(Penguin Eggs issue #63) The jacket design of Willie Watson’s “Folk Singer Vol. 1” is pure pre-folk-boom camp: he’s got a pipe, and the presentation is sparse to look like a Lomax field recording from the period. “Vol. 1”(I actually think it’s a feint here, and I’ll be surprised if there is ever a Vol. 2.) is true to the time of the early 60s as well, when collection was key, as north eastern college students fanned out across the country reel to reel recording units in hand looking to find lost legends.
It’s a gutsy move on Watson’s part, as he’s walking a fine line between insight and mockery. Indeed, Watson plays a caricature, a singing cowboy, a rambler thick with the dust of America. He’s got tendons that stick out when he sings, and sometimes his face turns red with effort. Even that term “folk singer”—in the folk revival period, that was apparently a term that people could use simply, like “car mechanic” or “postal worker.” It meant what it said. And then it changed. The term folk singer became earnest, and then it became laughable. That Watson uses it here brings up all of the contradictions of the period, and his desire to deal with them head on.
In other hands, it wouldn’t work. Watson is convincing because he’s using the persona in order to say something about the music and about our time. That’s what comes through in this recording. It’s not the 60s, and it’s not the west or the dust bowl, and that’s his point. The anachronism is meaningful.
It also works because he is so convincing, so deft and compelling as a performer, that at his best he is nothing short of mesmerizing. He’s in that film, Another Day Another Time, and just as we’re entranced watching him bob up and down through a performance of “Midnight Special” the other performers with him, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, look like kids at a fun fair, smiling with the shear joy of being involved in this thing.
Watson’s album begins with “Midnight Special,” in a more restrained version. He then goes on to present songs in as sparse a presentation as you’d expect to see at a Greenwich Village coffee shop just prior to the folk boom: one voice, a strained vocal, a banjo or a guitar for accompaniment. Bare as bare can be. And, while it was common then, it’s a presentation that is certainly less common now. In world of rich production values, the string sounds as on “Bring it With You When You Come,” or the tap of the banjo head as on “Stewball” reek of honesty. In some cases, as with “Mother Earth” the meaning is more clearly layered—when he sings “it doesn’t matter what you’re worth/ when it all ends up you have to go back to Mother Earth” it’s about what it meant then, but also what it means now, as in our relationship to our environment. Elsewhere the relationship between now and when these songs were written are less obvious, as perhaps with “Mexican Cowboy” but it creeps in nevertheless. He’s singing these songs because they mean something immediate to us today.
His voice varies from field holler to introspection, from plaintive to ballsy, and all of it works in the way that Pete Seeger worked: one man, a song, and an unwavering confidence in an ability to deliver a message about something important. It’s an album that demands your attention, though you also have to give it your attention. Because it sits so apart from our context, and is so quiet, headphones won’t go amiss. But it’s worth it. This is one of the most important and interesting and enjoyable recordings that we’ll see this year.