Doc Watson – Way Down Watson
To begin with, the end, or pretty much so: A man named Sherman Cooper. Abandoned heir to a decaying Southern elite, he now tends the 40 square miles of the Mississippi Delta his family once owned, before they sold it off in parcels. His family, the Taylors, left him a hundred acres and some warped structures of wood and tin: a yam barn packed with rotting furniture, a stable in disuse, pens of stray dogs, a guest house filled with choked cigarettes, books, and Choctaw arrowheads and grindstones. “I walked many a mile for those,” he says as we get in his truck.
From his driveway we pull onto Mississippi 310 and head into the pecan orchards of Como. Sherman’s not bitter about all the lost land. He knows it was never his anyway, though he thinks his neighbors are foolish for cutting down trees and razing good buildings. We pass a chimney beneath dying pecans, an obelisk left from a shack the land owner had him burn. We find Hammond Hill Road, the stereo howling with Mississippi Fred McDowell, a late, electric recording I hadn’t heard before. Sherman stops at a small graveyard. There’d been a burial that weekend: a mound of earth lavished with bouquets. McDowell’s grave lay beside it.
Sherman was at McDowell’s funeral in 1972. The headstone, furnished in part by Bonnie Raitt, also bears the name Annie Mae McDowell, Fred’s wife. There’s an empty oval at the top where a portrait once rested, pried loose and stolen, it seems. On the back of the stone, a song lyric: “You may be high, you may be low/You may be rich child, you may be poor/But when the lord gets ready, you gotta move.”
Fred McDowell, among the best of the country bluesmen, was brought to vast influence and international recognition by the folk and blues revival of the ’50s and ’60s. Without this revival, American music and culture would be altered, poorer I think, and the music most often explored by No Depression would be impossible.
McDowell would have kept playing regardless, and many in the Delta heard him play. Still, without the revival, his voice and words — as revealingly human as any sound ever heard — would have been lost to time. With a few rare exceptions the communities surrounding Como no longer sustain McDowell’s tradition, the young know little of the blues, and there are few guitars around to be played. The folk revival was chiefly a messenger for the stories of life and death others composed; through it, in part, those stories have gone on floating, circulating, and transforming in the widest circles of American music.
Fred McDowell was near the end of my Southern pilgrimage; Doc Watson was near the start. If their music isn’t parallel, their fates as professional musicians are. Like McDowell, Doc Watson was born in a rural community, was raised on music both vital and stretching back before precise history, and received the kind fortune to share his skill with the world.
My road to the Delta took me through West Virginia, down into the valleys and tunnels of Appalachia. When you turn off on North Carolina 16, you glimpse the world of Free Will Baptist Churches, big pines hanging low, snow on the shadow side of the hills, pumpkin fields spoiling, tobacco barns, homes set in the gaps, men splitting firewood for smoking chimneys, signs at crossroads pointing to a “Fight Contest” or to Damascus.
Clouds like fat comets or pentecostal emblems descend over Ashe County; below them, the New River forks north and south. By the time you wind down toward Deep Gap (pop. 250), it’ll be dark; but for the lights around a produce stand and the gas station, everything is shadows. Side roads disappear completely into black.
“I live in a little community called Deep Gap; it’s not even incorporated. I live about three miles from where I was born and raised.” A few weeks before my trip, Doc Watson agreed to talk to me on the phone, if I agreed to use a tape recorder and to quote him exactly. He explains why he has stayed in the hills. “It’s home,” he says. “That’s the best answer I can give you. I love the mountains of North Carolina. I’ve been asked by at least three dozen people, ‘Why don’t you move to the city? It would be more convenient.’ I said, No, I don’t like the city, and it wouldn’t be more convenient because I have to travel all over the country anyway, so why not live where I like it best.”
The facts of Watson’s life are well-known. He was born March 3, 1923, son of General Dixon and Annie Watson. Blind since infancy, Doc was encouraged to work by his father. He developed a love of carpentry and electrical work, the craftsmanship manifest in every guitar lick. His first instrument was the harmonica, then a banjo, then a little $12 Stella guitar. In 1940 he bought a Martin D-28 and paid it off by busking in South Carolina. Certainly, the music around Deep Gap was profound and rich, but the community couldn’t support a virtuoso with professional hopes.
“There was a few ‘old-timers,’ as we called the older folks that played the old-time banjo and fiddle,” Doc recalls. “My dad, when he started me on that homemade banjo, he played a few tunes, then he quit and never would play anymore. He said, ‘Ah son, you can pick it better than I can.'” Doc laughs. “Anyhow, there were some old-time fiddlers around, different people. My father-in-law, the late Gaither Carlton, played some music with me on up through the ’60s. Went on the road a few trips in the days of the folk revival. There wasn’t all that much music around, to tell you the truth. You know, there was just a few. There wasn’t all that many people who played in the immediate community where I lived. Just very few.”
Doc’s repertoire draws on handed-down tradition, but also on commercial sources available at home. “By the time I got big enough to be interested in learning something about the guitar and banjo, there was the radio and the old Victrola,” Doc says. “I learned a few old-time fiddle tunes from a local fellow named Ben Miller, who was a very fine old-time fiddler in his own right. He was one of the local people I played with. There was Doc Walsh — Doc Welch as they called him around here — who recorded some in the late ’20s….We also had recordings by everybody, from Uncle Dave Macon, John Hurt, Gid Tanner & the Skillet Lickers, Riley Puckett…and the original Carter Family. There was Jimmie Rodgers, and I think a recording or two by Furry Lewis, one of the old black blues singers. They were sold in the area. Music bridges a lot of gaps. [The collection] wasn’t big, but it was quite varied.”