Imagine young Athel “Doc” Watson taking his first long bus ride up from Tennessee, stepping off a Greyhound into the teeming clamor of NYC’s Port Authority terminal. Well, that’s how it happened when the blind Southerner arrived in Manhattan to play a four-week solo gig at a place called Gerde’s Folk City.
It was his first Northern gig, not counting the concert he played with his father-in-law, Gaither Carlton, and brother, Arnold, at NYU in October of ’62. It was also the first time most of his audience had ever heard the guitar style called flatpicking.
Peter K. Seigel, a young folk enthusiast, recorded Doc’s shows at Gerdes, and now, with the assistance of Henry Street Folklore Productions, has made available a CD of this early performance. Unlike most early recordings, the quality of these tapes is remarkably good. Doc’s strong voice and trailblazing guitar are captured with excellent fidelity. Listen closely, and you can even tell Doc was using a mid-’50s Gibson J-45!
Not only does this CD capture Doc’s flatpicking (“Little Sadie”), but it also displays his fingerpicking finesse on “Cannonball Rag” and “Blue Smoke,” his mandolin mastery on “Liberty,” and his banjo bionics on “The Wagoner’s Lad.” This performance leaves little doubt that in 1962, Watson had few, if any, technical peers. Only Norman Blake comes to mind.
Many “historical” recordings are noteworthy primarily for their archival (rather than musical) value. Doc Watson at Gerdes Folk City is different; the music is as fresh and engaging as it was 39 years ago. If you’re one of those folks (like me) who has always felt Doc Watson was a guitar God, this CD proves it. Visit sugarhillrecords.com
This review originally appeared in VG‘s Nov. ’01 issue.