He is single-handedly responsible for the extraordinary increase in acoustic flatpicking and fingerpicking guitar performance. His flatpicking style has no precedent in earlier country music history.”
—Ralph Rinzler, the folklorist who “discovered” Doc Watson in 1960, in the New York Times
Doc Watson, the trailblazing and beloved flatpicker from North Carolina, died yesterday at the age of 89 from complications due to colon surgery. His death, while not unexpected, represents a gigantic loss to American roots music. Watson was a one-man encyclopedia of folk, blues, country, bluegrass, and gospel, and combined all those forms into a style singularly his own.
Rather than give you the standard career overview (see Google), I’d like to focus on one particularly significant day early in Doc Watson’s career. The 1964 Newport Folk Festival was held from July 23-26 in Newport, Rhode Island. It’s probably most famous historically for Bob Dylan‘s pre-electric performances of “With God On Our Side” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” But, Newport ’64 also featured a brief collaboration between the two men most responsible for turning the acoustic guitar into a fiery demon of flatpicking badassery: Doc Watson and Clarence White. In fact, I think you could argue that they were the two most important acoustic guitar players in the second half of the 20th century.
I originally discussed this guitar summit in my very first Clarence White overview, Clarence White and his Bluegrass Bebop: 1964-65 (Part 1). What I said then about their duet on “Beaumont Rag” most definitely applies to the set as a whole:
You gotta love Doc’s exclamations throughout. You can tell he’s genuinely wowed by Clarence’s picking. I mean, who wouldn’t be? But this IS Doc Watson, ya know?
One thing that particularly impresses me … and that tends to get overlooked in the rush to praise their lead skills … is the way both men provide sturdy rhythm guitar for each other. While soloing pays the bills, so to speak, Watson and White never forget that their first responsibility is to the song. This is a major reason why Clarence was so effective in the Kentucky Colonels and also why he was such an in-demand session player. While he could obviously take off on mind-boggling solos, he also knew when not to play, how not to step on the toes of his fellow musicians.
So, in its entirety, here’s the guitar workshop organized by Ralph Rinzler. If you like, go ahead and buy the albums via the Amazon links below. You shan’t regret it.
1964 NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL
Clarence White & Doc Watson – Soldier’s Joy
Clarence White & Doc Watson – Listen To The Mockingbird
Clarence White & Doc Watson – Farewell Blues
Clarence White & Doc Watson – Lonesome Road Blues
Clarence White & Doc Watson – Beaumont Rag
Clarence White & Doc Watson – Footprints in the Snow
All 6 songs available on the Kentucky Colonels album, Long Journey Home (Amazon)
4 of these songs also available on the Doc Watson album, Treasures Untold (Amazon)
I was at the '64 Newport Folk Festival (and '65) and was forever changed by watching Doc Watson. His son was there, too, as I remember. So many great artists playing all over the festival grounds in what they called, 'workshops'. The night concerts were separate. (But I did hear Dylan go electric in '65) Son House, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Taj Mahal, the Young Tradition, and on and on.
I believe that Doc and Clarence met earlier in 1963, when Ralph Rinzler brought Doc and Clarence Ashley to the Ash Grove and the UCLA Folk Festival…..
I think you’re right, Nancy. If I had to write this post over again, I would’ve titled it, “The Day Doc Watson PLAYED with Clarence White.”