Blind but Now I See is Kent Gustavson’s biorgraphy of the late Doc Watson. When I read about this book I was very much looking forward to it because I’ve been listening to and enjoying Doc Watson’s music for many years. I think my introduction to Doc and his son Merle was on the old Folk Ways and Folk Music radio show on CJRT Radio here in Toronto. That must have been the late 70s or early 80s. Host Joe Lewis introduced me to the music of many performers.
The book starts off with pages of accolades about Doc Watson. I thought it was overkill – I figure if you’re reading this book, you know. There are many photographs, which I appreciated, and also many illustrations, each of which is credited c. Kristina Tosic. This over-crediting was a little much. Having some illustrations was nice – you don’t see that so much these days – but I was more interested in the text.
Doc Watson was playing rock-a-billy on a Les Paul electric guitar when he was “discovered”, and only reluctantly switched over to acoustic guitar. The degree to which his career was steered toward traditional music to take advantage of the “great folk music scare” was fascinating. He was even coached on what tunes New Yorkers might be interested in. Watson was discouraged from playing some of the other more citified music he enjoyed, knew, and wanted to play, and it wasn’t until the Southbound recording with his son Merle that they played some of this other music. The music industry wanted us to think Doc Watson was playing traditional mountain music that was in the air around Deep Gap NC, and while this may have been true to some degree, it turns out that Doc Watson learned a lot of his repertoire by listening to records. Authenticity was an attractive attribute of this music to urban folkies, but even in this genre, audiences were being sold a story line. This doesn’t diminish Watson’s accomplishment. He was a remarkable performer, singer and guitar-picker.
This biography also provided a glimpse into a troubled Merle Watson, who struggled with substance abuse for years. I really knew little about Merle beyond his playing – but really it was just a glimpse we were offered. In fact in general, I learned more facts – the plot line of their lives – than I really learned about the people. I guess that’s the challenge with biography. Often when I read a biography I’m left with a feeling of something missing. It’s really difficult to capture the complexity of someone’s life, their thoughts and emotions and motivations.
If you’re interested in Doc Watson’s music and all that folk music history, this is an enjoyable, informative and readable account.