Doc Watson R.I.P & The Sunglasses of Freedom

This is a blog about Buddhism, but sometimes I drift off course to some of my other interests, like music. I love music. My musical tastes run the gambit from Al Jolson to the Clash. Although, I have to say that I’m not too crazy about classical or jazz music. That’s because they are instrumental, and I’m mainly into singers. I’d rather hear Louis Armstrong scat “Dinah” or Cyndi Lauper belt out “Shine” than listen to Rossini’s “Sinfonia Di Bologna” or “Watermelon Man” by Herbie Hancock.

One guy whose voice I admired greatly was Doc Watson. Doc passed away on Tuesday in a North Carolina hospital at age 89. He’d been in critical condition since having colon surgery on Thursday.

He was a powerful singer, blessed with a rich baritone voice. Being a guitar picker myself, his instrumental chops were not lost on me. It was his flatpicking style that really made him a legend in American music, and influenced several generations of guitar players. Doc went blind before his first birthday. He always said that’s what caused him to turn to music. He never set out to make it big, he just wanted to be a good picker. He started playing for money in the 1940’s but it wasn’t until his performance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival that he got any wide-spread attention.

I had the pleasure of seeing Doc Watson way back when he and his late son, Merle, were a team. It was a pure delight.  I regret that I did not avail myself of the opportunity to see him play more often.

You can read Doc’s obituary here at the LA Times, and if you’ve three minutes and 25 seconds to spare, you can watch Doc do Jimmie Rodger’s “Peach Pickin’ Time in Georgia,” a song that showcases both his voice and guitar playing.

Now, Bob Dylan was crowned the “King” of Folk Music at Newport in 1963. Today at the White House, he was given the American equivalent of knighthood when he was awarded the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. I’m willing to bet that Bob is to the only person in the history of the medal to receive it wearing sunglasses.

Although, he is no stranger to receiving awards, I think Bob is a bit nervous at these kind of events. He probably wore the sunglasses so he wouldn’t have to make eye contact with anyone. During the ceremony, he fidgeted in his chair a lot and messed with his hair. Then when his name was called to get the award, well, you can see how he reacted in this short clip:

Doc Watson photo by Joe Giordano


Hard Rain on a Sunday Afternoon

I'm out in that crowd somewhere . . .

It’s hard to believe it was 36 years ago yesterday that I attended my first Bob Dylan concert. It’s hard to believe Bob turns 71 today. Yes, it’s hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard rain . . .

It was on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Fort Collins, CO, the next to the last concert of the Rolling Thunder Review tour. The show featured the Alpha Band (with T. Bone Burnett), Mick Ronson, Kinky Friedman, Roger McGuinn, Joan Baez, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and Bob Dylan. The Rolling Thunder Revue band included violinist Scarlette Rivera, whom I met at a Dylan concert in 2002, and Bob Neuwirth, whom I’ve never met.

It was a great afternoon. Since it was the day before Bob’s birthday, the crowd sang to him, but he kept his back to us the entire time and didn’t acknowledge our birthday greetings. Iconoclast to the core.

Dylan will be awarded the country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Obama on May 29th. Not a bad birthday present, although that’s not the reason he’s getting it.

12 others will also receive the Medal, including novelist Toni Morrison; former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; John Doar, a key figure in the Justice Department during the civil rights era; William Foege, who helped spread smallpox immunizations around the world; Gordon Hirabayashi, who fought Japanese-American World War Two internment; civil rights campaigner Dolores Huerta; and Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low.

That first Dylan concert (the first of many) so long ago was in a football field. We got there early, driving all the way from Omaha. They already had the stage set up and we sat in the stands for a couple of hours while they played nearly every song the Beatles ever recorded on the sound system. As soon as the curtain went up, we moved down in front of the stage where we ending up standing not far from Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, though we didn’t know it at the time. After the Alpha Band’s first song, T. Bone Burnett pulled Ramblin’ Jack up onto the stage, but Jack was too drunk that day to perform.

The concert later became an album, Hard Rain, and a ABC television special. Here’s Bob and Joan singing “Railroad Boy (She Died of Love)” on that fateful day:

As an extra added attraction, so that you can get a glimpse of T. Bone Burnett and Scarlet Rivera, along with Bob’s paintings that served as back drop for the show (one of which I’ve always felt was of Bruce Springsteen), here is “One Too Many Mornings”: