Back in March when Earl Scruggs died, I tried hard to think of a connection with the Middle East so I could put it on this blog. Now that we've lost another of the pioneers of Bluegrass music, Doc Watson, who died yesterday at 89, I'm trying again. Other than a conversation I've been having with Hisham Milhem about Doc Watson on Twitter, I haven't succeeded. He covered a lot of old Gospel spirituals and some of them must have mentioned the River of Jordan, though not in the manner of anyone who's ever actually crossed it. So if those aren't enough justification, please indulge me in a non-Middle East post.
Of all the types of American "roots" music, Bluegrass is unusual in that much of the music is very old — Child ballads, old mountain songs, blues, spirituals, etc. — but reworked in a way that sounds very traditional but is played in a style that was really fashioned in the 20th century by Bill Monroe. Watson, who was blind since infancy, is a traditional player who became an icon of Bluegrass and one of the greatest guitar pickers ever, despite his blindness. With his passing so soon after that of Banjo great Earl Scruggs, I can only assume the Almighty has decided to convert the Angelic Choirs over to Bluegrass (Bill Monroe's probably been lobbying for it since his death in 1996). Once Scruggs got there the Lord said, we've got the mandolin and the banjo, but we need a great guitar . . .
This video (which you should watch even if you think you don't like Bluegrass: it might change your mind) includes both Watson and Scruggs (Watson on guitar and Scruggs on banjo of course), along with Ricky Skaggs on mandolin and Alison Krauss on fiddle (and everybody sings). Bluegrass royalty, two of them now gone, doing an old standard, "Banks of the Ohio":