Ralph Rinzler, Clarence Ashley, and Doc Watson


Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson

John Herald, quoted in the notes to “Friends of Old Time Music,” Smithsonian Folkways CD SFW40160:

Ralph came down to help me paint my apartment, and he brought down all these old-timey tapes. It was my introduction to old time music. One of the people he played me was Clarence Ashley. We wanted to study the real McCoy, and we went to a place called Union Grove, which was one of the oldest and the biggest fiddlers’ contests in the South.  What they would do at Union Grove is they would assign each act to a classroom at the Union Grove High School to warm up. When we had warmed up, I said to Ralph and Bob, “I’m going to go see some of the other players.”

We were at one end of a long hallway, and I went from classroom to classroom until I finally got to the other end of the school. And I walked into this room, and there was a crowd of people watching this banjo player sitting in a chair. And I asked them who it was, and they said, “It’s Clarence Ashley.’”

Now I remembered—from Ralph helping me paint my apartment—he had told me about Clarence Ashley. I went back to Ralph and I said, “Was Clarence Ashley one of the guys that you played for me?” and he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Well I think he’s down at the other end of the school.” Ralph’s jaw dropped, and he said, “Really?” and he went just tearing down to the end of the Union Grove school, and made a date with him immediately.

I guess he had carte blanche with Folkways Records to record whatever he might have wanted to, and he came back later to record Clarence, and that’s how Doc Watson was discovered in Clarence Ashley’s band. Ralph came back from that recording session, and said, “John, I found a guitar player who’s going to set the world on fire, who the world is not going to believe.”


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One Response to “Ralph Rinzler, Clarence Ashley, and Doc Watson”

  1. REED MARTIN Says:

    ….and somewhere back in those years – because I was an old time banjo player living in the suburbs, I was asked to be on a workshop of old time banjo players & styles at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
    One of the other players was Doc Watson. I had heard him on early recordings by Ralph Rinzler, but never sat next to Doc. When it came time for Doc to demonstrate some of his styles, he started playing thumb and index up-picking style. My eyes were watching his right hand. Oops-now his finger is playing the melody notes striking down…..oops-now picking up……oops-now striking down……it was an advanced education in old time banjo playing which I got to watch for free. Thanks Doc…..and thanks Ralph Rinzler…..
    In the fall of 2011 I was driving through North Carolina mountains and passed a simple hand painted sign “Deep Gap” and an arrow….
    On the return trip, with others in the car / among strong protests, I turned and drove down the “rural” road. After ten miles of nary a house and no sign of life – I realized how folks could live in the area without outside influences on their lives. “REMOTE” would be an understatement. When you pass the same sign – drive down the road – it will increase your appreciation for Doc Watson’s genius.

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