Record producer Peter Siegel shares his memories of the recordings he made the night of Watson’s first New York City concerts in 1962
Doc Watson is an American icon. He’s known for his mellow vocals, flatpicking prowess on the acoustic guitar and encyclopedic knowledge of American folk styles – ballads, fiddle tunes, bluegrass and songs from the British Isles that came to American in colonial days.
When folklorist Ralph Rinzler – who also played mandolin in The Greenbriar Boys – discovered Watson at his home in Deep Gap, North Carolina, Watson was splitting his time between the traditional music he loved and the rockabilly band he played in to support his family. Watson went on to win seven Grammys, a Lifetime Grammy Award and made more than 50 albums as a solo artist and band member.
Watson’s flatpicking and extensive knowledge of folk music styles impressed Rinzler, who invited him to come up to New York City. It was 1962 and, up until that point, most of the folk music people heard was played by people like Mike and Pete Seeger, John Cohen, The Kingston Trio and The Greenbriars. Those artists learned from authentic folk musicians like Libba Cotton, Rosco Holcomb and Clarence Ashley. Watson learned from the people he knew in his hometown of Deep Gap, North Carolina, as well as radio programs and records. He was traditional to the bone, but he was also a showman and a natural on stage.
His first headlining concerts in New York – at a Friends of Old Time Music gig at NYU and a set at the short lived Blind Lemon bar – caused a sensation. Peter Siegel, the young folk musician who went on to become a staff producer at Elektra Records, and a noted folklorist, recorded both shows. He shared his memories of those evenings with The Globe from his home in New York
How did you go about recording this album?
Peter Siegel: I didn’t record it with the thought it would become an album. In those days, there was very little opportunity to buy authentic old-time music on records. It was recorded so I could have the music to listen to. I was 18 years old, a banjo player, and I loved this music. I asked Ralph Rinzler for permission to record the concerts. He knew if I recorded them, there would be a document of the concerts. It was the first thing I recorded on a machine I had just bought, a Tandberg 3B mono recorder with 7” reels. You got 30 minutes of sound on each side of the tape.
I had one Electrovoice 664, which was a PA mic. It was what I could afford, but the sound came out pretty good. I think recording equipment can sound better than it is if you put a great musician in front of the mic. That’s my theory. I was aware that the players I admired – Ralph Rinzler, Mike Seeger, John Cohen – made recordings of the people they learned from. Folks like Dock Boggs, Roscoe Holcomb and Clarence Ashley. Ashley had performed for the Friends of Old Time Music in 1961 and Doc played guitar in his band, so I knew who Doc Watson was. This was the first time he was going to perform as the main attraction.
He played one concert with Gaither at an F.O.T.M. concert at the NYU School of Education, and another at Blind Lemon’s, a small club that only lasted a few weeks. At the NYU concert, his brother Arnold Watson played banjo. Arnold went back to North Carolina before the Blind Lemon’s gig.
This album has four tracks from the Friends of Old Time Music concert. The balance is from Blind Lemon’s. The F.O.T.M. concert was in a reasonably big hall; Blind Lemon’s was a small club and you can hear the difference in the sound of the two rooms. On the F.O.T.M. songs you hear them on stage with a big crowd going crazy. Blind Lemon’s was more intimate and you can hear that in the recording. Doc was aware of what kind of place he was playing, and performed accordingly.
The next thing that happened was that Ralph got Doc a two-week gig at Gerdes Folk City in early 1963. It was his first solo gig and it was a milestone for him. I recorded that too, and eventually put it out on Sugar Hill Records as Doc Watson at Gerdes Folk City.
AUDIO: Friends Of Old Time Music compilation
Were you a professional producer yet?
I was trying to be. I’d been bitten by the producing bug by the time of the Gerdes gig, but hadn’t produced anything that had come out yet.
Doc wasn’t the first acoustic lead guitarist. The Delmore Brothers and Don Reno played that kind of guitar in country and bluegrass bands, but Doc was breaking new ground in the folk scene. At that time, usually the guitar was used to accompany singers, but nothing like the way Doc played. He was something different. It was stirring. Today there are a lot of great flatpicking guitarists, but at that time, nobody had heard anything like him. It was really amazing. This album [Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton] isn’t about fancy flatpicking. The music is about family music-making by Doc and his father-in-law Gaither, and the interaction between the guitar and fiddle. You can hear a hint of what’s to come on “Billy in the Low Ground” and on the stuff he plays behind Gaither’s fiddle. That’s the type of picking you’ll hear later on in his solo albums.
Did you ever record him playing electric guitar or rockabilly?
No. When he recorded years later for Sugar Hill he made an album called Docabilly. He had played rockabilly with the Jack Williams Band to make a living, but I never heard that. I have seen pictures of him from that time, playing a Gibson Gold-Top Les Paul. Gaither grew up earlier in a home with no radio or phonograph. His influences were all other musicians in the community. Doc grew up with radio and records and heard all kinds of music, but his heart was in traditional playing. I can tell you he was very happy to discover an audience for his traditional family music. He loved it that people wanted to hear that music.
What was your career path after making these seminal recordings?
I was in The Even Dozen Jug Band (with Maria Muldaur, David Grisman, John Sebastian, etc.). Making that album [The Even Dozen Jug Band] introduced me to being in a real recording studio. It was the first time I saw what a record producer really does and I found that inspiring. I went on to produce a lot of albums. Paul Siebel’s Woodsmoke and Oranges, Roy Buchanan’s albums on Polydor, everything that Hazel and Alice recorded for Folkways, the Joseph Spence recordings made in the Bahamas, and a lot of albums for the Nonesuch Explorer Series.
AUDIO: Nonesuch Explorer Series–The Koto Music of Japan 1967 (full album)
When I was working at Elektra, I founded the Nonesuch Explorer Series with Teresa “Tracey” Sterne, the director of Nonesuch, Elektra’s classical arm. Elektra had the technology available to make great-sounding records. I realized that the approach I’d learned working with Moe Asch and Folkways could be melded with the technology at Elektra to make some beautiful world music records, which we did. I guided the series for the first few years, but Tracy was important in how the records were presented and the quality of the liner notes.
Jac Holzman, the owner and founder of Elektra, had strong technical credentials. Elektra had a sound of its own, like Atlantic had a sound of its own. It’s not a quality you hear so much these days. There’s less listening to albums. People download single tracks and large companies have acquired the small labels, so you never know what label you’re listening to.