The craftsman

Earlier this week in the NYT, “Doc Watson, Blind Guitar Wizard Who Influenced Generations, Dies at 89” by William Grimes. I’ve been playing a lot of Doc Watson recordings, including the wonderful Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City (1963).

Two passages from Grimes’s obit especially caught my eye.

The background:

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 on Tuesday in Winston-Salem, N.C.

… Mr. Watson, who came to national attention during the folk music revival of the early 1960s, injected a note of authenticity into a movement awash in protest songs and bland renditions of traditional tunes. In a sweetly resonant, slightly husky baritone, he sang old hymns, ballads and country blues he had learned growing up in the northwestern corner of North Carolina, which has produced fiddlers, banjo pickers and folk singers for generations.

His mountain music came as a revelation to the folk audience, as did his virtuoso guitar playing. Unlike most country and bluegrass musicians, who thought of the guitar as a secondary instrument for providing rhythmic backup, Mr. Watson executed the kind of flashy, rapid-fire melodies normally played by a fiddle or a banjo. His style influenced a generation of young musicians learning to play the guitar as folk music achieved national popularity.

First notable passage:

When Mr. Watson was still an infant an eye infection left him blind, and the few years of formal schooling he received were at the Raleigh School for the Blind. His musical training, typical for the region, began in early childhood. At the age of 5 or 6 he received his first harmonica as a Christmas gift, and at 11 his father made him a fretless banjo with a head made from the skin of a family cat that had just died.

It’s the homemade cat-banjo that caught my eye — making the most of whatever material is at hand, a survival strategy of the very poor.

And then:

Quiet and unassuming offstage, Mr. Watson played down his virtuoso guitar playing as nothing more than “country pickin.’ ” He told interviewers that had he not been blind, he would have become an auto mechanic and been just as happy.

“He wants to be remembered as a pretty good old boy,” said the guitarist Jack Lawrence, who had played with Mr. Watson since the early 1980s. “He doesn’t put the fact that he plays the guitar as more than a skill.”

Watson saw his music-making as a craft, a skill honed through years of observation — over the years, Watson learned from the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, the Sacred Harp hymn tradition, Django Reinhardt, big band jazz, and more — and practice, rather than as a natural talent. Certainly it’s true that nature provides a basis for the development of great skill (in any area), but reaching the heights also takes an enormous amount of observation and practice.


2 Responses to “The craftsman”

  1. Greg Lee Says:

    I watched Doc Watson flatpick Bye Bye Blues at a concert (it’s recorded on a Folkways album Progressive Bluegrass), and his hands were a wonder to watch. I just don’t believe a musician can get to that place by practicing hard and imitating his betters, as Doc’s stage patter suggested. He had a prodigious talent.

  2. Everyday twisters « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (who I’ve been listening to recently, playing along with Doc Watson). […]

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