Saturday, June 2, 2012

FW: Memories off Doc Watson: Bernie Pearl & Ry Cooder


From: Ed Pearl []
Sent: Saturday, June 02, 2012 7:03 AM
To: Ed Pearl
Subject: Memories off Doc Watson: Bernie Pearl & Ry Cooder

Bernie Pearl []
Sent: Thursday, May 31, 2012 3:32 PM
Subject: Memories of Doc

The news of the passing of the great guitar-man Doc Watson this week evoked some fond memories. I'd like to share them with you.
The early 1960's were years of great musical discoveries generally, and personally. I had met Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Jesse Fuller, Lightnin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Rev. Gary Davis, and many other greats of American traditional music. I had the opportunity to see them perform many, many times, and had availed myself of their knowledge in informal settings and through paid lessons (Brownie and Lightnin').
 Then came word of the re-discovery of a great Appalachian recording star of the pre-WWII era, Clarence "Tom" Ashley. He had recorded a new LP on Folkways with some of his neighbors, and had appeared at a couple of large festivals back east and were on their way to L.A. to play the Ash Grove, my brother's club. I bought the disc and thought it was interesting and fun, but by then I had made a strong move towards the Blues and little appreciated mountain music.
The cover of "Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's" (#I) depicted a few guys on Toms' front porch back home. In particular, there was a guitarist in work clothes somewhat taller than the rest. This turned out to be Doc Watson, but I get ahead of myself.
I was mildly interested in seeing them play, but as they were coming with dulcimer artist Jean Richie, and the Greenbriar Boys, I made sure I was there on opening night.
My brother asked me to go into the dressing room and make Mr. Ashley and the guys feel welcome. I knocked and was invited in. There sat four men in white shirts and suspenders. As I shook their hands, I noticed something notable about their eyes: Tom Ashley's were slightly crossed, guitarist Clint Howard had enlarged eyes - probable thyroid condition, in retrospect -, fiddler Fred Price's eyes were as red as they could be - like he had been awake for 24 hours, which might have been the case. And then I shook Doc's hand. It was quite apparent that he was blind. They were very friendly, and it made me more eager to hear them play. It was not long coming.
 They took the stage, and from the first note they won me over. It was as great a band performance as I have ever seen. Banjoist Tom Ashley was an old medicine show performer and a carrier of the deep Appalachian tradition. His combination of riotous humor, rollicking dance tunes, and deeply moving old songs had us all enthralled. Clint's honky-tonk vocals were raw and all-out, and Fred Price's fiddle was drenched in the blues. But, when it came Doc's turn to sing it was instantly apparent that he was a star. We all gasped and applauded in stunned and unanticipated appreciation.
I had the good fortune to be around the group for several days, and at one point I asked Doc if he would give me a guitar lesson. I was into the blues, but still kept at the old-time flat-picked guitar. Besides what I wanted to learn from Doc were some of his blues licks. I offered him $20. He was reluctant to do it, but John Herald of the Greenbriar Boys told him he ought to do it - it was good money. In 1962, I was paying about $45 a month rent. We did have a lesson, and a good time.
And I did learn some of his blues riffs.

 It didn't take long for Doc Watson to establish himself as a featured performer on his own. I was teaching guitar classes at Cal Sate L.A. in the late 1960's, and on one occasion when Doc was in town, touring with his son Merle, I asked if he would come and play for my class. To my amazement, he agreed. Driving to school I asked him why he was doing it, and he replied that these young people could remain his fans and supporters for many years to come. How's that for the long view?
I have half-jokingly claimed, in various settings, speaking to students and small audiences, that I am probably the only person they'll ever run into who can state that he has had paid lessons with both Lightnin' Hopkins and Doc Watson. I fully expect to be contradicted in my assertion somewhere along the way. But, until then, I'll smile at the unique opportunity I was presented with long ago.
 His brilliant musicianship aside, Arthel "Doc" Watson was a thoughtful, informed, and articulate man. While he was very proud of having made enough of a living to be "off the dole", he was always humble, and always a gentleman, aware of the importance of personal and cultural integrity. He lived an admirable life. He was beloved for good reason. Well done, Doc.
Bernie Pearl
* * *
(For the record, the 'UCLA Festival' Ry refers to below was actually the Ash Grove/UCLA festival, a collaboration between the Ash Grove and the UCLA Folklore Department, with the bulk of the artists brought by us, including Doc, Pete Seeger, et al. Ed)
May 30, 2012, 4:46 pm

To Hear Doc Watson, You Really Had to See Him

Beyond recordings: Doc Watson, the guitarist and folk singer, in the 1960s.John Cohen/Getty ImagesBeyond recordings: Doc Watson, the guitarist and folk singer, in the 1960s.

Doc Watson, who died on Tuesday at age 89, was the first truly great guitar player I ever saw up close. For me, growing up in Santa Monica, Calif., in the 1950s meant that great musicians were only manifested on records and radio, making it hard to catch a glimpse of the person behind the layers of sound and presentation. You knew people like Hank Snow and Merle Travis were great, but you couldn’t be sure how much the Nudie suits and custom boots had contributed to the sound you heard on KXLA radio.

Then, Doc and the banjo player Clarence Ashley and some of the boys drove out to Los Angeles for the first U.C.L.A. Folk Festival in 1963. On the lawn by Royce Hall, the gothic classical music venue, they gathered around and sang “Daniel Prayed,” an intricate call-and-response-style gospel tune. The public was here and there, wandering around aimlessly, like they do at these events. It was casual and unannounced — we hadn’t entered into the hyperorganized way of music appreciation just yet — that came later with the big rock shows.

Fred Price led the song with his old man’s ghostly voice, Clint Howard joined in on farm-boy tenor and Doc added his resonant bass, which was severe and shocking. In their tradition, the instruments are rested and the song is like a breathing exercise. Daniel prayed every morning, noon, and night, it says. I wondered if there were more people right there on the lawn than had ever assembled in their church back home in Deep Gap, N.C., to hear about Daniel and the nonstop prayer, but that didn’t bother Doc and the boys.

Then, Ed Pearl, the owner of the folk music club the Ash Grove, took them away somewhere to get a sandwich. Their place back home would probably just about fit in between the lawn and the food tent, I remember thinking. I also remember thinking that these men know something about music I’ll never know, even if I practice and study all my life. You have to be born into it. That way, every note and word and gesture has meaning, and your notes and sung words line up with those of your friends and make a whole statement about life that is tiny but eternal. Now another rounder has gone. Doc made many good recordings, but you needed to be in his close presence to pick up the sound of his life and times; the microphone can’t do that for you, I’m sorry to say.

Later that day, I was sitting on a bench playing guitar, and Doc and Ed Pearl walked by. Doc stopped and listened. “Who’s that?” he asked Ed. “That’s Ry Cooder, he’s a youngster.”

“Sounds pretty good,” Doc said, and they walked on.

Ry Cooder is a guitar player from Santa Monica., Calif.

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1 comment:

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