Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Plays Well with Others: Remembering Doc Watson

I've read that Doc Watson, the country guitarist who died yesterday at 89, was blind from birth.  Apparently this is a slight stretch. The better sources say he was blinded at two--of an infection-- but in any event, it's a detail.  Either way he was consigned to what could have been,  without extraordinary serendipity, a life of isolation. Your first thought would naturally to be that what saved him was his music and you'd be partly right.  But it seems that before the music there was a family--his own family,  who helped him find a place in the world. even to help with the chores. It was only later that his father gave him a start at music, making a banjo, according to Doc's own story, from the skin of a dead cat.

Doc Watson was never as dynamic or riveting riveting a performer as, say, Earl Scruggs who died just a few weeks ago, which may explain why he never made a show-stopping record. On the flat-picking guitar (which became his signature instrument) he had was thoughtless enough to make it look easy, which it certainly wasn't (if it was, how com we nobody else ever picked a guitar with such fluency?).   But that was his  way: he made everything seem accessible.  Which didn't mean that he was shallow or facile.  But it did mean you had to listen up to realize just how good he was.

Childhood blindness  might seem to be enough a misfortune for one life.   Doc had a second his beloved son Merle died in 1985--killed in a tractor action, so it says.  Euripides declared  that no parent should ever outlive a child and he was surely right but Merle was  more than just a a son: he was a traveling companion and a  fellow artist.  One is tempted to say that Doc never recovered.  In a sense that was probably true but Doc did do what a sensible person would do: he got on with his life, not necessarily "accepting" it and certainly not forgetting it, but taking  it as  Something that Happens, and recognizing that there is really no percentage in paralysis.

What seems to have saved him this time was that he appears genuinely to have enjoyed performing in collaboration with others.  And "collaboration" was genuinely the magic word here.  You never get the sense (as you do with, say, Sidney Bechet) that it's a matter of us versus them.  Doc never let his ego get in the way; he enjoyed what he was doing and enjoyed it  more when others enjoyed it too.  Correspondingly while Doc probably got his greatest notoriety playing with Earl Scruggs, he was never really a "Bluegrass" performer.  His style, even when he was playing with more innovative performers, stayed in touch with his traditional mountain roots.

If I had to name just one, I suppose I'd remember the work he did with my beloved Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, perhaps particularly his collaboration with Mother Maybelle Carter and others on "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?"  But here's Doc with his beloved Merle:

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