Album Review

Doc Watson - At Gerdes Folk City

Doc Watson - At Gerdes Folk City

"We got microphones of all kinds here," declares Doc Watson. "This one must be the tape recorder mike." It's a right clever way to begin this document of the legendary blind singer/guitarist's first solo engagement. Recorded over four weeks in late 1962 and early 1963 at New York's Gerdes Folk City, these 15 never-before-released tracks are almost as fascinating for their historic value as for the performances themselves. Smithsonian folklorist Ralph Rinzler came South in 1960 and "discovered" Arthel "Doc" Watson at his home in Deep Gap, North Carolina, where he still lives today. Watson, who lost his sight in infancy, began playing music when he was 11 and soon excelled on banjo, mandolin, harmonica and, of course, guitar. When he was in his early 20s, he played a Les Paul electric in a rockabilly band. But with Rinzler's help he picked up an acoustic and became an unlikely star of the '60s folk revival. For some time now, Watson has called his music "traditional plus" -- meaning he favors old-time tunes and acoustic instruments, even though he's never been afraid to add modern sounds or compositions to his repertoire. This set shows those instincts were clearly there from the very beginning. Much like his more recent concerts, these performances are filled with sizzling flatpicking and tender fingerpicking, ancient ballads, classic blues and a bit of gospel. Watson's perfectly ornamented dexterity and rich vocals tie them all together. He has always acknowledged his debt to Riley Puckett, Merle Travis and Don Reno, but you can also hear how his daring eclecticism came to influence the next generations of folk and bluegrass guitarists. Whether he's reeling through the sassy old murder ballad "Little Sadie", power-picking Merle Travis' "Blue Smoke", or putting new spins on the urban "St. Louis Blues" and the country "Milk Cow Blues", he manages to make it seem effortless, yet utterly resonant. But the most poignant part of listening to these recordings is knowing how frightened Watson then was of the stage. His need to escape the poverty of Appalachia pushed him on, though, and ultimately made these recordings even more of a triumph. In an interview some years ago, he candidly told me that performing live had always been the source of some of his greatest joys and sorrows. "I'm gonna be honest with you," Watson said. "Because of the road -- not because of the music -- if I could see, I wouldn't have played, but just as a hobby." Some 40 years later, Doc Watson Live At Gerdes Folk City proves again what a shame that would have been.