Doc Watson

doc_watsonOne night in 1961 or 62, somebody (John Herald? Patrick Sky?) rushed into The Gaslight in Greenwich Village and said, “Doc Watson is gonna sing up on Sullivan Street.” This was a little like saying that Elvis would be dropping by a neighborhood bar in Memphis around 1955. We knew Doc from his recordings on Folkways and we knew that Ralph Rinzler from The Greenbriar Boys had discovered him playing in a bar down in North Carolina. That was all we needed to know, really. We were up on the street and over to a tiny Italian neighborhood coffeehouse on Sullivan Street. We squeezed ourselves in and waited with real excitement. Hearing Doc Watson was hearing the real thing – authenticity. Ralph Rinzler led Doc in and introduced him. Doc was neatly dressed in pressed wash pants and a crisp long-sleeved sport shirt. When he was comfortable, he began to play and sing.

Those who hear Doc Watson for the first time find it difficult to describe their amazement. No one we knew of could play so fast and so cleanly. You could hear the space between the notes, no matter how amazingly fast they came. He had this wonderful untrained baritone that carried the lyrics unfailingly. He was jaw- dropping great.

And then, amazingly, he was playing with us at The Gaslight. Just as we were to hear Mississippi John Hurt a year or so later, now we heard Doc three or four times in an evening. In between shows he sat just backstage and operated a reel-to-reel tape recorder, taping the rest of us. That has to be how in a year or so I began hearing his recordings of several of my songs. Was I pleased? Hey, is John Edwards 99% honest?

It was at The Filene Center at Wolf Trap, outside Washington, DC, that I heard Doc in the next dressing room, singing my song, Leaving London. I went and sat with him and sang a little harmony on the next chorus. When he finished, he said, “Tommy, I love that song. I heard it when I was in London and it made me so lonesome I wrote a verse of my own for it. Hope you don’t mind.” “Doc,” I said, “you could start with the oldest song I have and write verses for every song I’ve ever written and I wouldn’t mind at all.” And I wouldn’t, either.

I’ve treasured every chance I’ve had to play with and chat with this true gentleman from the mountains of west North Carolina. Go to his home page and hear this master for yourselves.

Alexandria, VA
August 2008

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