Generally Eclectic Review

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Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

“Blind But Now I See: The Biography of Music Legend Doc Watson” by Kent Gustavson, PhD (Blooming Twig)

Arthel “Doc” Watson turned 88 years old on March 3, 2011, and is still touring and performing at a pace which might tire musicians a third of his age. On one hand, he has been a major contributor to our modern-day understanding of Appalachian folk-music traditions. On the other, he has been lauded as one of the great innovators of contemporary acoustic music, who opened the doors for so many of the innovations that have taken place in this field since the 1970’s. Yet no one has apparently ever seen fit to write a biography of this American Treasure, until now.

The Doc Watson story should be one of great triumph, overcoming enormous obstacles which would have discouraged most people from exploring their human potential right from the very outset. And for much of this book, that’s exactly what we get. We meet young Arthel as he emerges into this world sightless, in dire poverty, in an isolated region of North Carolina, in an era (1920’s) when blind and/or disabled people were not given many of the opportunities available to them now. But Doc Watson did not let his lack of eyesight hold him back, as he played and worked like any other member of his family. The self-reliance he learned early on would do much to make him as independent as possible in the future. His first triumph, in other words, is that he didn’t treat himself as if he had a disability, and instead developed the many abilities he did have.

Thus, the opening chapters of Kent Gustavson’s well-researched biography read like an idyllic portrait of a young man comfortable in his world. But the educational system throws a monkey wrench in the lad’s way, in the form of the Raleigh School For The Blind. I’m sure the people in charge thought they had the best interests of their young charges at heart, and were hoping to shelter them from the inevitable disappontments life would throw their way.. But even though Watson greatly benefited from the exposure to classical music and Western music theory that he was exposed to as part of the School’s curriculum, the primary educational object of the institution seems to have been to instill into their pupils the realization that they were not, and never could be, normal people. They were led to believe they would never be able to earn a living by doing useful, productive work, but would need to subsist on government handouts, supplemented by selling pencils on the street.

This, too would prove to be unsatisfactory to young Arthel. He had a musical gift, being able to play the banjo, the harmonica, the guitar and sing, and he would use that gift to perform as a backup musician in local bands in the area around his home town of Deep Gap, NC. He had already heard his family and neighbors sing the classic Anglo-Appalachian ballads, he learned the repertoires of local fiddlers and banjoists, and he absorbed many sounds of many musical stripes from listening to the radio. He was conversant with swing, honky-tonk country music, blues, rockabilly. Indeed, he absorbed musical lessons whenever and wherever he could. There would be no begging or selling pencils for this blind man, though the opportunity to make enough money to rise out of poverty would elude a young man with an equally young wife and children.

But doors had a way of opening for Doc Watson, often slowly and tentatively, yet he took advantage of these openings nonetheless. When the folk-music boom of the late 50’s/early 60’s began to give the performers who recorded the classic country recordings of the 1920’s and ‘30’s an opportunity to be “rediscovered”, Doc Watson came to the New York in the company of the garrulous medicine-show singer/banjoist/entertainer Clarence Ashley and his band. Somehow, Watson seemed always to be treated as the fourth most important member in any group of four, but he made what would in the future prove to be important contacts, while impressing important people, including folklorist and entrepreneur Ralph Rinzler and classic ballad singer and dulcimer legend Jean Ritchie. Eventually, Doc was given a chance to prove that he was not simply the equal, but the superior of most of the musicians he was associated with, and he began to attract attention from record companies and the New York press.

If Gustavson ended the story at this juncture, we would already be cheering a tale of triumph over adversity. But Doc Watson’s career takes on even greater dimensions when he begins touring with his young son Merle. Fore one thing, the two of them not only worked together like few pairings before or since. What’s more, Merle’s more modern musical interests encouraged Doc to break free of the strictures of maintaining strict Appalachian stylistic purity, to further develop innovative picking techniques that he had already demonstrated in his flat-picking arrangements of fiddle tunes, and to extend his reach into newer, more flexible musical structures and song choices. Together, the Watsons would influence the growth of newgrass, Dawg music, and other innovations growing out of Appalachian roots. Doc and Merle Watson became the lightning rod which would attract and encourage dozens of musicians on a variety of instruments. And Merle was always there by his side, as the great confidant, consultant, source of comfort, enabler, his father’s guide through the world. This truly does read like a story of triumph. But then . . .

Like so many young men of his generation (which I should add is also my generation, but thankfully I never fell into this trap, though the opportunities were certainly there), Merle Watson enjoyed partying too much - the booze, the drugs, the long nights without sleep, the questionable relationships. After a while, he chose to retreat back into the mountains. He made sure his father was left in the hands of a capable replacement, Jack Lawrence, but an assistant is not a beloved son. Then, under circumstances which may never fully be understood, but which Gustavson takes great pains to examine as closely as he can, Merle dies in a curious accident on his tractor. And, as Gustavson details with great care, when Merle died, a large chunk of Doc Watson’s soul seems to have died as well. Merle has been gone a quarter-century, while Doc Watson continues to push onward, but somehow it’s not the same, and Watson himself has never been the same.

Up to the point of Merle’s death, this book often reads like a hagiography, the great accomplishments of a giant towering over mere mortals. But this impression is shattered by the final portions of the book, as it becomes a look at a sorrowful man who came so far and accomplished so much over such a long period, only to have his world fall apart. It is to Doc Watson’s credit that he did not merely fold his tent and go home, but one can only wonder if his continual touring way beyond retirement age is the only way he knows to deal with the permanent absence of the son he loved. My respect for Gustavson’s interpretation of his subject’s life and motives certainly increased through this sad shift in scenario.

Gustavson based his writing on a large number of interviews (including emails, certainly a valid method of interviewing in the 21st century) with a great many people, including those who knew Doc for long periods of time and at many stages of his life, as well as some whose experience with the man was fairly brief yet impactful. I find myself wondering why there is so little mention of David Holt, with whom Doc Watson has done considerable touring and recording in his later years. It strikes me as a missing chunk of the puzzle. But this is one of the few substantive criticisms I have, and certainly there are many people to tell the various sides of the Doc Watson story. It’s not always a light, happy read, but it is a significant one.

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