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Arts & Entertainment

Peter Stenshoel's album of the week: The Sound of Folk Music Vol. 2

Kevin Ferguson

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Hootenanny, a TV show featuring live folk music groups, featured clean-cut collegiate-style singers, and, in fact, took place on various college campuses around the U.S. The Kingston Trio, The Brothers Four, The Limelighters, and many long-forgotten Hootenanny regulars, had their place in the awakening Roots scene of the 60s, but the staple the show provided consisted of twenty-somethings who had learned these songs second-hand. I had no real understanding of the variety and richness of America's traditions.

The Sound of Folk Music Vol. 2 changed that. It does have some second-hand performers on it, albeit really good ones like Mike Seeger and Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, but it racheted up my hearing of authentic sources. Clara Ward and Her Gospel Singers brought me straight into joyous Black Church worship with "Twelve Gates to the City." Jack Elliot, who had traveled around with Woody Guthrie, demonstrated unadorned simplicity with "Sowing on the Mountain," and Almeda Riddle, whom we kids made fun of but now I love, had a scratchy-voiced but heartfelt rendition of "The Wreck of No. 9." Buffy Sainte-Marie, of Native American descent, never failed to move me with "Now That the Buffalo's Gone."

But the song that kept me coming back again and again was "Deep River Blues," by Doc Watson, whose death this May ushered in tributes far and wide. His voice itself was a marvel: casual, deep, holding the qualities of a fine radio announcer. His guitar playing was unbelievably complex but performed with ease and grace. His tune was so bluesy, but this was an Appalachian kind of bluesy, and hit me with a palpable satisfaction. And the song's lyrics were wry, visceral, and a tad mysterious.

A friend of mine holds the master musician in the highest esteem, so I invited him to contribute to this column. He met the Doc several times and tells his tale here. Therefore, I yield the rest of the blog entry to Steve Anders:

I was moved by Doc Watson's recent death. In my head, he was always going to be around. We not only lost a crackerjack musician, but I also think we lost a gracious, appreciative and humble, good human being. No fussiness. No ego trips. No breaking up the hotel room furniture. I can't claim to know him. I've met him, shook his hand, and listened to him live a handful of times.  

I went to St. Olaf College, in Northfield, Minnesota. Late Sixties. A year before I arrived, Al Heigl, a 'student' and college radio engineer, had started the St. Olaf Folk Festival. Background: Al owned, and played well, a very special Martin twelve-string guitar. It was a masterpiece. Fretted like butter, and projected sound like no acoustic I'd ever heard.  

Now, Al was a bit of a reprobate around campus. He'd been kicked out of school a couple years before, for various infractions. Somehow, he was officially hired to be an engineer at WCAL, the campus-owned, highly respected, classical music station of some renown. I only accompanied him once when he would brazenly get into concerts at the justly famous, acoustically perfect Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, 45 miles away.

He did it numerous times. He told me to bring a guitar. He had his twelve-string. The two of us showed up at the stage door entrance, rear of the theatre. With an authoritative, but not pushy, attitude when the guard came to the door he'd matter-of-factly say "Miss Collins' guitars." (As in Judy...or John Denver...or Leo Kottke, et al).

It never failed, he was granted access every time. He got to know the dressing rooms so well, that he wandered through them, replacing sodas from the fridge in one empty room to the artists' busy one. He watched most of the shows from the wings, introduced himself to the artists, and generally, was kind of a friendly, convenient gofer. He became an expected regular. Almost everyone was introduced to, and played, his guitar. Many tried to buy it, or told him to contact them if he ever decided to sell. Doc Watson played it, and offered to buy it as well. 

This was how Doc ended up at St. Olaf in 1967 for the festival: Three days of wonderful folk music at this frozen-land, conservative Lutheran school. That year the featured folks were Doc, Leo Kottke, and Jim Kweskin. Locked in my brain is Kweskin's banjo-accompanied audience sing along of "Leaning On Jesus." St. Olaf was, and is, well known for it's a cappella choir. Lots of singers in various groups all over campus. The harmonies that rang through the high-ceilinged room on that song was tear-inducing. I doubt Kweskin has ever had it so enthusiastically received. 

Doc's shows were packed, and we literally could sit on the floor only feet in front of him. First, you just liked him immediately. Warm, Southern baritone greeting us and thanking us for coming out to see him. Then that magical thing often happens with musicians who hold their instruments...they become one. This was Doc and his acoustic....and, with no 'adjusting' "I'm getting ready to perform for you now" posturing, he slides into Deep River Blues, peeling off those riffs with facial grimacing on bends, no rock star posing...just simple, country beauty and flow. 

In between songs he became an unaccompanied, entertaining storyteller. Characters from back home, bits from on the road, all with a glad-I-was-there enthusiasm...with delectable timing, build and payoff.  Here was this cynical audience of college know-it-all punks, completely enamored with this self-effacing country gentleman and his stories and songs. It was grand. 

The next year, Doc Watson's son, Merle came with him.  He played like Dad had been his teacher, and he had a nice harmony voice to Doc's melodies. Whether it was Doc alone, or with Merle, their stays were a pleasure. Available to anyone who wanted to talk with him, maybe learn a riff, Doc enjoyed himself, laughing now and then, enjoying the students who always greeted him warmly. This guy will be missed. I hope his songs & his spirit carry on.

I was glad I was there.