Graded on a Curve:
Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton, Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton

The late guitarist, banjoist and singer Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson is rightly considered a jewel of 20th century folk music, so it’s fantastic that Smithsonian Folkways is issuing recordings from his first two concerts as a headliner, both held in NYC in October 1962. What’s even sweeter is that the music, most of it previously unheard, also features Watson’s father-in-law Gaither Carlton on fiddle and banjo. Watson’s abilities are already in evidence as Carlton’s playing is lithe and sharp. Together, they conjure the verve of the old-time sound in front of appreciative crowds big and small. Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton is out now on LP, CD and digital.

While this album offers long-belated documentation of Doc Watson’s first headlining shows, it doesn’t capture an inexperienced musician. By the point of his 1962 NYC appearances, first at an October 12 show put on by the Friends of Old Time Music at the auditorium of NYU’s School of Education, and second on October 18 at the West Greenwich Village coffee house Blind Lemon’s, he’d been playing for a few decades, and in the early 1950s was even the guitarist in a western swing band.

Having refocused his attention on acoustic guitar and banjo on the advice of mandolin player and musicologist Ralph Rinzler, he’d already been recorded as part of the 1960 sessions that shaped Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s, Vol. 1, which came out on Folkways the next year. A second volume followed in ’62 or ’63 (sources differ), as did The Watson Family, also for Folkways, which has recordings that also date from 1960.

Those records are especially pertinent to the release under review here, as all three feature contributions from Gaither Carlton alongside his son-in-law and others (The Watson Family is the recording debut of both Doc and Gaither, in fact). What makes Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton so valuable is how it serves up the two playing together uninterrupted and undiluted (the Folkways albums above included other contributors on numerous tracks, often with no input from Doc or Gaither at all).

Additionally, by the end of 1964 (that year bringing an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival for the two), Carlton’s career as a public performer and recording artist was effectively over (in the words of his granddaughter Nancy Ellen Watson, he was a “shy, retiring man”). And so, this album not only captures Watson in prime early form but teams him with an elder musician of uncommon skill and sensitivity, who was documented very seldom. That he was the father of Doc’s wife Rosa Lee clearly added to the close musicality heard across this album.

Born in 1901 as part of the last generation of Appalachian musicians whose breadth of influence was community-based (unlike Watson in his youth, the Carlton household had no radio), Gaither Carlton was a contemporary of Clarence “Tom” Ashley and as noted in the terrific liner appreciation for this set from contemporary old-time fiddler Stephanie Coleman, was an old friend of fiddler George Banman “G.B.” Grayson of the duo Grayson and Whitter.

Grayson plays “Ommie Wise” solo on the crown jewel of the Folkways discography, the Harry Smith-compiled Anthology of American Folk Music (Ashley’s also on that three-volume collection, twice). Relating these relationships gets to an even deeper layer of this record’s specialness; in the consideration of old-time music, Carlton is the root stuff.

Fittingly then, the LP begins with Carlton’s composition “Double File” from the NYU performance, a fiddle instrumental with Watson on guitar. In her song notes for the album, Mary Katherine Aldin mentions how the tune relies heavily on a minor chord and further observes its more modern feel, though in its attention to melody it reminded me of  “Sail Away Lady” by Uncle Bunt Stephens (also sans vocals, it opens volume two of the Anthology).

In a smart approach, Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton then jumps ahead to the show at Blind Lemon’s for a seven song stretch that, perhaps spurred by the intimacy of the room, finds the warmth increasing as Watson shines on banjo and vocal on a tune Carlton learned from Grayson (and Watson from his father). “He’s Coming to Us Dead” is yet another song from Grayson and Whitter, though in his spoken intro, Watson surmises that it dates from the Civil War, a conclusion drawn from the subject matter of a family receiving the casket of their son, a Union soldier.

Watson sings the tune with the great communicative power that made him such a favorite not only during the ’60s folk boom, which the next track “Corrina” for banjo and fiddle hits right in the bullseye, but also the roots and Americana scenes of the ’70s and forward. But instrumental “Brown’s Dream” gives Carlton another chance to shine on fiddle and then on banjo for the first of the album’s two versions of “Groundhog” (adding to the allure here is a ringing telephone toward the end of the cut).

As previously recorded by the Carolina Tar Heels, the Carter Family, and the Delmore Brothers, “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains” lands right in Watson and Carlton’s creative wheelhouse, with Carlton back on fiddle. They put a solid personal stamp on it, with some top-flight playing from the pair, featuring Watson on banjo.

Watson and Carlton’s home region resurfaces on the second side through a nifty reading of “The Blue Ridge Mountain Blues.” As it unfolds, it’s difficult to decide which is stronger, Doc’s singing (and guitar picking) or Gaither’s fiddle. But don’t let’s get ahead of ourselves. Closing the first side is “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” a song that’ll surely be familiar to fans of old-time fiddling; this version is particularly appealing, as much for Watson’s superb guitar as for Carlton’s typically excellent bow pulling.

Side two opens with “Willie Moore” (recorded in 1927 by Burnett and Rutherford, also on the Anthology). It’s from the NYU show, and it’s a fine take, as is the banjo clinic “Goin’ Back to Jericho,” which like “The Blue Ridge Mountain Blues” preceding it, comes from the show at Blind Lemon’s. “Billy in the Low Ground,” from NYU, is another fiddle showcase that’s followed by “Rueben’s Train” (back at Blind Lemon’s); that one reminds me a bit of Bascom Lamar Lunsford (who is known for a version) though it was also recorded by, you guessed it, Grayson and Whitter as “Train Forty-Five.”

As should be clear by the title, “The Dream of the Miner’s Child” is a miner’s song, though Aldin notes that its roots are in the British music hall. For the closing cut, we return once more to the show sponsored by the Friends of Old Time Music for the second version of “Groundhog,” with Watson on autoharp, Carlton of fiddle, and Doc’s brother Arnold on banjo.

It delivers a nice twist as finale to a splendid collection that should please devotees of pure old-time gusto, lovers of old-time interpreters The New Lost City Ramblers and the early Holy Modal Rounders, and of course, fans of Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • Linda

    Very cool. What was the address of “West Greenwich Village coffee house Blind Lemon’s”?

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