National Mandolin, Tenor and Plectrum
It's doubtful that John Dopyera and architectural pioneer Louis Sullivan ever met. But, social and cultural worlds apart, they were kindred souls. Although Sullivan coined his famous phrase "form follows function" with buidings in mind, it must have been a guiding principal for inventor Dopyera and his collaborators. In late 1927, their California-based National company introduced a full line of revolutionary metal-bodied resonator instruments like the trio pictured above.
With amplifying spun-aluminum cones (not unlike speakers) supported by a nickel-silver substructure and body, National guitars were perhaps the first instruments to be designed from the inside-out. The aim was to provide greater volume and projection for the musician who was finding himself increasingly drowned out. Like shiny musical machinery for a modern age, the finished inventions were duly granted the first of several mechanical patents in 1929, two years after the prototypes were completed.
Often erroneously tagged Art Deco by collectors and vintage instrument enthusiasts, the bodies of National "Silvers" are more akin to the earlier dramatically streamlined styles of the Bauhaus (a more straightforward industrial aesthetic) than to repetitive patterns of home furnishing motifs. It's unlikely that the National folks were even aware of the Art Deco movement, since it wasn't unveiled in Europe until late 1925, and didn't spread over here until years later. The Nationals were simply made in shapes dictated by their value as players' tools. They were innovation with instruments wrapped around them.
These three share the same "pear-shaped" hull, which is as appropriate for the banjo-like tenor and plectrum as it is for the body of a mandolin. The bodies receive two separate styles of coverplate — triangular and circular — which echo the tricone and single-cone internal structures. Each instrument is completed by the addition of a very standard-looking fretted wooden neck, of the necessary length and width.
The single-cone plectrum (center) showcases what was available to those with a taste for the fancy. Models like this Style 3 were delicately incised by engravers with a cascading "Lily of the Valley" decoration. Its flowered filigree and pearl neck and headstock inlay seem an unlikely juxtaposition to the stark geometry of the nickel-silver metalwork, but like most of what the National company produced, it is perfect.
— R.J. Klimpert
Doc Watson Passes
Doc Watson, the iconic country and bluegrass guitarist/performer who helped popularize the flatpicking playing style, passed away May 29 at a hospital in North Carolina. Watson had been hospitalized after falling at his home, and died after undergoing abdominal surgery. He was 89.
Born Arthel Lane Watson in Stoney Fork, North Carolina, he was the sixth of nine children born to laborer/farmer parents. As a baby, he suffered from a congenital vascular disorder near his eyes, and was blinded when a midwife used contaminated eyedrops on him. He began playing banjo as a child, using an instrument made by his father. Later, after he began attending the North Carolina State School for the Blind in Raleigh, he learned to play guitar. By 19, he was performing on a radio station in Raleigh, where an announcer dubbed him "Doc" rather than his given name, because Doc was easier to pronounce. In 1960, while performing in North Carolina, he was introduced to folklorist/music promoter Ralph Rinzler, who organized for Watson a tour of coffeehouses in the northeast, which in turn led to him playing the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. Received enthusiastically by the audience there, recording contracts and more gigs soon followed.
By the mid '60s, he began performing with his son, Merle, who had taken to the guitar while his father was on tour. Through the remainder of that decade and into the '70s, the two played to dedicated audiences and received critical acclaim for their recordings and live performances. In October of 1985, Merle was killed in an accident on the family farm. In '88, Watson, with the help of Frederick Townes, Dean of Resource Development at Wilkes Community College, and friend Ala Sue Wyke, organized a benefit concert to raise money for a memorial in honor of Merle. The event evolved to become MerleFest, which today is one of the most popular acoustic-/roots-music festivals in the world.
Watson received many awards, among them several Grammys, including a 2004 lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. He is survived by his wife, Rose Lee Carlton, and a daughter, Nancy Watson.
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