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August 15, 2010

Sunday Book Thread

I only got through one book this week: Blind But Now I See: The Biography of Music Legend Doc Watson. I've mentioned before, I think, that I'm not normally all that fond of biographies, but I made an exception in this case because Doc Watson has been a hero of mine for years and years. His fabulous guitar-playing was what inspired me to learn the instrument myself, but as I learned of his humility, grace, good nature, and amazing story-telling talents, I began to like the man as much as his music.

Doc Watson was one of the pioneers of the flatpicking style of acoustic guitar (for an example, see this video), and just about every hot bluegrass or country picker who has come along afterward counts him as a major influence. (Many is the night I've spent hours trying to reproduce some lick or other, only to be completely frustrated. One truth I found out about that kind of amazing musical ability: it takes a huge amount of skill to make guitar-playing look that easy. I generally left these sessions with a huge urge to break my guitar over a fire-hydrant.)

The book itself isn't really telling me anything I didn't already know, but for fans of roots, country, or bluegrass music it probably has a lot of interesting background material they've never seen before. (Doc, who has been blind since birth, actually wired his own house for electricity and passed the inspection!) But it's his acoustic guitar-playing that put him on the map, and the book spends quite a bit of time on the 1960's period of Doc's career, when he was moving up through the folk movement. It says something about the man that even a highly-religious and conservative southern man could nevertheless gain the respect and love of such hard-core lefties as Pete Seeger.

I'm always amazed that Doc -- who is now in his 90's -- has managed to retain both his religious beliefs and his good-natured humility after being in the "entertainment business" for so long. I've seen him perform a few times, and I can attest that his wonderful musicianship on both banjo and guitar is only part of the draw: he also has a wonderful ability as a raconteur and humorist. In many ways, he's a throwback to an earlier era in American music before the weirdness and outlandish behavior became de rigeur for "serioius artists". (Actually, the bluegrass genre has never been a haven for glory-hounds or bizarros; one of the benefits of being a fairly niche market, I guess.)

Anyway, it's a good read, especially if you're a bluegrass fan or a guitar player.

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posted by Monty at 10:14 AM

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