David Holt's Folkways and Riverwalk
And Working with Doc Watson
by Derek Halsey
David Holt has been a musician, storyteller, and television show host for about thirty years or so. He has put out quite a few albums that dig deep into the nearly lost music of the mountains of the Carolinas. He is host of the Folkways show on North Carolina PBS that goes out into the mountains and finds the old timers that are still living and brings their stories and music to the public. He also hosts the Riverwalk jazz show on Public Radio. The Grammy Award winner has an incredible new CD out that is a three CD collaboration with music legend Doc Watson called Legacy. The first two CD's are about Doc's life story and it combines Doc's storytelling with a bunch of good music. The third CD is a concert the two played together in Asheville, North Carolina. It is a fun and historical tribute to a real American treasure. More information can be found at www.docwatsondavidholt.com. I spoke with David as he was preparing for a slide guitar CD that he will record in the near future. He was sitting outside on the porch in his beloved Carolina's as we spoke.
How does one talk a record company into putting out a three CD album of music and conversation with Doc Watson?
"Because it really hadn't been done yet. If you look around you will see that there has been no autobiography of Doc. And Doc has resisted that. He told me years ago, he said, " Probably a hundred people have asked me to write my biography and I just don't want to do it". And when he had a chance to speak it, that's when he was interested. The project really started with a live concert. We had performed on public television in North Carolina, a concert together, 'An Evening with Doc Watson and David Holt'. From that, I started interviewing him in that concert and then we started getting performances (booked) from that airing on television, and I kept continuing to interview him. I began to realize that nobody had done the interviews about Doc's life. About people who knew him in the early days, Jean Ritchie, Joan Baez, Ry Cooder, people like that. That just fascinated me because that is something that I have always loved, collecting information and interviewing folks."
And you interviewed him in a conversational style.
"Right. I certainly thought it out so it would be chronological. The thing with Doc is you have to know Doc pretty well for him to open up to you. So, we have known each other a good long while so I think he was pretty comfortable knowing that I would be insightful, but not push him in a direction that he would not want to go. He definitely knows what he wants. He almost speaks in poetry all the time, he's a wonderful talker."
Listening to him, he does have a knack for storytelling.
"He really does. His voice is so warm and rich, he's thoughtful, he thinks about everything and really thinks things through. He is a very intelligent guy. In that way he reminds me of John Hartford because no matter what you asked John about, or you ask Doc about, you're always going to get a surprising response. And it's always something that is really insightful and you learn a lot. Both of those guys, very wise. Of course different ways of thinking, but still very wise people."
Doc kind of claims to not play the harmonica all that well, but on that song "Old Molly Hare" on the third, concert CD of Legacy he plays the fire out of it.
"Actually he is agreat harmonica player. He is so musical in everything he does, whether it's banjo playing, guitar playing, singing, harmonica playing, no matter what he picks up. He has this musical sense of what to leave out and what to put in. People think that he is just a fast picker but what he can do is play fast, but he can also leave the spaces that make it really musical and memorable. I think Jerry Riggs put it best when he said that most people are just trying to play the music, Doc lets the music play him."
Doc admits, though, that he had to do a lot of practicing on the instruments when he was younger.
" Yes, he did. I think that is an interesting thing. When he really started to shine is when he was in this country band that played modern, for that day, the 1950's, country music and he took the place of the fiddler when they would do square dances. They played a lot of square dances, so he had to work out these fiddle tunes on the electric guitar and playing the leads as there was no fiddle in the band. And that's where he learned to get it just right. He said that was about ten years of practice so, that's a good long time, without anybody looking over his shoulder. He wasn't famous at that time, he just a local guy trying to make a living. A blind man trying to make a few extra dollars. "
I have heard other musicians talk about playing their guitar like they would a different instrument, like a fiddle or sax or something.
"Yes, that was what he was doing, he was playing all the notes a fiddle would play on a fiddle tune. And so that gave him a great amount of technical skill. I think the amazing thing to me is that there would be certain people like Doc, and you can find other people like Eck Robinson, who was an old fiddler, lots of these old timers, Earl Scruggs is one, that got really good without any thought of, 'I'm going to do this for a living'. They had a natural drive to get it just right. Doc was doing it not for national fame or anything, he never thought that was going to come, never even thought about it, that was almost a fluke how that happened, so he was 'that good' before he got famous. Which is pretty amazing."
I think one of the better cuts on the CD is "Ready For Times To Get Better". I think it is a great tune.
" I agree, he really sings that soulfully. He has got an amazing ability to lend a lot of soul to an old time song that has lyrics that don't seem to be that deep and he'll make it seem deep. Say something like "Handsome Molly", or a certainly "Tom Dooley", he can add a lot of depth to it with his voice. And then he takes a song that does have a lot of meaning like a newly written song like "Ready For The Time To Get Better" and he makes it great."
On the CD Doc talks of the blues influence in his music, from the old blues records that made it into the North Carolina hills back in the 1930's and 40's. That surprised me that so many white mountain folk would have those old blues 78's.
"It is kind of amazing that there would be that much blues influence in the mountains. But I think when the blues came in, in the 1920's, especially on those records, they began to hear it and everybody seemed to be attracted to it. It was just the music of the times and it influenced Doc in a big way. There were black people in Boone, (North Carolina,). But I don't think he heard many black people play. He learned a lot of music by listening to records. He had such a good ear he could learn by hearing it, and playing those records over and over again. Like he says, he played them until they were completely worn out and there wasn't anymore grooves on them."
You met Doc in the early 1970's. How did you do that? Did you just walk up to him and start talking or what?
"I had been playing the banjo about three years, or four years, and it was just a little stage, backstage in Lavonia (Georgia), at a festival, and he was sitting back there by himself, and he had just been on, did a great set, back then he played solo at that particular festival, Merle wasn't with him, and I just started talking to him. It was like a little bus stop back behind the stage. There was no getting back stage, I happened to be walking by and there he was sitting and I went in and started talking to him. Its funny, years later I reminded Doc of that conversation, I'm talking 20 years later, Doc says, "I remember someone asking me that, was that you?' He remembered me asking him how he dreamed (as a blind man. Doc's answer was "I dream in feelings, pure feelings"). Where we really got to working together was when I hosted "Fire On The Mountain" on the Nashville Network and he was on several times. Then he and Merle agreed to do "Reel and Rock"(CD) with me, which is still one of my favorite records that I have ever done. It was just Doc, and Merle and me, and a bass player named Buddy Davis. We picked unusual tunes from the mountains and it was great fun. Actually that was one of the last things that Merle played on." (Doc's son Merle died in a tractor accident in 1986)
(Author's note; After Doc lost Merle, David lost his ten year old daughter to a car wreck a few years later in 1989)
How did losing your daughter affect your music? I have heard a lot of musicians that went through the same thing say they had to quit for a while, they didn't have the will to play?
"Playing really helped me. I started going out probably two months after Sara died. I leveled with the audience about where I was coming from, of course that put them on the edge of their seats wondering what I was going to do, but it made for a pretty powerful concert and it certainly helped me to get out there and do that. Not trying to pretend like it didn't happen and be kind of a showman in that way, but talk with people about what had happened. At that time someone gave me a National Steel guitar. It was then that I started getting interested in the blues because, man, I had the blues, and that was the only thing that really satisfied a musical, emotional feeling inside. I've been working on that ever since. That started me on an interesting, different direction learning to play the Steel guitar, the old time bottleneck Steel guitar. And I think the same with Doc. Merle really loved the blues and after Merle died Doc added a lot more blues. And Richard, his grandson also loves blues, so there is a lot of blues in the show."
Your son Zeb also plays bass with you on occasion. How do you handle encouraging the kid of a musician to take it up his or her self?
" My son Zeb plays bass with me, whenever I can get him. He's 25 now and has got his own website business so I can't hire him all the time, but he is my favorite guy to play with. Most kids might have inherited something genetically and they are going to have music in their life. Like my son, he really loves jazz so he has music in his life and always will, but in some ways I think it put him off from being a professional musician. Because they see how much their father was gone, they see…. gosh, for years we didn't have very much money, it's not an easy life. I was enjoying it all the time, but for a kid to watch it, it doesn't entice them to want to do it."
Almost everybody I have interviewed says that same thing. That it is not an easy life, that everyone thinks it is glamorous all the time, but that it is a hard life except for the time that you are playing.
"The fun part is being on stage, being with your friends like Doc and hanging out. But the un-fun part is getting in the airplane, waiting around the airport, being searched, getting to the job, living in a motel, all that is the part that there's absolutely no glamour in that whatsoever. Luckily I don't mind being alone. I play solo most of the time so I don't mind being alone, so that is not a problem. Shoot, I can't complain, I'm making a very good living, I'm playing the traditional music, just what I love, music I've learned from the old timers, so, I've got no complaints. But it's not an easy life, I'll put it that way."
You seem to concentrate on the old time clawhammer style banjo playing as opposed to the Scruggs style. Is it because the clawhammer style is older, goes farther back?
"I don't really play Scruggs style. I love it, I love to hear it, I love Earl's playing, and I love to play with Earl. But I just love the clawhammer style. When I came into the mountains there was sort of a last generation of old men and women who had been born before the turn of the century and had learned it back in the early 'teens'. It seemed more important to me to learn that style, because it was dying out, than to learn the Scruggs style. There is a whole repertoire of songs that go with that style that don't go with the Scruggs style. I'm more interested in the traditional things than in the newly written things. Nobody played three finger as good as Earl, but certainly there were people playing it. One of my mentors is a very good three-finger banjo player named Walt Davis who was about thirty years older than Earl. He played an old timey style of three fingers. There were lots of people playing three-finger style but nobody put it together in the syncopated, beautiful way that Earl Scruggs did. He was amazing. He really made it all come together. "
I met Dr. Ralph Stanley a while back. He plays a mean clawhammer.
"That's how I got into it. I was going to college at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Ralph Stanley came out to perform. I had some of his records and I really liked him, and there was only about 30 people at the concert and I went up and talked to him afterwards and said, 'I love your music but I really want to learn to play that clawhammer style. Where can I go to learn that?', he said, 'well, you can learn off of records maybe, but you need to go back to the Clinch Mountains, Asheville, or something like that, where there's lots of people playing it'. I left that very summer, in 1969, and never looked back. I told Ralph this several times, we talked about it, Ralph was the inspiration to go to the mountains."
How does a guy that grew up in Texas, went to California and got some book learnin', approach these old timers in the Appalachian Mountains and communicate with these folk without them thinking your some kind of carpetbagger or something?
" I came there when I was 22, and the people that I learned from were so eager, and I think folks still are, not jealous about there music, they know it's traditional music, they know that it needs to be passed on, and when I came there in 1969 there was very few young mountain people learning that old mountain music. There was lots of people learning bluegrass, but there was nobody learning the old ballads, and the unusual old fiddle tunes. I would try to be very careful about building a friendship before I asked to learn some of their music. I would get to know people over a long period of time.
How would you do that? Would you just go up and knock on their door or what?
"It usually works like this, somebody will say, ' My grandfather plays that style, you need to go see him', so I would say, 'You mind calling him and telling him I'd like to see him?', then you would go see the grandfather and he couldn't play at all, but he'd say, 'well, I use to get together with a bunch of old guys every Thursday night. You need to go see some of those guys'. So, I would follow that out. There was a little network of people that you would hear about and most people were more than happy to show you. I would try to honor these folk, and still do. I carry with me big photographs of them that I use on stage to show their pictures. I feel like I had a hundred grandparents and it was a wonderful thing."
What is the Bantar?
"The bantar is, well, if you go to Deering Banjo they sell them, if you look on the website. It's a six-string guitar with a banjo body and a guitar neck. It's an older instrument, probably from the late 1880's. You don't see them a whole lot, yet Deering is starting to make them again. It sounds like a guitar, you play it like a guitar, but it's got the tonal qualities of a banjo. So, it's great for something like Ragtime, if you listen to something like that 'Black-Eyed Susie' song on the concert CD (the third one on Legacy), or on 'Don't Get Weary', Doc is playing the bantar, and you can hear the high pitched, kind of rolling sound that he gets with it."
The easiest way that I have spread the word on this CD is to refer to the story Doc tells on it of the 'cat skin banjo'. Did you know about the story ahead of time, or did it just come out?
"No, I didn't know about it. Well, basically, his dad had seen in a paper, I guess it was a Sears Catalog maybe, but there was a company that made 'cat skin banjo' heads. On a banjo head you want a thin, crisp sound. You can't really get that with a cowhide, it's too thick, you can't really get it with a goat hide, so the old mountain people would use a groundhog hide because it was so tough. But it was thick. So, Doc's dad said, 'You know, I think we could make a cat skin banjo', and Doc's grandmother had an old cat that was on its last legs, it wouldn't eat and was basically dying, and she was like, 'we have to put this thing out of his misery', and Doc's brother said, 'I don't want to do that'. She said, 'I'll give you 50 cents if you will', and he says, 'Ok', so they take the cat and they put it in the sack and they drown it. And then their Dad said, 'Let's use that cat. It was a good cat, let's use that for a banjo hide'. So they tanned the hide and made the banjo. I played this banjo, and it is amazing. It is absolutely, completely hand-made. There is a picture of it in the liner notes. It's small, it's only about 22 inches long, and the head is only, maybe, eight inches across, and it is the absolute, raw, instrument. Nothing fancy about it."
Did the cat have a name?
" (laughs) That's a good question, I never asked."
You are known as a storyteller, you have done shows as storyteller, how did you get into that and have you ever bombed as a storyteller?
"Oh yes, absolutely. I started doing storytelling long before there was professional storytellers in the early 70's. The first one I really tried was a …there was an old banjo player up in Boone named Stanley Hicks, and he told me about an elephant that was hanged in Erwin, Tennessee. So, I found out all the details I could. I interviewed all the people I could find that saw the elephant kill its trainer, and went to the newspapers and found the old 1916 editions, worked up the story of what happened, they have a picture of it, they had a trial for the elephant, ( http://www.internetwebguide.com/mag2000/aug/mary.asp) they convicted it, they couldn't figure out a way to get rid of it, it sounds horrible, but they found out the elephant had killed 11 people. It was kind of a rogue elephant, and people weren't going to sell or get rid of an elephant in those days, they would just change its name. So, they had this trial for it and decided it should be hanged, and they did that with a railroad derrick. So, I told it to an audience on my first try at a big story like this, and naturally they hated it because nobody likes to hear about an animal being hurt. I didn't realize it until after it was over, but what I came away with from that performance was that storytelling was very powerful. If you could move an audience to like you, as much as that story moved them to dislike me, then I really had something. I never told that story again but I've told many others."
Now, I would be disappointed if you didn't tell that story.
"It's just amazing the effect that story has on an audience full of people. Individually I could tell it to you but .."
You have a new project that you are working on with the slide guitar. I have always loved the slide guitar, usually in the hands of bluesmen like Duane Allman and Elmore James. Have you listened to Duane Allman much?
"Oh, absolutely, he's fabulous. I listened to everybody. I've got a gazzillion records because I love pretty much anything that has a slide note on it. From Jerry Douglas to Duane Allman to Robert Johnson. My favorite guy that gave me my inspiration was a guy named Tampa Red. Way back in the 1930's, he was a black guy that was just a great player, and he isn't that well known today, it was called 'hokum jazz' in those days, you might have heard a hit of his called 'Tight Like That", he recorded hundreds of selections. Document Records has put everything that he ever did on CD. He was incredibly prolific and a really clean player. What I like about him is he combines a little bit of a jazzier feel, jazzy from 1930's I mean, with a little bit of a country feel, with a bluesy feel as well. I haven't tried it electrified. It's almost like a different instrument playing it acoustic because you have to use heavy strings, on a steel guitar, a heavy bottleneck on your finger, and since I have been playing solo I've tried to work up a style that I've not heard anybody else do and that's playing the rhythm and the chords along with the melody (with the slide). That was something Tampa Red did."
You are actually in the movie 'O Brother Where Art Thou' for about fifteen seconds I guess, (playing the drunk fiddle player leading the crowd that was taking Baby Face Nelson to be hanged) but the soundtrack to that movie has sold almost 5 million copies without radio airplay. I think, or I hope, that it will have an effect like a bad snowstorm, or a electrical blackout or something, in that there will be a bunch of babies born nine months later. In other words I hope it will spawn a new group of young people that will continue that kind of music.
"(laughs) That's what I hope too. The American media culture has such a short attention span. But I'm hoping that, just like the movie "Bonnie and Clyde" introduced a whole lot of new people to bluegrass banjo (with the theme song played by Flatt and Scruggs, 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown', in 1968) that that will have some affect and there will be a certain, new group of youngsters that will pick it up. Because this is an oral tradition, it has to be carried on. You can record it all you want, put it on video tape and everything, but it takes a new generation of young people to want to play it. Bluegrass has a lot of people that play it because it's technically difficult, and its fun for the young people. Old Time music sort of needs a boost and that's what I love about Ralph Stanley getting out there, hearing his stuff and hearing him sing, because that's definitely old time. You can call it bluegrass if you want, but buddy, that's old time."