Thursday, August 19, 2010

Kent Gustavson "Blind But Now I See" - Book Review

Review revision: In August of 2010 I reviewed Kent Gustavson’s biography of Doc Watson, Blind but Now I See, here. While I saw much of value in it, I criticized it on several fronts. Much of what I criticized at that time has been remedied in the current edition. It now contains an extensive index, a copious list of sources, and a selective discography. A large number of photographs have been added, some of which are in color. I chose one chapter (XIV) to examine more carefully. The chapter, which considers the similarities and differences between Doc Watson and Pete Seeger has been completely re-written and much improved. My much more cursory examination of the entire book suggests that to be the case throughout.  I can unreservedly recommend this book as a significant addition to the literature on Doc Watson and the only biography extant. Perhaps, because Gustavson did not receive the cooperation of the Watson family, making this an unauthorized biography, serves as an advantage, as he has not had to accommodate to the family’s wishes in picturing Doc Watson. It’s a fine read and a great gift.

Kent Gustavson's unauthorized biography of Doc Watson Blind But Now I See could have been a wonderful addition to the recent books written about and by contemporary musicians.  As it stands, however, while this book organizes and presents much of the previously published material on the great blind singer and musician's life, it fails to break much new ground and is largely flawed in many areas.  Dr. Gustavson, an adjunct professor teaching at The State University of New York at Stony Brook, earned his doctorate in the Department of Music and now teaches there, as well as in several other departments on an adjunct basis.

In this book, he is at his strongest when functioning as a musicologist.  His sections on the importance of Ralph Rinzler in the discovery of Doc Watson on a music collecting tour in the Appalacians and his bringing Doc to New York to introduce him to the folk music world there is particularly interesting and strong.  He also is at his best when discussing Doc Watson's contributions to American music and his virtuosity on the guitar.  Gustavson makes a particularly strong argument for Watson's ability to fuse various genres into a larger vision of what has become known as Americana.  Rinzler realized Watson's strengths as a roots musician, despite the fact he'd been playing electric guitar and making rockabilly music in and around his home of Deep Gap, NC for more than a decade.  Rinzler urged him to return to acoustic guitar and to play and sing traditional music during his initial visits to New York and California, where he met Clarence White.  His genius as a picker, the power and sincerity of his voice as well as his novelty as a blind musician made him an almost immediate sensation.  Doc Watson rode the folk music revival to world-wide fame with Rinzler managing and booking him, all the time struggling to keep his music focused in the traditional vein.  When Watson asserted his independence by inserting music from a wider body of music, he moved into the larger and more lucrative world of American music, assisted by the success of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken.  Gustavson's use of secondary sources and contemporary phone interviews to develop a picture of the folk music world of the 1960's and seventies is interesting and solidly developed.

 Kent Gustavson

Gustavson also finds and develops significant linkages between Doc Watson's innovative creativity and the emergence of contemporary guitar technique.  He establishes this link through recognizing the influences Watson had on Clarence White's picking, which strongly influenced Tony Rice during his youth in California.  White moved towards a more plugged in sound and greater success in his work with Nashville Weat and The Byrds, playing what came to be known as country rock.  Rice. who acknowledges White's impact on him, has become a major influence on a whole generation of younger acoustic guitar players, many of whom also give significant credit to Doc Watson as an influence on their flat picking style.  Doc Watson's ability to stand out in all styles of guitar playing and to develop and maintain a loyal following across genres and styles makes him the standout performer on guitar over the past 60 years.  The chapter "Traditional Plus" may make this book worth the price of admission.  In a series of interviews, he uses the voices of others to develop a strong case for the founders of musical genres (Monroe, Louis Armstrong) establishing a foundation for the further development of their genres rather than imposing limits upon them.

I have not read a fuller description of the importance of Merle Watson as a musician or as companion and manager for his father than Gustavson develops in this book. My knowledge of Merle relies almost entirely on the picture of him that emerges at Merlefest, the large music festival dedicated to his memory held in Wilkesboro, NC during the last weekend in April every year.  But my own knowledge of his importance has been limited to what I hear from Merle's friends when they speak of him on stage and the biographical material presented in the Merlefest program booklet.  Gustavson claims this is not the whole story and develops the relationship between father and son within the context of the musical environment of the seventies and eighties, when popular, rock, and folk-rock music were experiencing many changes, often affected by the emergence of drugs in the culture.  He examines this phenomenon and places Merle Watson's life and death in the midst of it.

Doc Receives Honorary Doctorate from Berklee College of Music 2010
All the above makes this volume worth reading.  However, the book is deeply flawed as biography, scholarship, and in its writing.  Serious readers will have to get past these flaws to reap the benefits the book has to offer.  It is virtually useless as a work that might serve for scholarly reference due to its not having an index or a discography.  Anyone looking for specific supporting material for future work will have to dig deeply into the end notes for each chapter to find it. (Note: The publishers have notified me that an online index is available here, and that it will be printed in subsequent editions of the book.) These end notes emphasize the wide use of secondary sources such as magazine articles, previously published interviews, and liner notes.  Liner notes, especially, seem to be an inadequate source for good information, since they are almost always designed to make the featured artist shine.  Digging into Ralph Rinzler's Folk Life Archives at the Smithsonian Institution seems to be almost the only use of primary written sources in the book.  Each chapter's end notes detail a series of phone conversations with people associated with Doc Watson that could have shed significant light on the subject.  These interviews took place during what appears to have been an orgy of telephone calls most of which took place from March to June in 2009.

It is ironic that Gustavson quotes from a piece of Studs Terkel's picture of Doc Watson in his 2002 book Will the Circle Be Unbroken, because Terkel was such a master at exactly those skills where Gustavson is weak.  In interview after interview, almost all conducted by phone and, presumably, recorded to be transcribed later, Gustavson chooses to allow the interviewees' voices to speak for themselves, no matter how incoherent those voices are.  Terkel, on the other hand, was a master at turning people's voices into art by, while seeming to be invisible himself, exerting great authority over his subjects, molding their speech patterns, language, and thought into magnificent self-portraits.  By allowing his interviewees to speak for themselves without editorial intervention, Gustavson often allows their voices to become confusing and less than helpful in moving along the story of Doc Watson.

 Earle Scruggs and Doc at Merlefest

Gustavson's writing contains any number of authorial tics I would suppose a teacher of advanced composition, like him, would slash out of others' drafts.  There were three I found particularly glaring.  In instances where Watson achieved moments of transition in his life, Gustavson insists on writing, "Little did Doc imagine..." that in some future time he would....  These attempted journeys inside Doc Watson's mind fall completely flat.  Similarly, the author insists on throwing in "of course' in many instances where there is no "of course."  While everyone is on a path of some sort or other, next steps don't happen "of course" but either by design or happenstance.  Also, from the beginning of the book, Gustavson refers to Arthel Watson as Doc.  Good biographical writing argues that such an error is anachronistic.  From birth until the nickname "Doc" was bestowed on him and stuck, Watson's name was Arthel, and that should have been the name Gustavson used. There are also many other errors which solid editorial intervention could have remedied. The jarring reference to runner Usain Bolt is one.  Two others are the mis-spellings of Terry Gross (Grosz) and Bryan (Brian) Sutton's names.  In fact, this book cries out for professional editing from an objective outsider.

Doc Watson

It's been argued that Gustavson includes information that people may not want to know about matters that invade the Watson family's privacy.  This is a posture I'm generally not too sympathetic towards.  The nature of good biography is to paint a picture of a person's life in whole, with all the warts showing.  However, in the case of an aging icon still obviously grieving over the loss of his son, perhaps some discretion in the timing of the release of the book should have been considered.  Gustavson often fails to create a picture of Doc Watson as a person.  The words are there, but the heart isn't found in the writing.  One correspondent, in an e-mail to me, called it "cold."  Even while piling hyperbolic praise on Doc Watson, the man doesn't emerge as a person.  Perhaps, in the end, the best picture of Doc Watson will continue to be revealed in the large body of recorded work he has left behind him, especially in the Grammy award winning CD set "Legacy" made with David Holt,  as well as the range of recorded and video evidence.  As of this writing, there are about 2800 You Tube videos on which Doc Watson appears.  One Watson discography can be found here, although I have no idea whether it's complete.

Blind But Now I See: The Biography of Music Legend Doc Watson by Kent Gustavson, Ph.D is published by Blooming Twig Books, 2010 (ISBN-978-1-933918-43-3) and is available from the publisher. It is also available on line from Amazon or other on line sources. Support your local independent book store.