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Doc Watson: As Free As They Come

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

This week’s Free Ride* muses on the songs of Arthel “Doc” Watson, who turns 89 years young today. What an absolute treat to reflect on the life of this national treasure, who was one of the formative influences in my early attempts to learn guitar. I remember my uncle Tony teaching me Doc’s version of Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor, as one of my first songs. He is a great musician to emulate if you want to learn various styles of music; whether flat-picking or finger-picking, Doc is proficient in country, western swing, blues, ragtime, folk, fiddle tunes, mountain ballads, bluegrass, gospel, and rockabilly. His playing and singing are as authentic and unpretentious as it gets, and his playful humor makes every concert a supremely joyful experience. I am sure I have seen him in concert far more times than I have any other artist or group. The early years of Merlefest were the best, before the crowds got unmanageable and you could easily get close to see the many jam sessions. And I’ll always cherish the time I saw him at Salem College; I got lost at intermission looking for a bathroom, and stumbled instead into his dressing room, where we sat and talked and he told preacher jokes and did a Chet Atkins impersonation. When it comes to our Free Ride theme, I’ll venture to say that I’ve never been around a person who exudes as much pure freedom as Doc Watson. For some examples of his contributions to the songbook of freedom, I’ll start out with a couple of different versions of an old fiddle tune, Liberty. Click on this first link to hear him playing in Greenwich Village on his first solo recording from 1962, at Gerde’s Folk City. Then click on this link to hear more vintage Doc, as he played it again (the third song in this YouTube, after Picking Along and Jazzing), along with Flatt and Scruggs on their 1967 album, Strictly Instrumental.

For a vocal number, we can listen to Doc singing one of his many sad ballads of tragic love, Moody River, written by rockabilly performer Chase Webster and made popular by Pat Boone. It’s from one of my favorite of Doc’s albums, 1975’s Memories, which features his son Merle, a virtuoso in his own right, especially on slide guitar. In this song, we hear about a man who goes down to the river to meet his lover, and finds the worst kind of freedom:

Last Saturday evening
I came to the old oak tree
It stands beside the river
Where you would a-meet me

On the ground your glove I found
With a note addressed to me
And it read:
“Dear love, I’ve done you wrong,
Now I must set you free”

Moody river, more deadly
Than the vainest knife
Moody river, your muddy waters
Took my baby’s life

Looked into your muddy water
And what did I see
I saw a lonely lonely man
Just lookin’ back at me

There are just a few performers I can listen to over and over and never tire, and Doc is at the top of that list. He’s often imitated, never equaled. There are many guitarists who have surpassed him in technique and speed, but no one comes close in style and taste and heart. Happy b’day Doc – and many more!

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