Doc Watson loomed large over Spoleto this week. His essential being channeled through Abigail Washburn on Sunday and Kruger Brothers on Friday night is fitting testament indeed to his standing in American music. These artists owe debts to Doc. They honored him. Kruger Brothers made him present at the Cistern.
One patron paid an ultimate compliment at the end: "That was Doc Watson quality." When the Krugers moved to Wilkesboro, N.C., Doc's home-place, early this century, Jens' 50 musical instruments, shipped from Europe, caught official eyes in the Port of Charleston. And so the Cistern show may have been a homecoming of sorts for the banjo he wielded so magically. Some homecoming!
Everything was superlative. The long opening piece, the first movement from their recent "Appalachian Concerto," a tribute to Doc that echoed David Grisman's "Arabia" in places. One cover: Sting's "Fields of gold." Uwe seemed a receiver for Doc's voice in his singing. And, most of all, that banjo. Bill Monroe put Jens on the stage at the Grand Ole Opry at age 20. To hear Jens play is to listen with Monroe's ears. It's that special.
One way to frame the performance is as just one more notch on the gun of globalization. As the world becomes a more interconnected place, the story goes, shows like this, when Americana came home to Charleston via Switzerland, will be a staple at Spoleto over years to come.
That narrative stretches only so far. Globalization is much more a one-way street than we are led to believe. If our interconnected world means greater integration of social, economic, cultural, and political worlds, then where are the German, Japanese, British (even) military bases on U.S. soil to mirror ours around the world?
Why do we mislabel folk and ethnic music from faraway places as "world music," when Beyonce and Lady Gaga rule the airwaves worldwide? Are you sure there are American recording artists working hard with Switzerland's master alphorn player, whoever that is, as the Kruger brothers apprenticed with Monroe and Watson (an artist I knew to see when last he was in Charleston from growing up in Ireland)?
No, there is more purchase in explaining the show as a shining example of Americanization, even as we puzzle over whether this 21st century will continue the vaunted American Century, as projected.
America's soft power has seen peoples everywhere embrace our way of being for decades now. Uwe Kruger explained that he spoke with a Tennessee accent by the time he was 12! America's draw was reflected in wonderful acoustic waves from the Cistern stage Friday night. How flattering for any American audience to see themselves so favorably as in this Swiss looking-glass. Nor is the Swiss-American connection nearly so outlandish. If photography is a quintessential American art form (in its still and moving varieties), then Swiss photographer Robert Frank helped revolutionize that world with his celebrated "The Americans" in 1959, prizing open the door to gritty street photography and the vernacular. And Yann Gross' compelling closing of that circle in "Horizonville," his recent portrait of Switzerland's Rhone Valley, explains Kruger Brothers most eloquently. Friday's show was a homage to great things American. Saturday's likewise, I'm sure.
Mark Long is associate professor of political science at the College of Charleston.