Doc Watson’s First New York Headline Gigs Immortalized For Posterity

by delarue

Casual fans of Americana may not realize that before Doc Watson’s career on the folk music circuit took off, he was an electric guitarist. People back home in North Carolina didn’t want to hear the oldtime stuff: they wanted rockabilly, and Watson was giving then what they wanted. It was at this transitional moment in 1962 that eighteen-year-old fan Peter Siegel made a couple of good quality mono recordings of Watson’s first two Manhattan headline gigs, the first at NYU and the second a last-minute booking which turned out to be one of the final performances at the West Village folk club Blind Lemon’s.

Almost sixty years later, Siegel digitized the files; the result is a new Smithsonian Folkways vinyl album, streaming at Spotify comprising selections from both shows. It has additional historical value for being a rare recording of multi-instrumentalist Gaither Carlton, Watson’s father in law, who joins him here on fiddle and occasional banjo. Since these were sit-down concerts, not down-home dances, the two keep the songs short: practically everything here is under the three-minute mark, often less than two. Compared to the kind of whirlwind picking Watson would electrify audiences with later in his career, this is a revealing look at his original, much more low-key approach to acoustic material.

Watson and Carlton open with the fiddler’s bittersweetly vampy instrumental Double File, on banjo and fiddle, respectively. With his stark tone, Carlton typically doubles the melody line or shadows Watson, as he does throughout the brisk heartbreak ballad Handsome Molly. That tune, and the grim, perennially relevant Civil War narrative He’s Coming to Us Dead are credited to legendary fiddler G.B. Grayson, Carlton’s mentor.

Watson switches back from guitar to banjo for a relativley low-key take of Corrina, Corrina then returns to guitar for the instrumental Brown’s Dream and its tasty moving bassline. He’s back on banjo for the wistful farewell song My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains. From his banter with the crowd, it’s clear that he takes some pride in the duo’s rather hypnotic original guitar-and-fiddle arrangement of Bonaparte’s Retreat.

The album’s b-side starts off on a similar note with the banjo tune Willie Moore and continues with The Blue Ridge Mountain Blues: once again, hearing Watson move that bassline around is a clinic in Appalachian harmony. They pick up the pace, Watson on banjo for Goin’ Back to Jericho, then flatpicking his guitar on the instrumental Billy in the Low Ground.

The most rustic of all the songs here is a hobo tune, Reuben’s Train. The Dream of the Miner’s Child – credited to Andrew Jenkins – is one of the most ominous, the little girl in the story afraid she’ll lose her dad to his dangerous dajyob. There are also two version of an early 20s novelty song, Groundhog., The first, from the club, has Carlton on banjo; Watson plays it on the more boisterous take from the NYU gig.