Doc Watson Dead at 89



When the pioneering music critic Nik Cohn summed up post-Elvis pop, he got it half right. "Mostly, pop boiled down to electric guitars," Cohn proclaimed in his 1969 book, Rock From the Beginning, which remains one of the most insightful pieces of rock criticism. I would say, following the lead of the great Cohn, that pop music in the '60s boiled down to guitars, and the career of the guitarist and singer Doc Watson illustrates that point perfectly. The reason Cohn didn't include Watson in his survey of rock and pop is a little more complicated than the fact that Watson didn't exactly play rock 'n' roll — actually, Watson did, and on a Les Paul electric guitar.

Since 1969 — a time when the folk revival of the late '50s and early '60s had already subsided, but lay cunningly dormant — the revival of Appalachian music, bluegrass, blues and all manner of American-British folk music, not to mention commercial country music, has changed some, but the idea of folkiedom is as strong as ever. Yet in the '60s, the cult of the guitar, both electric and acoustic, was the driving force behind the various revivals of the decade.

Start naming them: Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Nic Jones, Doc Watson, Clarence White, Roger McGuinn, Skip James, Eric Clapton, Peter Green and B.B. King. These are all names I chose more or less at random, and all avatars of the cult of the guitar, whose British wing included Jansch, Jones, Richard Thompson and all the pale, wan British blues guitarists who worshiped at the altar of James or B.B. or Albert King, when guitarists like Jimi Hendrix were actually extending the very traditions these players believed they were venerating.

It could be that the bluegrass-Appalachian strain of folkie revivalism that is exemplified in the career of Doc Watson may now sound far more natural and accomplished than the school of blues players who worked at the same time. White played with The Byrds, whose very foundations came out of Bill Monroe's music, although Monroe probably didn't spend much time on his tour bus figuring out John Coltrane's saxophone solos.

Born in Deep Gap, N.C., in 1923, Arthel Lane Watson lost his sight in his first year of life, and cut his teeth playing tunes by The Louvin Brothers and The Carter Family. Watson was a beautiful guitarist who, funnily enough, did a stint playing electric guitar — just like Roger McGuinn, he seems to have been interested in playing fiddle tunes on his plugged-in instrument. Around the time The Beatles and The Byrds were beginning to record, Watson switched to acoustic guitar and hit the folk-festival circuit. Now a hero of budding pickers everywhere, he began recording for Vanguard, which was the premier folkie label of its day.

There's nothing to do but love Watson's classic Vanguard albums, from his self-titled 1964 release to the record I've been listening to the last couple of days, 1966's Home Again! Watson makes everything his own, from the delightful "Dill Pickle Rag" to a number where he shows off his equally beautiful voice, "Down in the Valley To Pray." Dignified but never austere, and an instrument of exquisite intonation, Watson's voice expresses the kind of pure joy in music-making that only the masters can put so easily on display. And then there's the picking.

Guitarists studied Watson's licks, while regular people enjoyed Watson for his humor and his reach back into the past. Still, Watson kept current, using Nashville studio musicians and adding some contemporary material into his repertoire. Good for him — the cult of guitar in the '60s, like all other cults, was strangled by the purism of its followers, and I'll leave it to you to ponder all the different reasons people go out into the world to make music. I think Watson, far from being a folkie like some of his epigones, was a working musician, not a museum piece.

What's interesting is how folkiedom has changed since Watson's heyday — the cult of the guitar has abated, leaving modern folkies to wander at will in a vast sea of old-time music, with no hot licks necessary at this point. Back in 1969, Nik Cohn believed rock 'n' roll had existed in a unique moment in time, and he was right. But he couldn't foresee the way the kind of folk music Watson played would continue to influence rock 'n' roll, and then subsume it. Today's folkies are strictly compartmentalized, which is good for their careers, and they're just as pious as the folkies of the pre-rock 'n' roll past. Watson, on the other hand, could do it all, and what I like about him is the absolute transparency of technique and intention, so you can listen to him for the licks or, as I like to do, the total effect. Watson enjoyed a long, productive career, and died Tuesday in his native North Carolina, as laden with honors as any American musician of the last century.

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