Doc Watson – Live at Club 47
Yep Roc Records – 9 February 2018
“Everybody calls me Doc.” A humble Voice of God rings out in the cloudy rooms of Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1963. Doc Watson won’t tell the crowd his real name, but he’ll invite them into the deepest memories of his Southern childhood, to share the most poignant heartbreak, and to revel in the joyous folk tradition that made the man we know as Doc. His pastures of plenty were free, and the day his love left him the sun still shined. Life is tragic, but “worrisome lands” can’t drown “upbeat tunes”—that’s what makes this Doc Watson album so special today.
Live at Club 47 is a never-before-heard concert recording from early in Doc Watson’s career. While some artists’ live releases are easily reduced to indulgent pieces of behind-the-scenes memorabilia, this record undercuts any ideas about the inferiority of live recordings or their relevance only to a superfan niche. Live is the only way to hear Doc Watson. His authenticity, his geniality, his legacy is stifled and suppressed in a cheerless, dry studio. Give him a room full of people (Yankees even), to whom his Southern slang is unaffected and his unpretentious anecdotes are collectable. Like observers to history, they mirror that spirit back upon him, and then upon us. It’s a delight to be an observer to a decades-gone-by, pivotal moment in Doc’s career.
Doc Watson is an exquisite novelty to the middle-class New England crowd at Club 47 in an era when young American folkies swapped the songs of their heritage like athletes swap pins at the Olympics. Somewhere between the Old Left and the New Left, we hear inklings of both in Doc’s music. Sombre English ballads like “Little Margaret” are pulled from the songbooks of Pete Seeger. The guitar takes a back seat here, as Doc picks up a banjo in order to play the tune truly Seeger-style. Another gem from this genre is Doc’s version of “House Carpenter,” for which he takes the opposite turn and puts the banjo aside in favour of his familiar guitar: “You hardly never hear this song played the way I’m gonna’ do it.” We wouldn’t have it any other way. Doc’s adaptability on the guitar allows him to carve out this familiar melody with delicate attention. Bleak but gentle, funerary and mournful, gossamer and vague, this is one of the best-recorded versions of “House Carpenter” we’ve never heard.
On the other side of the coin is the bounty of songs in which the emergence of the 1960s Folk Revival is evident. He attributes his crowd-favourite plucking style to country star Merle Travis, but a young folk crowd might have easily attributed it to the legend of the American folk Renaissance, Mississippi John Hurt. Doc borrows mindfully from the folk lexicon, and he’s keen to pass it on. There’s a speck of Woody Guthrie but also a consequential dollop of Bob Dylan in “Doc’s Talkin’ Blues.” Boisterous laughter rattles through the audience as Doc talks over a perky, skipping riff: “Ain’t no use in me working so hard / I’ve got me a woman in the boss’s yard / and when she kills me a chicken she saves me a wing / She thinks I’m workin’ when I ain’t doin a thing, just layin’ around.” After a strum, there’s a punchline. “And courtin’ other women.” The women in Doc’s comedic folklore are mean, but the men are meaner. All is fair in love and war. Just a year later Bob Dylan would release the similarly self-deprecating talking song “I Shall Be Free No. 10”
The talking in between the songs is nearly as important as the talking in them, with Doc putting each song in the context of its origins, fulfilling little pieces of the folk tradition puzzle. Every song is a “favourite” of Doc’s, it seems — even those he quickly prepares at the request of the crowd. But, the hand-selected finale to this record is especially bittersweet. Looking back upon the life of this country icon, whether or not we truly knew who Doc Watson privately was, he spoke something like a coming-of-age story that resonated with each of his fans. It’s a particular person who holds this music dear, perhaps a person less prevalent today than ever before, as America heralds a beautiful emerging culture of mixed traditions and blended heritage, and roots music is less focused upon the singular identity of the European-American Southern country boy. But, Doc’s tale of misfortune and resilience is still as touching as ever. Born in the North Carolina High Country, listening to the Carter Family and playing a homemade groundhog hide banjo, stricken with an illness that left him blind as a child, living with that blindness, and eventually recognizing it as perhaps the reason he was such a technically skilled guitarist: Doc’s story is a story for now in so many ways.
Live at Club 47 leaves us with “Childhood Play,” a rag-like jaunt, feeding the Cambridge crowd the Southern authenticity they crave, and reminding us that we are all just adults who were once, and in many ways still are, children. “Could I only find / the way back to the yesterdays / to the golden days of my childhood play / my life would be different / my enemies would be friends / my leisures would not be wasted / nor my life so full of sins.” Since his death six years ago, many new stars of country music have emerged. Doc’s legacy lives on through younger artists. His spirit carries on through MerleFest, named in honour of his son who died tragically in 1985. Through family, friends, and fans, many initiatives to remember and honour Doc have taken place and many tributes have proved that his name will endure. But, it’s all so complex: Grammy awards, Lifetime achievements, biographies, and memorabilia paint a picture of a musician who, in his later life, was a legend. Refreshingly, Live at Club 47 reminds us that he was simply a remarkable man.
Live at Club 47 is released as part of the partnership between Yep Roc Records and The Southern Folklife Collection.