Published on June 3rd, 2012 | by RLn Staff0
Memories of Doc
By Bernie Pearl
The news of the passing of the great guitar-man Doc Watson this week evoked some fond memories and 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-World War II 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 [Ed Pearl’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.
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, probably a 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 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.