? Records may have eclipsed in-person transmission of musical knowledge, for all I know. They seem to have been gaining dominance for many years. It's surely an unusual occurrence to hear a modern record of a song the singer learned as a baby from his mother, or from an elderly neighbor on the subject of a killing or a cave-in down the road. Meanwhile, everyone sure seems to know "Hungry Like The Wolf." But my point is, the mix -- the mix of radio, records, family, and neighbors is really unbeatable. From the first two you get the motivating glamour, the stimulus of audio received in private where the mind goes into overdrive in the absence of visual references. From records as well, the chance to repeat and slow down and scrutinize at your own pace of learning. From the people around you, you get the meaningfulness of shared memory, the story particularities, and, importantly, an ingrained idea of the utility of music. For poor country people, music is useful, and musicians, like any other plyer of a useful craft, are esteemed. In the hood where I live now, everyone loves music -- great fun, good to know how to play a bit, very important part of child education except in a real pinch, etc. Yet if an old guy who fiddled all day moved in, he'd be instutionalized in no time flat. In other places, that guy would be a service provider. The mix of human guides and technological tools that young Doc had at hand seems ideally suited to the formation of holistically awesome musicians. It happened in America in the middle years of century 20, and may be done with already. I'd suggest it accounts for much of what strikes us as specially powerful in the music Doc grew up to make.
William Grimes, in his New York Times obituary, did an excellent job of summarizing Doc's manifold musical legacy in careful, non-hyperbolic language:
"Doc Watson, the guitarist and folk singer whose flat-picking style elevated the acoustic guitar to solo status in bluegrass and country music, and whose interpretations of traditional American music profoundly influenced generations of folk and rock guitarists, died..."
That's a neat way to disentangle the skein (bluegrass, country, folk, American). I think these categorical disambiguations are usually false to experience, and make for a special problem with Doc, who always respected the fuzziness of the boundaries between musical disciplines. But putting "folk" next to "singer" feels right, as scrupulous as Doc's vocal diction was and as improved as he left you feeling. Bluegrass first, country second, that's a good move too. "Elevated the acoustic guitar to solo status": that struck me more than anything in the rest of the piece -- that's what he did, and I wouldn't have thought to put it just that way, just that well. In the notes for Sugar Hill's compilation Foundation, Dan Crary wrote vividly about the same idea:
"It's hard to imagine this, but when Doc started touring nationally and internationally, the steel-string guitar was still not very respected, a virtually unknown rhythm instrument to most people. The number of published flatpicking books would have been zero, and the number of great players would scarcely be more than that. If it's true that the steel-string guitar is the world instrument today, intrinsic to most of the traditional and popular music of the world, it's because Elvis called attention to it in the fifties, and Doc Watson went out in the sixties and actually played the hell out of the thing, solo..."
Well, this is a bit hyperbolic. Dan Crary has of course forgotten more about the subject than I'll ever know, but Martin started turning out guitars 90 years before Doc was born; Jimmie Rodgers was a celebrity when Doc was 5; the Kingston Trio started the 1950s folk craze well before Doc hit the road; and all this put a lot of steel-string guitars in people's homes and heads. The steel-string is intrinsic to American traditional music, and not because Doc Watson magically and retroactively made it so. I think the fundamental point is that no one before really uncovered the instrument's prodigious capacity as a soloing tool. The 1960 Ralph Rinzler quote in the Times makes that point, too, again making a little too large a claim:
“He is single-handedly responsible for the extraordinary increase in acoustic flat-picking and fingerpicking guitar performance....His flat-picking style has no precedent in earlier country music history.”
Doc was preceded as a flatpick soloist by a few players whose influence he was always careful to acknowledge, above all others Mother Maybelle Carter and Alton Delmore. Other hot, innovative flatpick soloists in country who were working and recording before Doc include Don Reno, George Shuffler, Earl Scruggs, Riley Puckett, and Joe Maphis. Beyond these -- because it won't do to get too fussy about guitar models or genre demarcations -- there's Django Reinhardt, Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Lang....Doc's death is a queer occasion to be deflating these over-the-top assessments (of a player whose accomplishments were over-the-top as they were), but then the paper of record is a queer outlet for plainly silly formulations like "no precedent in earlier music history."
Okay, one thing does irritate me about the obit, aside from that quote. (And Bill Clinton's, from the National Medal of Arts ceremony: “There may not be a serious, committed baby boomer alive who didn’t at some point in his or her youth try to spend a few minutes at least trying to learn to pick a guitar like Doc Watson." Serious! Committed! Baby boomer! His or her! At least a few minutes! Try to imagine coming up with any of that trickling bilge to honor a major artist, to his face!) The second paragraph mentions Doc's blindness, which is fleshed out further in paragraphs 7 and 8. There's a little anecdote deeper in the piece about the difficulties of touring blind, and a had-he-not-been-blind moment in the second-to-last graf. Finally, the headline of the obituary is: "Doc Watson, Blind Guitar Wizard Who Influenced Generations, Dies at 89."
In Ray Charles's Times obituary, his affliction got a single mention, as a fact unadorned by anecdote or wizard's drapery, and it wasn't in the headline. Jeff Healey, ditto. On the sad day Stevie Wonder lifts off, I'm betting the phrase "Blind Shaman of Rhythm" won't appear in the Times's coverage. "Ry Cooder, One-Eyed Tourist of Tone," is another we won't, uh, see. All right, I'll stop that. We have hardly any blind music artists these days, but in Doc's prime there were quite a few, and in the early days of recording, there was a veritable plague. How do I know? Because they all had "Blind" in their show-business name. I don't know, but strongly suspect, that musicians like Blind Alfred Reed, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Roger Hays, Blind Joe Taggart, Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Blind Boys of Mississippi, and Blind Blake, not even to mention the numerous blind Willies of the music world (Johnson, Harris, Davis, McTell) did not choose the epithet themselves as youngsters, or use it in their mature years as a preferred term of address among friends. I think the term, like the affliction, was thrust upon them unasked; and I think it was used to sell their records to people who like a dollop of the offbeat or the authentic in their entertainment. I might also observe that all the foregoing Blind so-and-so's, except Alfred Reed, were black; and that the Caucasoid Riley Puckett, who was blind, had no titillating modifier added to his name on record jackets; that the singer of "Daydreams About Night Things" has never been introduced to a state-fair audience as "Blind Ronnie Milsap"; and so on. People whose blindness was underlined were predominantly people whose humanity was overriden, on behalf of a popular conception of even the most capable blacks as disabled -- by genes, buffoonery, atavism.
Well, that has been corrected, mainly, but I wonder if the cute idea about blindness as a fascinating stigma of simple folks with crazy spritual gifts has been expunged? Or is still a charming narrative when applied to poor whites? Doc Watson didn't play like a blind man. I mean, you could certainly spin a theory, based on, say, a tendency to connect phrases closer on the fretboard because of not being able to refer to visual location, or the peculiarly intimate relationship to vibration noted in the blind since the 7th century. However, it would be a crap theory. And no one unfamiliar with the three men could listen to recordings of Clarence White, Norman Blake, and Doc Watson and pick out the blind one. What's more -- not only did Doc not once exploit or trade on his blindness in his long career, his career was a testament to the irrelevancy of his blindness. There's just no reason in the world to emphasize it. Note it and be on your way, New York Times.
Lest I descend into vitriol and ruin this whole appreciation, I want to close on a personal note, as seems to be the rule. No one shaped my feel for the acoustic guitar, or my conception of what good music sounds like, more than Doc Watson did, through his records and concerts. One of my earliest memories is of his first Vanguard record on the quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape my dad had -- a great format for falling in love with music, by the way! "Georgie Buck" and "Nashville Blues" are primal sounds for me, warm and enveloping as amniotic fluid. Another in the early-memory department is of my dad trying to work up that trademark 8 bars from "Black Mountain Rag," and never quite making it without messing it up (which is why, for me, the tune of that song is always accompanied by repeated cries of "Son of a bitch!"). How often I saw him and Merle (I mean Doc and Merle, not my dad and Merle) play I can't remember. It was never "going to a bluegrass show," it was never a learning experience, it was never cool or un-; it was just Doc, the overlord of music, riding above all else, and you had to be there. Thinking about it just now, I'd say my idea of what constitutes a good show came from those Doc and Merle outings: some fast picking, some heartbreaking ballads, some nonsense, some friendliness with the crowd, a little information (not too much!) about the provenance of the tunes, and funny stories. A solid variety package. The idea of boundaryless music -- not an ideology, just a preconception to live easily by -- that Doc's music fostered in me has probably hurt my professional prospects a bit, but it's helped me as a person and musician much more.
And that flatpicking, which no flatpicker can seem to get very far away from. It's surely as bad to repeat someone else's self-deprecating remark as it is to retweet a compliment. But when Tony Rice remarked about listening many years later to his session with Doc ("Lost Indian" for the Blake and Rice 2 record) that "Doc played great, but I'm not sure what I was getting at" (I'm paraphrasing unfortunately, can't find the source) he wasn't entirely kidding, I don't think. I doubt whether Doc ever played a minor 13th chord, but those fleeting flatted 5ths gave a hint of the land beyond the diatonic, and, alongside all the technically marvelous things he did, there's all the technical moves he didn't aim at and miss -- an equal achievement. That elusive combination of flash and reserve in his playing -- just right. I'm not going to say "without historical precedent." Just going to say, man is it ever hard to get it pretty well, much less just right. Way to go, Doc. (Whom I miss already.)