This live set was recorded in 1963, and while Doc turned 40 that year, he was still growing into his solo career. Club 47 was in Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA, a club that Ralph Rinzler was associated with. Watson went there at his urging, as did so many of the greats that Rinzler brought north, including Gary Davis and John Hurt. Jim Kweskin ran a hootenanny there, often including Maria Muldaur, Joan Baez. Dave Van Ronk wrote that “Club 47 was the hip room … and I had the impression that they felt that if they hired me, they’d be letting down the side.” Bob Dylan slipped on stage between sets in 1961 just to he could say that he played there.
This recording preceded Watson’s performance at Newport by five months, the moment he truly entered the US national consciousness. The audience would have seen him as somewhat exotic, especially when he’s joined by the Ashleys on stage. He was yet to release an album—“The Watson Family” came out a couple months later, and he didn’t release a solo record until 1964. So, he still was something of an unknown quantity.
The songs are familiar, but he’s playing a broader character on stage than he did even just a few years later. Perhaps that’s not fair to say, but especially in the later years, he would often say from stage that what you see is what you get, he’s no different than he would be in his living room. But, in this performance, he’s playing things up a bit—his accent a bit broader than later audiences are familiar with, and his deference a bit deeper than maybe feels comfortable. He takes a second shot at introducing “I am a Pilgrim,” and it otherwise lacks some of the raw emotion that he ultimately was to bring to it. That’s a song he felt so deeply that, in his later years, could bring a tear to his eye. In this performance, it’s not quite there yet. It feels sacrilegious to say that. This is Doc Watson after all, and it’s simply not possible to overstate how wonderful he was, how charming he was, and how much he brought to audiences.
If you are familiar with his work, this recording will be of interest given that it’s a somewhat rare window onto an interesting moment in his career. You’ll notice little things, one of them being that he feels the need to switch up instruments more than we’re used to, moving between guitar, autoharp, and banjo. The set is lovely of course—again, this is Doc—and his flatpicking remarkable as ever. He even seems a bit giddy, and it’s easy to wonder if that’s because of what the trip may have meant, i.e., an early foray north at a moment that his career was really starting to take off. That said, if someone hasn’t heard of Watson and is looking for an introduction, the better recording is Doc Watson on Stage.