Monday, September 7, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #137 - Doc Watson – At Gerdes Folk City

It is conceivable that Doc Watson's four-week engagement at a small folk club in New York City at the end of 1962 and beginning of 1963 represents one of the last major discoveries of authentic regional art in the face of the nation-wide homogenization that followed World War II in America. Thanks to radio (and even more profoundly, television) the sound of America was becoming increasingly informed by what would become known as "mass-media," effectively killing off, or at least significantly changing, the many different strains of American music. Many in the sophisticated New York audience may have been acquainted with the prevalent form of folk music as demonstrated by groups like The Kingston Trio, but few could have been prepared for the presence or talent that the unassuming, blind, guitar player from Deep Gap, Tennessee was going to demonstrate.

The most amazing thing about the pristine performances captured on this historic CD is how much Doc's onstage persona and abilities were already in evidence at this early stage of the game. He was already a seasoned performer, but his ability to mesmerize with his pleasant voice, incredible guitar technique and seemingly endless repertoire of material from all genres of music had to be a major revelation. Judging from the silence during the performances, which is then punctuated by explosive bursts of applause from the audience, this group of big city sophisti-cats had never seen anything like Doc Watson.

Opening with the classic, unrepentant murder ballad "Little Sadie," Watson immediately sets himself apart from collegiate types who may have taken an academic fancy to folk forms. Watson's guitar playing is never less than wonderful as he comfortably melds bluegrass accuracy, blues leads, country picking and folk strumming with his own patented energetic buoyancy informed by years of playing in every format conceivable. He played gospel with his family, backed the great Clarence Ashley, played electric guitar in a rockabilly outfit - in fact, it is this very diversity of background and context that gives Doc Watson's performances their unique quality. As a blind person approaching culture and art as a blank slate, he seems to have absorbed all the positive attributes of each style while not succumbing to the accepted performance clichés inherent within the genres. Thus he is one of the truly distinctive interpreters in American music.

Doc Watson would prove to be one of the most venerable and important voices in authentic American music until his death in 2012, but here in this elemental recording we hear the early proof of his greatness. He runs through a wonderful assortment of traditional songs, occasionally joined by other soloists, but it is Doc Watson's amazing talent, confidence and individualism that shines through on every song of this important release. If, like me, you are a lover of the roots of American music, this CD should have a place on your shelf as surely as Hank Williams, Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson or Chuck Berry does. Doc Watson represents the absolute best of American tradition; it is authentic and heartfelt, and the beauty of the traditions pours out of every note.

- Paul Epstein

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