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Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity

03 Aug 12 - 03:56 PM (#3385729)
Subject: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: Will Fly

I've just been reading the study of Doc Watson by Kent Gustavson. An interesting, if slightly muddy book. I knew quite a bit about Doc before I read it, but I was hazy on the years when Doc got started to play out and became a figure on the national scene. I also had never heard of Ralph Rinzler and his influence on Doc's career.

What was interesting to me was the pressure that Rinzler exerted on Doc to be 'authentic' and to appeal, both in performance and on record, to the folk music community in America - a community as personified, for example, by the people who congregated in Washington Square and Greenwich Village in the late '50s/early '60s. It's quite clear, from the correspondence between Doc and Rinzler, that the persona that Doc was to adopt was the innocent Appalachian songster who learned all his material from his father's knee and his local community - no mention of the fact that Doc had actually played electric guitar in rockabilly and other bands before Rinzler got to him. No mention of the fact that Doc learned much of his material from the radio and from records. All was to be down-home, homespun, natural, traditional and authentic...

Doc toured and toured for many years under this yoke - barely making a living - until he finally broke free from it and performed just exactly what he wanted to perform. If he'd stuck to his electric style, he might perhaps have been up there in Nashville with the likes of Chet Atkins, much better off financially and with less pressure on him.

The constant wrangling of British 'folkies' about what and what isn't authentic or traditional in our folk music has always amused me. I've always considered the American scene to be much more relaxed and laid back about their musical tradition - more open-armed, if you like. When I first heard Doc's recordings - sometime around 1966 or so - I read the sleeve notes and also assumed, "Ah - he's an authentic American folk singer..." So I find it ironic that Doc, in one sense, was a far more complex musical personality than I had been led to believe - by the likes of Ralph Rinzler.

Let me be clear - Doc Watson is, to me, the Real Deal - a giant of music and a hero of mine never to be tarnished. I don't give a rat's ass where he got his music from - it was and is all utterly superb. What I do find ironic is the seeming fact that, in a way, he was just as 'packaged' as anyone else.

Any 'Catters knew Ralph Rinzler? His name is new to me. He was obviously very influential in his day - but I wonder whether, in the end, he did Doc any favours...

03 Aug 12 - 04:12 PM (#3385742)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: GUEST,Lighter

> he was just as 'packaged' as anyone else.

That, as is they say, is show biz.

The Lomaxes made sure that Lead Belly, who as far as I know was even more authentic than Doc Watson, was packaged too: to the extent that he performed, at least for a while, sitting on cotton bales wearing overalls and a red bandanna.

Many of the arguments and bad feelings about "authenticity" on both sides of the ocean seem to me to come from the fact that, early in their lives, many of the arguers were misled by album notes and other sources into believing that their favorite performers were either straight from the soil themselves, or else sang absolutely traditional songs in an absolutely traditional manner that they'd learned from absolutely traditional singers.

If you were so misled, and now know it, you can take one of two basic positions: either deep disappointment with those who misled you, or an enthusiasm for the "inauthentic" material as still the real McCoy -in some newly defined sense of "the real McCoy." (Ex.: "It's *all* part of the tradition, you pedantic purist!")

A third point of view is simply to shake your head sadly, acknowledge the difference between the real and the ideal, and go on from there.

03 Aug 12 - 04:18 PM (#3385747)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: Will Fly

Indeed, Lighter - Lead Belly is another prime example. I've never been disappointed by anything that Doc ever did - and I think I've heard everything he ever recorded - just intrigued by the influence of Ralph Rinzler on Doc's early career and start in showbiz.

03 Aug 12 - 04:36 PM (#3385754)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: MGM·Lion

I knew Ralph Rinzler, Will. Have just checked: I had much to say about him on the "What did you do in the War, Ewan?" thread a couple of years ago, which you can call up easily enough - just put Ralph Rinzler into the subject frame atop page. He was here in early 1959.


03 Aug 12 - 05:13 PM (#3385774)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: Mark Ross

It's not that Ralph Rinzler (who I knew slightly) was trying to put anything over on the public, but he understood that for Doc to be able to make a living playing he needed that so-called stamp of authenticity before he could show the world what he was capable of. The scene at the time was overloaded with hacks who claimed to be playing folk music, Doc showed them what it was really all about.

Let us also not forget that it was Rinzler who pushed Bill Monroe on to the stages up North. He knew that Bill felt slighted by the country music establishment who were paying more attention to Flatt & Scruggs.   And, Ralph Rinzler was the moving force behind the Smithsonian Institutions' Festival of American Folklife.

Mark Ross

03 Aug 12 - 05:15 PM (#3385776)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: pdq

Ralph Rinzler was both a performer with the Greenbriar Boys and a brilliant folk music historian. Later director of the Smithsonian folk arts section.

He truly respected the soul, if you will, of the hill country performers and encouraged them to be authentic. That is just where his convictions were.

He convinced a young David Grisman who later passed the torch to a young Andy Statman.

All (including Doc) could play far away from the tree but they knew when they were doing so and why. Ralph Rinzler deserves a lot of the credit.

03 Aug 12 - 05:20 PM (#3385781)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: Will Fly

There's no intention in my posts to belittle Ralph Rinzler in any way. People do what they think is best at the time they act, and RR obviously thought that the best way for Doc to develop in the public eye was to go the 'homespun' route.

I don't think it does any harm, in hindsight, to mull over his actions and speculate how Doc would or wouldn't have developed without his influence.

03 Aug 12 - 05:46 PM (#3385795)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: Will Fly

~M~ - just read through the "What did you do in the war, Ewan" - and regretted it. (God - what a tortuous thread THAT was!) But found your bits on Ralph Rinzler - for which thanks.

03 Aug 12 - 06:06 PM (#3385803)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: GUEST,Stim

I think that Ralph Rinzler was very much responsible for making Doc Watson into what he became.

This idea, "Doc toured and toured for many years under this yoke - barely making a living - until he finally broke free from it and performed just exactly what he wanted to perform. If he'd stuck to his electric style, he might perhaps have been up there in Nashville with the likes of Chet Atkins, much better off financially and with less pressure on him."
is kind of dubious.

Everybody"barely makes a living" at first, no matter how good they are. Doc's claim to fame has to do with the fact that he adapted electric technique and soloing sensibilities to the acoustic guitar. His recordings with Clarence Ashley were the foundation for both his career, and for contemporary "roots music". That project was Ralph Rinzler's idea, and it changed the music world.

03 Aug 12 - 06:26 PM (#3385809)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: Will Fly

I've no doubt that Ralph Rinzler made Doc into what he was, Stim - no argument there. My post is not really about Rinzler or Doc, as such - it's merely a quizzical look at the appearance of "authenticity", about how much is set store by that appearance, and how our notions of the musical roots of a performer were partly true and partly illusion. Particularly in the 1960s.

I can recall reading the sleeve notes to Doc's seminal solo Vanguard LP at the time - I still have that record - and believing what I believed to be true.

There's some evidence in Gustavson's thesis that Doc regretted the life that he spent touring under Ralph Rinzler's wing - it had taken him away from his beloved family for long periods at a time, and it didn't actually pay that well - but, as you say, there's no doubt it changed the musical world. (He developed a stomach ulcer from the stress of touring).

03 Aug 12 - 11:15 PM (#3385887)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: Elmore

I saw Doc Watson many times usually in relativly large venues.From what I've heard and read, nobody could influence him to do anything he found musically distasteful. Still, I'll read the Gustafson work, if I can locate it.

04 Aug 12 - 04:08 AM (#3385920)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: Will Fly

Elmore, the book's not perfect by any means. The later chapters deteriorate into a rather dull hagiography, but the early sections on Doc's upbringing, family life and start in the music business are very interesting - and his relationship with Merle is described in some detail.

I don't think anything that Doc played was ever 'distasteful' to him in any way. I personally think that his musical palette was very wide - far wider than many of us knew at the time - and that Ralph Rinzler, for the best and sincerest of motives, narrowed the range of colours in it.

I remember seeing Jean Ritchie saying in an interview that, when she first went to New York from Kentucky, the Saturday night barn dances, to her amusement, were full of couples dressed in check shirts and jeans - being 'country', as it were. But in her part of the world, working folks were dressed in check shirts and jeans all week - Saturday night was the time to get dressed up in your best! That's perhaps some of the context in which the US folkies of the time made their music - and what you had to appeal to as a musician.

04 Aug 12 - 09:48 AM (#3385983)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: GUEST,Hootenanny

Will, I am very surprised to know that Ralph Rinzler was unknown to you. You say that you have listened to everything that Doc recorded in which case you will have heard the Watson Family recordings which Ralph Made. Here you can hear Doc's, mother, brother, cousin, father in law and other family members singing and playing the music they grew up with. The "Old Time Music at Clarence Ashleys" albums bring in friends and neighbours. Doc himself always acknowledged the music which surrounded him when growing up including the records. There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that Doc had good solid grounding in traditional songs and tunes. Prior to Ralph meeting him for the first time Doc was having to busk on the streets in order to survive and yes playing electric guitar in a local dance group. Of course he learnt material from radio and recordings including popular music of the times. Some of the old time folks and even "Heavy" Mississippi blues men also attempted pop material. I believe that Robert Johnson also picked up material from recorings.
As pointed out above Ralph was responsible for Bill Monroe becoming so succesful later in his career and likewise he knew how to present Doc to the prospective audience of the time in order bring him wider recognition. If Doc had been recorded as a great guitar picker I doubt that he would have received the same attention. Chet Atkins was already out there, Merle Travis was already out there, Ike Everly was already out there and I think Jerry Reed was already out there too plus other capable guitar players you ain't never heard of.
I can understand Doc's discomfort with travelling and touring for not much financial gain in the beginning but isn't that always the way in real music (as opposed to the "music industry"). Doc was a home loving man who hated being away from his family and with the disadvantage of being sightless in a strange environment this obviously made things even more difficult out on the road. When Merle started working and travelling with him this obviously eased the situation but Doc always said that he would prefer to have been an electrician or engineer than a professional musician.
I had the great pleasure of seeing Doc on numerous occasions from his first London appearance in the 60's up until 2007 and like many I enjoyed everything he did from wherever it originated.
I also had the pleasure of knowing Ralph Rinzler when he was here in 1959 and even took a few guitar lessons from him. I think Doc would acknowledge the part that Ralph played in bringing him to a larger audience and enabling him to eventually have a pretty good standard of living.
In addition to Ralph's part in the careers of Bill Monroe and Doc Watson he also made field good recordings and did stirling work at the Smithsonian. His early death means that he is much missed.
One final thought on the book which I haven't read. I believe that this was written and published without Doc's consent so I wonder how reliable the information is, and is it a medical fact that Doc's stomach ulcer was purely brought about by the stress of touring?

From speaking to others who knew Doc I think it is safe to say that if Doc thought things weren't working with Ralph then the relationship would not have continued for as long as it did. Doc was a strong wise man.


04 Aug 12 - 09:58 AM (#3385990)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: Will Fly

Hoot, I'm not doubting Doc's relationship with RR - or casting doubts on RR himself. My interest was in the presentation of Doc to the public as described in the book, and some of the correspondence between Doc and RR is quoted in Gustavson's book. Hence my riff on the 'authenticity' question.

I'm no folklorist - I'm only really interested in the music as I hear it - but I was intrigued by the view in the book about the route that Doc took to wider recognition.

It seems very difficult to raise this as a topic without people bristling slightly at intended slurs - and I must repeat that there are no slurs intended here, just curiosity.

04 Aug 12 - 10:15 AM (#3385999)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity

The liner notes to the wonderful CDs first issued by Folkways as 'Old Time Music With Clarence Ashley' and then reissued as 'The Original Folkways Recordings 1960-1962; (mentioned above in guest Hoot's post) should be downloadable for free from Folkways.
(Though I don't understand why anyone who likes American old Time Music would not want the CDs as well!)

   In the notes Ralph Rinzler writes about meeting Clarence Ashley, discovering Doc, picking banjos in the back of a pickup truck with him and later driving across America chatting and trading tunes with him. And what it meant to Doc and Tom Ashley to have their home-music appreciated when they thought it no longer had an audience outside their own homes in their home states. This is Ralph's account, his words, not Doc's, but it to me it seems full of honesty, respect, integrity, friendship and self awareness. The CDs are fantastic of course, not just for the music, but also the pictures and these accounts of the recordings and Rinzler's experiences making them and spending time with the musicians. I think this is probably a better starting point that the abovementioned book.

04 Aug 12 - 10:18 AM (#3386002)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: GUEST,peregrina

woops, that was me, not signed in above

04 Aug 12 - 11:07 AM (#3386018)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity


Sorry, I do understand that you are not putting Ralph Rinzler down and I hope I didn't come across as "bristling". I agree with you regarding the so called belief in authenticity but unfortunately there was a lot of crap around at that time regarding what was or wasn't authentic and there still is to some extent. The folk/old time/bluegrass/police are still around fortunately a lot fewer now. Just prior to the Big Folk Scare we had a similar situation here in the jazz world trad versus mod and mouldy fygges and dirty boppers.
As I said earlier I do believe that Ralph's approach with presenting Doc was the way to do it taking into consideration the potential audience of the time.


04 Aug 12 - 11:22 AM (#3386025)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: GUEST,Hootenanny

Forgot to say who I was in heading above posting.


04 Aug 12 - 11:43 AM (#3386034)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: Will Fly

Hi Hoot - no I wasn't referring to you as 'bristling'! :-)

I'm just aware that, when one's dealing with respected names - who mean a lot to many, many people - one has to tread as on eggshells! Which doesn't make raising such topics easy sometimes.

I also remember the 'mouldy figs/dirty boppers' jazz rows in the '50s and '60s - they seem very silly in retrospect.

04 Aug 12 - 12:39 PM (#3386060)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: foggers

Hi - I have just re-read RR's sleeve notes on the Doc/Clarence Ashley CD, in response to reading this thread. I think Will is right in carefully raising the debate about "authenticity" as it continues to be a topic with currency on both sides of the Atlantic (and I guess in the southern hemisphere too!). RR does appear to have been genuine in his appreciation and respect for Doc, and perhaps the advice to focus presenting himself in a certain way came from good motives in wanting to help develop a career for Doc. However, there is the law of unintended consequences to consider: so the separation from family and the health impacts of touring stresses are also part of the story.

One of my own favourite Mudcat tales on this topic comes from Jean Ritchie who relates a story of being onstage with Maud Karpeles who confidently proclaimed that Jean could not be considered an authentic source singer, as she had been to university!

04 Aug 12 - 02:38 PM (#3386124)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity

Doc's family was an "authentic" mountain family, having lived on the same piece of property for well over 100 years (it may actually be 200, I'm not sure). If you want to hear a broad cross-section of what a 20th century "authentic" mountain family's music sounds like, heads up for a multi-cd (I think at least 4 cds, though it may be 6) Watson Family Album that will be released early next year (I think). It has been put together by Nancy Watson, Doc and Rosa Lee's daughter (and only surviving child) and has everything from Gaither Carleton (Rosa Lee's dad, Doc's father-in-law) playing archaic fiddle tunes to family members singing in church to Doc's original songs to Merle when he had only been playing guitar for a week and even has some of Doc's electric pop guitar playing and singing with Doc Williams, from the 1950s, which is GORGEOUS.

All of Doc's music is authentic to me -- it's a romantic idea, the innocent backwoods mountaineer, but by the 1950s, that's nearly disappeared. There are some examples of that sort of musician, though -- check out the Hammons family. Doc was such a genius, he defies categorization, and I believe that Ralph Rinzler knew that perfectly well. As has been mentioned, we all owe Ralph a huge debt for Doc, Bill Monroe, Clarence Ashley and a whole lot of other music that he made accessible to a wider public. Ralph is definitely one of my heroes.

05 Aug 12 - 12:00 PM (#3386439)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: GUEST,Kent Gustavson

I have enjoyed watching these posts. I just wanted to chime in with a couple of things:

1. I don't think my biography is a hagiography, or muddy, but I will take the criticism on the chin :) If you would like to offer more specific constructive criticism, I would appreciate it, and will do my best to integrate your suggestions into the next edition... Just contact me off list.
2. I do not in any way bring down Ralph Rinzler in my book. Quite the opposite. I was able to, for the first time, really clarify what happened when Rinzler "discovered" Doc in 1960. I sourced Rinzler's own college notebook that he used to take notes in the original session with Ashley. I also spoke with countless friends of Rinzler, including Jean Ritchie, Mike Seeger, John Cohen and many others... He was an incredible figure, and I am in awe of his talents, and his contribution. His death was a real loss to traditional music and cultural studies...
3. I believe, personally, that Rinzler brought out the best in Doc. However, the discussion about authenticity is a good one. And that is why I discussed it in the book. You will see, by reading liner notes of Southbound (written by Doc) that Doc felt he had to be apologetic to his audience for straying from purely mountain music... I found a letter in Rinzler's archives that was written to Doc by Rinzler, and lectured him on how he would lose his audience if he played more contemporary tunes.

The job of a biographer is not to take a position, but to present all of the facts and reality of what happened from all perspectives, not just the subject's... I did my best to do that. If you read the book and disagree, I will certainly take your comments to heart and work to make the next edition better!

All the best to you all,
Kent Gustavson
Author of Blind but Now I See

05 Aug 12 - 12:16 PM (#3386451)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: dick greenhaus

For a study in authenticity, consider Big Bill Broonzy. He managed to be successful as a bluesman (for a mostly black blues audience) and a folksinger (for folkies). And he managed to keep the two personas separate, which Josh White never managed to do.

05 Aug 12 - 12:48 PM (#3386468)
Subject: RE: Ralph Rinzler, Doc Watson & authenticity
From: Elmore

Glad to hear from you, Me. Gustavson. As someone noted earlier, Doc is such an iconic figure that the slightest hint of negativity upsets a lot of people.