Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Doc Watson-- Way Downtown

An era has ended in American folk music.  I'm so sad to hear that Arthel "Doc" Watson passed away today.   I've told this story before, but my musical life changed forever when my Dad brought home an LP with Doc Watson and his son Merle, Doc Watson on Stage, circa 1971. 

Understand, in my family, Dad's taste in music was considered  questionable at best.  My Korean Mom was certain that the only music worth listening too was classical music.   Much to her chagrin, my Dad liked  Nashvillers like Porter and Dolly, Hank Sr. and those types, and frankly I was more into music from the Moody Blues and Chicago or Led Zepellin.  But Doc Watson was one artist my Dad and I could agree on.  He produced an incredible clean sound from an acoustic guitar unlike anything I had ever heard before.     
    One of the interesting things about the Doc Watson album was that, as a live performance, it contained some of Doc's commentary.  "Let's play some of the Old Time fiddle tunes," he boomed.  I couldn't quite figure that out, since I was pretty sure that both he and Merle were playing guitars.  Fiddle tunes?   Eventually I figured out that American folk music was originally played with fiddle as the lead instrument, and that that came from our musical forebearers in Scotland and Ireland.   
    Doc, of course, is equally comfortable with bluegrass or Old Time and is embraced by both crowds. 
     In fact, if you search Youtube.com, there are  about a million people, it seems, who can play  Doc Watson songs virtually note for note.  I used to try to do that also, but after some 40 years, for me it's better to try to learn to play the song.  For me that means first being able to hear the basic melody of the song and chord structure, rather than copying any one version. For many of us non-virtuouso musicians, it may be more interesting to try to add some harmonies that might bring out the sound from someone else playing lead. 
   Perhaps what I'm trying to say is that trying to copy the great Doc Watson is not the easiest row to hoe, if you catch my drift.    

      I wound up finding other stuff from Doc in my Dad's collection, such as recordings from the 1964 Newport Festival, which was a mixed bag of folk musicians like Doc and young folk rockers like Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Bob Dylan.  
      Doc was great not only because of his music, but because of his authentic friendliness and humility.  He never forgot who he was.  He may have been one of the great musicians of the past 100 years, but he was also a simple country boy from Deep Gap North Carolina.  
     One story that has made the rounds is that Doc's daddy made a banjo for Doc when he was just a toddler.  What I hadn't heard until reading some of the obits is that the banjo head was made from the family's cat, who had recently passed away.  Now if that isn't authentic country, what is?
     Doc like to do concerts for college audiences, and so I'm glad that he came to Morgantown, where I had the chance to see him in person.  That was a great experience.  Not only to watch his left hand, but to laugh at his funny stories.  He said that his concert was just like being at his home, as informal as can be.  I believe that--I feel like I've been lucky enough to be his guest at his home.  What a great feeling to attend a concert that way.   

     I was working on this blog before Doc passed away, and for a while I wondered whether it would be appropriate to have a little music lesson in an obituary blog.  But then I thought, this is exactly what Doc would want us to do.  Namely, let's pass some of his music on to a new generation of musicians and listener's.  So here are the lyrics and chords (I hope--please send corrections if I've got it wrong) to  Way Downtown, with Doc and Clarence Tom Ashley....

  God bless you Doc.  We love you and your music.

                   C              G
Way downtown just foolin' around
D                      G
Took me to the jail
C                         G
It's oh me and it's oh my
D                          G

No one to go my bail
           C                               G
It was late last night when Willie came home
D                                            G
I heard him a-rapping on the door
C                                                            G                                             
He's a-slipping and a-sliding with his new shoes on
                    D                                  G
Mamma said Willie don't you rap no more

Way downtown just foolin' around
Took me to the jail
It's oh me and it's oh my
No one to go my bail


I wish I was over at my sweet Sally's house
Sittin' in that big armed chair
One arm around this old guitar
And the other one around my dear

Way down town just foolin' around
Took me to the jail
It's oh me and it's oh my
No one to go my bail


Now, its one old shirt is all that I got
And a dollar is all that I crave
I brought nothing with me into this old world
Ain't gonna take nothing to my grave