Folk on the Silver Screen: The late Doc Watson (1923-2012) had been one of the most influential American folk, country and blues guitarists. Together with his son Merle (1949-1985) he convinced audiences worldwide. Doc & Merle - their filmic memorial has been revealed again now.
Arthel Lane Watson had been born in Deep Gap, North Carolina in 1923. Because of an eye infection he lost his vision before his first birthday. However, he proved to be a natural musical talent. He took up the guitar, influenced by country music artists such as Jimmie Rodgers or the Carter Family. Within a short time he was busking on street corners.
In 1953, Watson joined a country and western swing band. Although often asked to play at square dances, the group didn't have a fiddler. So Watson taught himself to play fiddle tunes on his Les Paul electric guitar.
He later transferred his technique to the acoustic guitar. It was at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival that Watson was discovered by the budding folk revival movement, which gave him credit for both his skills on the guitar and his authentic rural background.
Watson became best known for his flatpicking style, featuring a repertoire of old-time and bluegrass fiddle tunes and virtuosic crosspicking techniques. Over the years he also acquired a huge repertoire of traditional songs from his home area in North Carolina.
In 1947, Watson had married Rosa Lee Carlton with whom he had two children. Eddy Merle (named after country music legends Eddy Arnold and Merle Travis), born in 1949, started performing with his father from the age of 15 and became a skilled flat-picking and slide guitarist in his own right.
Until Merle's untimely death in 1985 (he died in a tractor accident on the family farm), Doc and Merle recorded over a dozen albums. With T. Michael Coleman on bass guitar both toured all around the world to critical acclaim. Wilkesboro's annual MerleFest, which has become one of the largest folk music festivals in the US, had been named in Merle's honor.
Just before Merle's death, University lecturers Kevin Balling and Joe Murphy had the chance to accompany father and son for a couple of days with a video camera. They capture them talking and tripping down memory lane. And then, unexpected surprise, you watch the blind Doc Watson hammering nails in his workshop and repairing a rooftop window high above the ground.
Interviews with companions of many years as well as rare photographs and film footage of concert appearances and informal sessions on the home porch facilitate to tell Doc and Merle's story. Of course, both are captured in full flight playing music -- together as well as with Doc's musical partners from the 1950s and 60s. Sixteen songs are presented ranging from "Wabash Cannonball" and "Freight Train Blues" to forays into rockabilly and rock 'n' roll.
Another distinguished American guitarist, Stefan Grossman, has been releasing videos for many years on his Vestapol label. They are mostly instructional videos, e.g. his own ragtime guitar tutor, some performance videos (including DVDs of Doc and Merle) and re-releases of classic albums, e.g. from Bert Jansch and John Renbourn.
There had been at least one documentary, "Four American Roots Music Films" by Yasha Aginsky," and now for the first time on DVD Balling/Murphy's delightful documentary on the folk music legends Doc and Merle Watson.
The film has the bonus of half an hour footage of the TV show "Homewood," filmed in Los Angeles, California in 1970, with Doc and Merle performing eight songs such as "Hold the Woodpile Down", "Shady Grove", "Peach Picking Time In Georgia", and "Stagolee."
What can I say? Thanks, Stefan, keep going!!!
Photo Credits: (1) DVD Cover 'Doc & Merle', (2) Doc & Merle Watson, (3) Stefan Grossman, (4)-(6) LP Cover (unknown / websites).