Music Hall Memories
Doc Watson: Guitar Hero
A Lesson For The Learnin’ . . . Though it served as the venue for the first American concert by the Sex Pistols, Atlanta’s Great Southeast Music Hall was hardly a rock club. A garden variety of rockers, including Jerry Garcia, Eddie Money, Billy Joel and Roger McGuinn played the Hall but its stage was most frequently occupied by artists from other musical styles. Representing the blues were the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters while McCoy Tyner and Rahsaan Roland Kirk were among the prominent jazz performers. The Music Hall hosted acts from abroad such as Fairport Convention and Ravi Shankar, bringing overlooked sounds and cultures to audiences in an emerging Southern metropolis. Often enough, a visit to the Music Hall guaranteed a two-for-one deal: some education along with the entertainment. And for those especially interested in American culture beyond the big cities, the Music Hall was home to the inventive traditionalists from the fields of folk, country and bluegrass. Artists from those genres making multiple stops at the Hall included Odetta, Steve Goodman, John Hartford, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Earl Scruggs Review, and the great father-son duo, Doc and Merle Watson.
For nearly a week in fall ’73, Doc and Merle Watson provided Atlantans with two evening classes in music quite connected but still far removed from rock and roll. Doc, then only 50, struck those of us in the audience those evenings as the wise old man of American music. Doc Watson was a determined and earnest gentleman, seeming at peace with all he had learned in life. That was evident in his rich and warm baritone voice which was every bit as distinctive as his flatpicking style on the guitar. Here was a guy who embodied much of American music and presented it with unique generosity. Those seeing Doc Watson for the first time that week may have known of his lovely and energetic style on the guitar from his recordings, but witnessing Doc and son Merle, a fine picker himself, display their skills in a small room like the Music Hall was a profound experience. Sure, we paid to get in, but it was considered a privilege.
Blind for nearly all his life, Doc would hold on to Merle’s arm as they walked to the stage at the beginning of each of the shows and from there on, he would lead, charming the crowd with his good humor and thoughtful way of intoducing his songs. Doc would have stories about some of them and on another, he might say it was from The Essential Doc Watson album, just recently released on Vanguard and that he appreciated the label doing so. True to form, his note of appreciation was sincere. Watson knew that many in the audience came to hear “Tennessee Stud,” the Jimmie Driftwood song made popular when Doc sang it with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on the groundbreaking Will the Circle be Unbroken album, released the year before. He wasn’t one to disappoint his fans, knowing that “Tennessee Stud,” in concert, had become his “Whipping Post,” the song people called out for, albeit politely, giving the decorum established by Watson.
While “Tennessee Stud” was a lighthearted and spirited romp for Watson, he was at his best with old blues material, such as “Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad” and his take on “St. James Infirmary.” As Doc sang of trips to the infirmary, where he saw his baby on the table and finding “her face cold like a marble stone,” the grief and lonesome feeling of the protagonist is felt deeply.
A highlight of Doc’s concerts at the Great Southeast Music Hall over the years was his rendition of “The Last Thing on My Mind,” a song written by Tom Paxton in the early ’60s. It’s a tender song, and Watson, as if he’d been singing it all his life, conveyed a sense of quiet pain, lamenting what he now realized was a “lesson too late for the learnin’,” and that “the weeds have been steadily growin’.” Covers of that song number in the dozens but Paxton should be happiest with Watson’s version, which conveys a quiet acceptance, offsetting the feeling of despair. Doc Watson, throughout his career, possessed the ability to live within the song he was singing, proving that he was one of the great interpretive singers as well as being the subtle wizard of the six-string guitar.
A Mighty Long Way Down The Dusty Trail . . . Berl Boykin, writing for The Great Speckled Bird in ’75, referred to the Music Hall as a “soft room,” where folk, country and the other more traditional styles of music were best presented. That worked well for the Broadview Cinema next door, which would complain about the volume even when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performed. Though they seldom played at buzzsaw volume, there were many shows in which the Dirt Band was advised to keep it down. The cinema, while a bother about electric guitars and drums, did, on a regular basis, present many of the best films to come to Atlanta. One film thoroughly enjoyed by many who also took in shows at the Music Hall, was Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Near the film’s beginning, Mott the Hoople’s song, “All the Way from Memphis,” for a few moments, is front and center. The volume in which Don and Alice Hyatt’s son played “All the Way from Memphis” is a source of contention for Alice, played by Ellen Burstyn. Doing as her screaming husband demanded, she trots to the kid’s room and shuts off the stereo. It’s a great scene that immediately establishes the tension and empathy between Alice and her son. Clearly, a great film was off to a rollicking start, but a minute or two more of “All the Way from Memphis,” with its hard-charging boogie woogie piano and rousing chorus, would’ve been alright too.
“All the Way from Memphis” is a first rate track by Mott the Hoople, a band that from ’69 through ’74, offered more than a handful of solid recordings, most of them written by the band’s lead singer and piano player, Ian Hunter. The storyline in “All the Way from Memphis,” to some degree, as with Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, concerns life on the road. A rock and roller’s guitar, by accident, is headed north of his destination, Memphis, Tennessee. He’s finally able, after a month, he says, to pick up the guitar, but it’s in pieces, electric junk. The musician gets a deserved admonition from a black man, presumably, given the racial epithet used by Hunter, who was deemed a very literate rocker and should have known better.
Some spade said “Rock ‘n’ rollers, you’re all the same
Man, that’s your instrument.” I felt so ashamed
(There’s still some shame and embarrassment when listening to that part of the song today, 39 years after its release. Yes, that was 1973, way before the language police was in full force, but even then, one of America’s most famous characters was Archie Bunker, spewing forth racial and ethnic slurs each week on the hit TV comedy, All in the Family. The country was laughing at him, but millions of viewers had to roll their eyeballs, knowing it was a reflection of the prejudices that needed to be shaken off, especially where it’s believed we’re all created equal. A guy like Ian Hunter, who had spent a lot of time in America, must have rolled his own eyeballs at Archie Bunker, who did so much to prove bigotry was, after all, quite stupid.)
The wise and wary black man who shamed the rock and roller in Hunter’s song must have wearied of the whole rock scene. All that thrashing of the instruments and all those loud songs with no reason or rhyme. He heard better players at the neighborhood fish frys. Kids nowaday got no shame.
In the fall of ’73, “All the Way from Memphis,” the lead track off Mott, the album released a few months earlier by Mott the Hoople, was a favorite at the chain store record department where I worked. One of our regular customers, a friend who favored such guitar heroes as Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, heard enough about the Doc and Merle Watson concert I had seen at the Music Hall the night before, saying yes, he’d come along with me to see Watson that night. Naturally, Doc didn’t disappoint. My friend was enthralled with everything about Doc Watson. The old ways opened up a whole new world.
The next morning my friend called, raving about Watson, so happy he went to the show. The experience of the evening hit him especially when he turned on the TV to watch one of the late-night rock programs. “Mott the Hoople was on, and you know how I like them, ” he said, “but Ariel Bender was just striking at the strings of his guitar and after what I saw an hour or so earlier, it made no sense to me. I’ll never listen to Mott the Hoople the same way again.”
I reminded him Doc and Merle would be playing two shows at the Music Hall again that night. He said, “We need to go.” And we did.