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Friday, March 25, 2011

A voice from the mountains

As a junior undergraduate from Appalachian State University, spending a semester interning at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections is like a home away from home. During my four months in the archives, I’ve helped preserve, organize, and interpret Ralph Rinzler’s personal and professional papers, which include materials illuminating his early days as a bluegrass musician with the Greenbriar Boys to his enduring legacy as founder of the Center for Folklife and Co-founder of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival. But of particular interest is locating and compiling a preliminary guide of all materials within the collection pertaining to legendary banjo and guitar player Doc Watson.

From homemade apple pies to handmade quilts, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Watauga County North Carolina, home of Appalachian State, have nourished some of the finest Appalachian artisans, folk singers, and musicians, but none quite as remarkable and well-known as Doc Watson. 

“Ralph, I was born in Stoney Fork Township of Watauga County of N.C. I grew up on a little mountain farm there,” begins one of the earliest letters Doc wrote to Ralph on Dec. 30, 1960 now housed in the Ralph Rinzler Papers.

“My Dad taught me how to play the five string banjo and I just learned the guitar by ear,” the letter continues, as Doc shares with Ralph his humble beginnings as a talented musician, growing up blind.

The story of how Ralph first met Doc is one of sheer happenstance, worth repeating. In 1960, Ralph ventured down to the Old Time Fiddler’s Convention at Union Grove in the foothills of North Carolina. Aimlessly walking past an informal jam session being held in a high school classroom, Ralph stumbled upon an old banjo player entertaining a crowd with a few tunes. This old banjo and guitar player turned out to be none other than Tom Clarence Ashley.

A few months later, Ralph rushed back to record Ashley and his group playing old time tunes at Eva Moore’s house (Ashley’s daughter) in Shouns, Tennessee.  One of the members of the group, an aspiring Rockabilly musician, was jamming on the electric, amplified guitar. Ralph, on a quest to discover only old time folk musicians, refused to record him. 

The next day, while riding in the back of a pick up truck with members of Ashley’s band, Ralph, playing a five string banjo, was surprised when the truck stopped, and the same young electric guitar player from the day before gets out of the cab and  says to Ralph “Let me see that banjo son.”  He proceeded to “play the hell out of it,” Ralph said in a later interview, playing Tom Dooley, a traditional mountain tune. “And I thought to myself, how does it happen that an electric guitar player can do that!” Little did Ralph know, he had discovered a man who would soon become one of the greatest folk musicians from Appalachia, Doc Watson.    

Instantly mesmerized by Doc’s natural music talents, Rinzler wasted no time in sharing Doc’s soothing melodic voice and exceptional musical talent with the rest of the world, and booked his first show at the Ash Grove, a Los Angeles folk club. In 1961, Ralph helped record Doc’s first group album on Folkways called Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s Vol. 1. With Rinzler working as both Doc’s manager and encouraging friend, in no time at all, Watson was propelled to the forefront of the American folk music revival of the 60s. The rest is history! 

Nothing better expresses the deep friendship and understanding, which these two budding musicians shared early on than this photograph, housed in the Ralph Rinzler Papers, taken in April 1962 at Swarthmore College (Rinzler’s alma mater). Surrounded by nature, Ralph, holding his mandolin, eagerly observes Doc strum out a tune on his guitar.  In 1963 and 1964, Doc performed at the Newport Folk Festival, with which Ralph had a long association in various capacities. 

Since then, Doc has been the recipient of seven Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. 

“I am deeply indebted to Ralph Rinzler. He did not leave me where he found me,” Watson said upon Rinzler’s death on July 14, 1994.

Perhaps the one accolade that resonates closest to me is when Watson received his honorary Doctor of Folk Arts degree from Appalachian State University in May 1973.

While combing through the Watson archival materials, I often find myself silently humming my favorite song of his “Shady Grove,” and it always brings a smile to my face as I am reminded of the Appalachian Mountains, the place which we will both always call home.   

Related Materials: 

The Diana Davies Photographs include this shot of Doc playing with his son Merle at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.

The Robert Yellin Photographs house a few shots of Doc, including the photo at left.

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