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Ry Cooder recounts his first encounter with Doc Watson

When Ry Cooder was sixteen, he encountered Doc Watson. He writes in the New York Times ArtsBeat blog:

Doc Watson, who died on Tuesday at age 89, was the first truly great guitar player I ever saw up close. …

… Doc and the banjo player Clarence Ashley and some of the boys drove out to Los Angeles for the first U.C.L.A. Folk Festival in 1963. On the lawn by Royce Hall, the gothic classical music venue, they gathered around and sang “Daniel Prayed,” an intricate call-and-response-style gospel tune. The public was here and there, wandering around aimlessly, like they do at these events. It was casual and unannounced — we hadn’t entered into the hyperorganized way of music appreciation just yet — that came later with the big rock shows.

Fred Price led the song with his old man’s ghostly voice, Clint Howard joined in on farm-boy tenor and Doc added his resonant bass, which was severe and shocking. In their tradition, the instruments are rested and the song is like a breathing exercise. Daniel prayed every morning, noon, and night, it says. I wondered if there were more people right there on the lawn than had ever assembled in their church back home in Deep Gap, N.C., to hear about Daniel and the nonstop prayer, but that didn’t bother Doc and the boys.

Then, Ed Pearl, the owner of the folk music club the Ash Grove, took them away somewhere to get a sandwich. Their place back home would probably just about fit in between the lawn and the food tent, I remember thinking. I also remember thinking that these men know something about music I’ll never know, even if I practice and study all my life. You have to be born into it. That way, every note and word and gesture has meaning, and your notes and sung words line up with those of your friends and make a whole statement about life that is tiny but eternal. Now another rounder has gone. Doc made many good recordings, but you needed to be in his close presence to pick up the sound of his life and times; the microphone can’t do that for you, I’m sorry to say.

Later that day, I was sitting on a bench playing guitar, and Doc and Ed Pearl walked by. Doc stopped and listened. “Who’s that?” he asked Ed. “That’s Ry Cooder, he’s a youngster.”

“Sounds pretty good,” Doc said, and they walked on.

h/t Mary Katherine Aldin, who was a friend of Doc Watson’s, on Facebook.

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