Front Porch

By Watson, Harry L. | Southern Cultures, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Front Porch


Watson, Harry L., Southern Cultures


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In our Upbeat Down South, Vincent Joos tells how Jimmy Anderson grew up in fife-and-drum hotspot Natchez, Mississippi, and Dick Waterman's amazing photo essay includes a classic image of Otha Turner, thought to be the last fife musician of his generation. An Appalachian fifer and friend, c. 1914, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

This edition of Southern Cultures's music issue deals with "roots" music, a label that grew especially well known and popular after the Coen brothers' remarkable movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, appeared in 2000. America's diverse cultures have inspired an immense variety of musical forms and styles, nowhere more than in the South, and "roots" tries to capture that variety at the deepest level among families and communities, before the process of commercialization and homogenization begins. Our inspiration came from the North Carolina Humanities Council, which throughout 2010 is sponsoring a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution entitled "New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music." Southern Cultures is pleased to offer our support for "New Harmonies," and you can visit www.SouthernCultures.org for more information on the tour.

As we started to consider this issue, we looked for some help in defining just what "roots" music really is. We decided to ask an expert, our dear friend and southern music authority Chaz Joyner of Coastal Carolina University, to give us a list of the ten best southern "folk" singers, an older but still useful musical category that could tie contemporary ideas of "roots" to something earlier.

Chaz then sent us two lists, one devoted to "traditional" folk singers, whom he defined as those who learned their songs from the oral traditions of their families and communities, and the other naming "singers of folk songs" who sang for a living (or still do) and mostly learned their repertoire from recordings. The division didn't surprise me; distinguishing between "real" folk and their imitators comes naturally to almost everyone who explores folk or "roots" culture, however they decide to define it.

I also didn't recognize a lot of the "traditional" names, but that didn't surprise me either. After all, being obscure and commercially undiscovered is a cardinal test of "traditional" authenticity, and unlike Chaz, I hadn't spent a lifetime exploring the South's best music. Like lots of other half-educated consumers, I love what I hear but my life goes on in different directions.

But when I read the list of professional "imitators," I was dumbfounded, because right there in first place was North Carolina's own "Doc" Watson. Let me say right away that Arthel Lane Watson and I are not related, except of course in my dreams. But how could anybody put the sublime Doc Watson in a category of professional singers who acquired their material from the channels of mass culture? Sure, Doc has recorded a bazillion albums, won three Grammys, and made a worldwide name for himself, but how could anybody who taught himself to play the guitar while growing up blind in Deep Gap, North Carolina, be anything but traditional? Chaz, say it ain't so! You're breaking my heart here.

Still disbelieving, I dragged myself to my unimpeachable fountain of folk wisdom, Wikipedia. And sure enough, right there in black and white pixels, it says that "the first song Doc ever learned to play was 'When Roses Bloom in Dixieland,'" which he must have learned from a Carter Family recording of the 1920s.

At least a dozen other sites have the exact same language--so it must be true. And it goes on to say that Doc's early street performances covered popular hits by the Delmar, Louvin, and Monroe Brothers. I was crushed. If Doc Watson isn't traditional, how can anyone be?

I applied various restoratives, and when I came to I began thinking about these opposing categories of "traditional" and "professional. …

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