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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Deep Cuts from Deep Gap: A Doc Watson Playlist

“Ralph… Rosa Lee has made up a list of Folkways records which I now have and I am enclosing it with this letter.” 
—Doc Watson to Ralph Rinzler, June 1963.
Ralph Rinzler Papers and Audio Recordings, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.

For the past six months, I’ve been examining the Ralph Rinzler Papers, page by page, to write a descriptive record of its contents. While combing through his correspondence with Doc Watson, I discovered the above list of albums, representing each Folkways album Doc owned in 1963. That was a pivotal year in his career, when he first performed at the Newport Folk Festival and recorded his first solo album with Vanguard Records.

It’s rare to have the chance to peek into an icon’s record collection at the very moment of his emergence as a commercial artist. Doc gravitated toward playing electric guitar in rockabilly bands in his early years, but his return to the traditional music of his childhood is what brought him widespread attention. These albums might have been his first from Folkways Records, representing the label’s focus on documentation of traditional American music. It’s intriguing to see which albums from the original Folkways Records catalog were earmarked for Doc’s appreciation.

Undated letter, circa 1963.
Ralph Rinzler Papers and Audio Recordings, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.
The Rinzler Archives staff selected their favorite songs from Doc’s collection to create this playlist. Doc weighed in as well: “Thanks a lot for the records you had Folkways send me,” he wrote to Ralph. “My favorite is the one by Pete Seeger and Sonny Terry. Of course that doesn’t include the last of the Ashley group. My opinion is, that Folkways won’t turn out a better example of all around old time music.”

It was while recording Clarence Ashley in 1960 that Doc and Ralph first met. Ralph was producing the recordings, which Folkways ultimately released, and Doc was playing in Ashley’s band. While Doc was being a bit cheeky in his appraisal of the Ashley albums given his involvement, we can’t say that we disagree with his opinion or his performance.

Eugene Earle, noted discographer, answers Rinzler’s questions about the origins of the Mama Blues.
Ralph Rinzler Papers and Audio Recordings, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.

Nor did Ralph disagree with the importance of Doc’s opinions and musicianship. His letters are peppered with questions that probe Doc’s lived experience of traditional music. “Have you ever heard anyone but Olin Miller play ‘Memphis Blues’ that way…?” he asked. “Was that the first tune he taught to you in finger-style guitar? Can you tell me the names of the people who recorded both ‘Otto Wood’ and ‘Little Stream of Whiskey’? … Can you tell me anything about the actual case of ‘Otto Wood’…? Whose record of ‘Mama Blues’ did you learn that piece from? Who used to sing ‘The Faithful Soldier’ that you remember from when you were a boy?” (Rinzler to Watson, November 25, 1964).

Now we wonder: are there connections between the answers Doc provided and the music Ralph sent in return? You can read more about Doc and Ralph’s relationship here.

From left: Merle Watson,  Doc Watson, and Ralph Rinzler perform at the 1984 Folklife Festival. Photo by Dane Penland, Smithsonian Folklife Festival Records, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.

In the same letter Ralph reemphasizes Doc’s significance as a tradition bearer saying, “people get more of a message from you than they do from an entertainer, and they believe in you. Now, you can say amen and forgive the sermon.”

Amen, and enjoy the music.

—Rori Smith, Processing Technician, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

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