Seems like all the tired horses writin’ in the sun are writing about the … death of important artists from the not-so-far-off musical past. Most recently, the passing of Levon Helm, the lyricist, singer and drummer from The Band, followed by the passing of banjo player Doug Dillard.
On Tuesday, Doc Watson died at age 89. Watson was a local favorite, of course, who played in Santa Cruz in 1994 and whose last appearance here was in October 2009 at the Rio Theater.
Watson’s flat picking style of guitar playing was hugely influential among other artists, including his own family. Music fans of the ’60s and ’70s can remember his appearances with his son, Merle, who died in a tractor accident in 1985. In recent years, he played with his grandson, Richard, Merle’s son. The pair performed at the annual “Merlefest” — the annual music festival Doc helped start in Wilkesboro, NC. The New York Times obituary has a wealth of details and testimonials about Doc Watson’s life and times.
Watson, forever humble and devoted to his craft, lost his eyesight at age 1 due to an eye infection. He was born and died in North Carolina, and his “mountain music” became widely played and copied starting in the 1960s. His lonesome vocals and rapid-fire playing were a revelation to many musicians and fans — and he kept on playing to the end of his time on earth.
A couple of other great artists who came to acclaim in the 1960s were also in the news this week.
Paul Simon’s “Graceland” brought the singer-songwriter together with South African musicians in a timeless and great musical work that preceded the end of apartheid in South Africa. The making of that album, and a reunion 25 years later, is the subject of a new film, “Under African Skies,” that also portrays some of the social and political forces of the time. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote today about the film and those tensions.
Bob Dylan was honored at the White House Tuesday, receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Dylan, who wore sunglasses at the ceremony and didn’t speak (he engaged in his familiar bobbing, so to speak, up and down posture as Obama draped the medal around his neck), was one of a host of prominent Americans to receive the honor, including novelist Toni Morrison and astronaut and former Sen. John Glenn.
“There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music,” said Obama.
Rumor has it another Bob Dylan album is completed and due out in early fall. It would be his 35th. The production reportedly includes a 14-minute song with the working title of “Titanic.” If so it would not be Mr. D’s first mention of the voyage to the bottom of the sea: Back in 1965, in his epochal “Desolation Row,” Bob sang these immortal words, “Praise be to Nero’s Neptune/The Titanic sails at dawn/and everybody’s shouting/’Which side are you on?'”