Saturday 24 Sep 2016

Legend of Deep Gap
David Simmonds

If you ever came close to putting a sandal on a foot during the period between, say, 1960 and 1975, chances are you wanted to be a folksinger. And if you wanted to be a folksinger, you wanted to play guitar. And if you wanted to play guitar, you wanted to play like Doc Watson.

Doc Watson, who had been blind since early childhood, died at age 89 back in May. It feels like a personal loss to me, as I am sure it does too many others of “my vintage.” He could play guitar extraordinarily well, either in the fingerpicking ‘Travis’ style, with songs such as “Deep River Blues,” or in the cross pick style, with songs such as “Freight Train Boogie.”

Doc was a creature who spanned many musical genres. He came to national attention in the early 1960s playing old time music, but he played blues, bluegrass, gospel, rockabilly, fiddle tunes and just about anything else you would name. They created a festival in his honour, based in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, just a short drive from his home in Deep Gap. They named it Merlefest, in honour of his son who died young and tragically; but it was really all about ‘the Doc.’

The year my wife and I went to it, about ten years ago, there were some 25,000 people in attendance over a long three days. Courteous volunteers shuttled us to the site at a community college campus, where six or seven stages played simultaneously, with the Doc making strategic appearances throughout the festival. I will never forget sitting in a front row seat at his Sunday morning gospel concert with the Nashville Bluegrass Band; or shaking it up on wooden dance floor while he sang “Shake, Rattle and Roll” from his album “Docabilly.”

What I also liked about Doc was the purity of his voice. It wasn’t particularly strong, but it was true and made whatever he sang sound believable. With the greatest of respect to Willie Nelson and Rod Stewart, I always thought he would be the best interpreter of the songs from the great American popular songbook. His version of Summertime, for example, was a knockout. 

He also bore his blindness with great dignity: he tried neither to flaunt it nor hide it, and indeed was not keen on touring because of it. I don’t think I am exaggerating the point when I say that he had the quintessential American virtues. He was good at what he did - perhaps the best, although it wasn’t for him to say; reserved without being aloof, not boastful or swaggery, and willing to pitch in and play with anyone who was game. He received his eighth Grammy Award, a lifetime achievement award, in 2004; and received the National Medal of the Arts from the president in 1997.

I often wondered if during the dark years of the Bush presidency post 9/11, the United States had simply sent the Doc on a singing tour of the Middle East instead of invading it, there might have been a more peaceful and more enthusiastic renunciation of terrorism and dictatorship. I’m sure he would have latched on to its musical styles with great enthusiasm; and that we would have seen Iraqis and Iranians sporting Merlefest baseball caps while picking up guitars and learning to play “Red haired boy” at breakneck speed.

There must be a section in heaven for those who take such joy in the playing of music that it infects all who come near it. I put the Doc up in the same category as Stefan Grappelli, the late jazz violinist and, we discovered only in the last few years of his life, pianist; and Fats Waller, the dazzling jazz pianist and irrepressible spirit who told someone he couldn’t date her because “Your Feets‘ Too Big.” It’s impossible to conjure up an image of either one of them without a smile on his face.

Shere joy in playing doesn’t belong to the giants. You can find it right around the corner, even in the County. That is why I wish Bill Sallans, the erstwhile elder statesman of the fiddle and accordion based in Sheba’s Island, a speedy return to health. Bill, your music that always gets people up on their feet has been sorely missed recently. Joy spreading is your calling. Don’t hang 'em up yet.

As for me, I’ve put aside this nice pile of Doc Watson tapes, records and disks that I’m cycling through again with great pleasure. As a mark of respect, I won’t try to play along with him on guitar. At the same time, I may just try on that old pair of sandals again.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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