Elizabeth Cotten and Arthel "Doc" Watson share more than just a connection to the state of North Carolina. Both were culturally disadvantaged -- Cotten due to her skin color, and Doc due to a lifelong blindness. Each started performing in childhood, but became truly famous in the great folk revival of the sixties. Both are known for songs which celebrate the hard life and trials of their beloved rural south while addressing universal themes of loss, change, and heartache. And, most importantly, though no one could confuse Cotten's rural bluesfolk for Doc's country swing style, each is ranked among the best acoustic fingerpickers of their generation.
But the differences between the two are great, as well. In fact, presenting Doc Watson and Elizabeth Cotten side by side makes for an interesting exercise in folk history, one which allows us to see the great diversity of the strands and influences which came together to make modern folk music in America.
Unlike Elizabeth Cotton, who came back to folk in the sixties after a long hiatus, Doc Watson (b. 1923) was always a musician, busking with his brother for pennies as a child, supporting himself and his family with his work as a piano tuner to pay the bills when he could not find paid work as a sideman. Though he worked through much of the fifties as an electric guitar player with a country and western swing band, when the modern folk scene began to crystalize in the early sixties, Doc switched over to acoustic guitar and banjo exclusively, making a name for himself as one of the best fingerpickers in the business, and finding himself in high demand on the burgeoning folk circuit.
Where Cotten is primarily known for her original songs and original rhythmic style, Doc Watson's greatest contributions to folk music came from his source material and lightning speed. His ability to blow the socks off every other picker in the room is well known, and his work as a songwriter is honest and respectable. But as folk, his repertoire is most significant for its use of songs from the oral tradition which might otherwise have been lost. We might say that while it was Mike Seeger's recordings of Elizabeth Cotten which saved her authentic voice, Doc Watson's recordings and performance of the mountain ballads from the areas around his home of Deep Gap, North Carolina allow us to consider Doc a Seeger to his own people.
This is not to say that the tradsongs of Doc Watson sound anything like Cotten's originals, stylistically-speaking. While Cotten's fingerpicking style comes from applying banjo style to the guitar, Watson's quickfingered picking style is the successful result of moving songs that were traditionally fiddle tunes to the acoustic guitar. Where Cotton was self-taught, Watson learned his trade through the traditional country songs of the south, and the songs of early country greats like the Louvin and Monroe Brothers.
Where Cotton ended up finding a style that sounded more like early blues musicians, Watson’s different approach and experience, plus his apprenticeship in the country and western genres, left him with a wail and a sense of rhythm that call to the same acoustic old-timey country sound that you might hear in the rougher, hippier corners of bluegrass and country festivals today.
Another way of saying this might be to point out that where Cotten shows the blues influence on folk music, Doc Watson shows the country -- an influence which, despite its significance, is often the elephant in the room when it comes to folk music. His style and his "mountain music" sound hark to a time back before country and folk music had truly split off from each other, and long before alt-country bands like Uncle Tupelo, newgrass bands like Yonder Mountain String Band, old timey bands like Old Crow Medicine Show, and modern western swing folk musicians like Eilen Jewell went spelunking in the deep well of potential that lies between true country music and the post-sixties folk (and rock) music scenes.
Today, both country and folk music claim Doc Watson as one of their own, and rightfully so. Doc holds multiple Grammy awards in both the Traditional Folk and the Country Instrumental categories; Merlefest -- the festival named after Doc's son and long-time musical partner, who died in a tractor accident in 1985 -- is known for attracting the best music and musicians from the intersection of folk, bluegrass, and country. But no matter what you call it, Doc Watson's sound is instantly recognizable, powerful, and no less potent today, eighty years after it could be heard on the streets of his beloved North Carolina.
Today's collection is a bit heavier on the tradfolk than cover lovers might ordinarily prefer. But this is no loss. Focusing primarily on the traditional folksongs Watson interpreted allows us to celebrate one of his greatest contributions to American folk music. Though the pickin’s are slim, thanks to some of the great bloggers that have come before me and the luck of a grab-and-go draw before we hit the road last Friday, what follows includes some great and representative tradfolk from a fifty year career, from old live recordings with Merle to Doc's haunting baritone lead vocals on a beautiful back-porch version of Gershwin's faux spiritual Summertime.
- Doc Watson, Little Sadie (trad.)
(from Doc Watson on Stage, 1971)
- Doc Watson, Little Maggie (trad.)
(from Doc and the Boys, 1976)
- Doc Watson and Family, Ground Hog (trad.)
(from The Doc Watson Family, 1990)
- Doc and Merle Watson, Cuckoo Bird (trad.)
(live; recorded April 1977 by the Florida Folklife Program)
- Doc and Merle Watson, The Train That Carried My Girl From Town (trad.)
(from Two Days in November, 1974)
- Doc Watson and the Chieftains, The Fisherman's Hornpipe / Devil's Dream (trad.)
(from Further Down the Old Plank Road, 2003)
- Doc Watson w/ The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tennessee Stud (orig. Jimmie Driftwood)
(from Will the Circle Be Unbroken, 1972)
- Doc Watson and David Grisman, Summertime (Gershwin; from Porgy and Bess)
(from Doc and Dawg, 1997)
I'm no expert on the works of Doc Watson, and as you can see from the diverse source albums listed above, his catalog is especially prolific. But if you're new to his sound, and want to begin a collection, purists tell me the best place to start is Smithsonian Folkways for the older stuff, and Doc Watson and David Holt's page for his most recent Grammy-winning work. Also recommended, since we missed Record Store Day last Saturday: head to your local record store and, after searching fruitlessly for sections labeled "Traditional Folk" or "Traditional Country", ask for any of the above-mentioned disks by name.
Cover Lay Down will be heading from North Carolina to Massachusetts on Saturday, and will return Sunday evening with a feature on an artist who made the same transition. Keep pickin' and grinnin', and we'll see you then.