Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Bodies of Water: What Does The Deep Sea Say?

Bill Monroe & Doc Watson - What Does The Deep Sea Say? [purchase]

What does the deep sea say?
It moans, it groans, it splashes and it foams,
And it rolls on its weary way.

Charlie and Bill Monroe first recorded this tune in 1937, way back when older brother Charlie was the dominant Monroe. But, Bill was no man's second fiddle, so to speak. The group split up in 1938, Monroe joined the Opry in '39, and everything was rosins and bows until Elvis came along and dropped a wiggling turd in the punchbowl. Almost overnight, bluegrass music became quaint and old-fashioned.

Then, in the late 1950s, quaint and old-fashioned music surged in popularity, especially on college campuses. Old was the new new. Bill Monroe was one beneficiary of this so-called folk boom. Doc Watson, the sightless wunderkind of flatpick guitar, was another. When they recorded this duet in May 1963 at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, Watson was two months away from a performance at the Newport Folk Festival that would put him on the national map for good. Monroe, meanwhile, was already an elder statesman of old-timey, but was about to enter the bluegrass festival era, when he would stand as the genre's livingest legend.

On a sidenote, I'd be willing to bet that in the audience at this Ash Grove show was a young guitar picker named Clarence White. According to Kentucky Colonels bassist, Roger Bush, Clarence called him from the Ash Grove in March 1962, excited about hearing "a blind guitar player from Deep Gap, North Carolina." The KCs actually played the Ash Grove in April 1963, so chances are good they were in town. And if you were in town, why in god's name would you pass up the Bill Monroe/Doc Watson gig??? Trick question ... you wouldn't.

Follow-up dispatch from the "lattice of coincidence":
Within hours of posting this track, Crawdaddy ran a phenomenal profile on Ed Pearl, owner and operator of the Ash Grove nightclub ... who, by the way, singles out Bill Monroe and Doc Watson as career highlights.

Damnations - What Does The Deep Sea Say? [personal recording; not available for purchase]

A beautiful rose, one day,
I placed on the crest of a wave.
I said, "Take it, please, and let it settle home
Above his watery grave."

I've discussed the greatness of The Damnations before, and it was they who turned me onto this obscure chestnut. Though never formally recorded, "Deep Sea" was a regular part of The Damnations setlists. This particular version came from a July 2002 show at the Cactus Cafe in Austin and I was lucky enough to capture it on mini-disc. As usual, sisters Amy Boone (pictured left) and Deborah Kelly (center) provide the killer, downhome harmonies, but it's Rob Bernard's heavy, percussive banjo and Conrad Choucroun's train beat drums that push the song into breakneck, cowpunk territory. Incidentally, after crunching the numbers on Amazon, it turns out you can buy both Damnations albums for a whopping $5!. Get you some.

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