|Buy the Book|
Doc & dawg
BLIND BUT NOW I SEE
By Kent Gustavson, PhD
367 pp. Sumach Red Books
Reviewed by Alan Goodman
Writing biography is difficult. With so many quality biographies in circulation, one can easily forget the delicate balance of skills necessary to bringing such a narrative to life. Kent Gustavson, PhD, author of Blind But Now I See, reminds us of just how difficult it is.
With unerring literary radar, Doctor Gustavson manages to bury the long-gone Doc Watson under 367 pages of boring verbiage. As a musician I looked forward to an in-depth accounting of the life of a true legend of Bluegrass music. But this anticipation was not to be well served.
Doc Watson, a self-taught virtuoso of the flat-pick style of solo guitar playing, a man who overcame poverty and a debilitating handicap of blindness, is reduced to dull blandness in this accounting of his life. The book does make clear that the biography here presented is unauthorized by any cooperation from the artist or his family, leaving the author to rely on illustrations where photos might better serve the narrative. Maybe Watson knew something about writing that should have warned the rest of us off.
The aforementioned illustrations by Kristina Tosic are problematic in that they amplify the paucity of the photographic record available to the author, and thus serve more to distract rather than add to the book's purpose. The illustration appearing on page 247 is a perfect example to this point. Here the reader is shown a drawing of a bus with several people standing around, while one man exits.
The caption states, “Doc Watson stepping off the bus in New York City, March 1961.”
The notion that the reader needs an illustration to visualize someone departing a bus in New York City says something for the author's confidence in his audience. The ill-advised use of many similar illustrations such as this one begs a question for the advice of the publisher as well as that of the judgment of the author. Perhaps it would be best to have just left the events these illustrations purport to re-enact to the reader's imagination.
In an effort to be as “folksy” as his subject was in his stage presentations, Dr. Gustavson peppers his narrative with an excessive dollop of homilies and second-hand appeals to sentiment. To be sure, sentiment can be a powerful tool for the writer, but not when it appears often enough to engulf any flow for the narrative. For example:
Mira Muldaur described the food that Rosa Lee served in such a way as to start even the weakest taste buds salivating, 'the thing I remember most was her breakfast, which happened very early in the morning.
Honest to God there were fresh-made biscuits with amazing butter, blackberry preserves, wonderfully fresh eggs, and biscuits with sausage gravy, and then there were sausage patties. It was breakfast beyond what a little Italian girl from New York City would ever have dreamed a breakfast could be. She just whipped this up every morning on the stove. And for lunch and dinner there would be some of her canned string beans, or whatever vegetables were that came out of her spring house. It was just amazing'.
It just might be that things perked up in the last fourth of the book. If you read this, please be my guest in writing a more upbeat review of the race to the finale. I had to bow out at Chapter 18.
There's only so much bad writing one can hack before the eyeballs refuse to focus on the written word. It didn't help that Chapter 18 opens with an illustration of “Jack Lawrence leaning over to speak with Doc Watson between songs at Merlefest.”
As viewed in a black outline drawing from behind the performers, I thought it more likely Jack Lawrence was leaning in on Doc Watson's shoulder for a snooze.
Too bad. Doc Watson was a great artist. Maybe his legacy in performance and recording is what really matters most to his memory. Let us hope so.