Talkin’ Guitar: The Story of Young Doc Watson
Written and illustrated by Robbin Gourley
(Clarion Books, 2015, New York, $16.99)
Born in a two-room cabin, one of nine children, Arthel Watson lost his vision to an eye infection when he was a year old. But what sounds like the premise of a human-interest story proved anything but tragic. Young Arthel had “ears like a cat,” and he loved music: the ballads his mother sang, the hymns he heard in church, and the music he found in the wind, animal voices, and train whistles. He taught himself to play a harmonica and a homemade banjo before his father bought him a guitar. Between farm chores, Arthel practiced his guitar and began writing songs of his own. Eventually, he became Doc Watson, a folk and bluegrass artist who went on to win the National Medal of the Arts and performed until his death, at age eighty-nine, in 2012.
In Talkin’ Guitar, author-illustrator Robbin Gourley transports readers to young Arthel’s world. Her language evokes Watson’s North Carolina hills: “Yonder, where blue mountains meet the sky, Arthel Watson was born into a world of music,” commences the narrative. Throughout the picture-book biography, Gourley employs the similes Watson and his family might have used. At first, his harmonica sounds like “a wildcat howling.” Chores and guitar practice “made him sharp as a whittling knife and tough as a hickory.” Likewise, Gourley’s watercolors do not emphasize Watson’s humble beginnings, but rather celebrate the wonder young Arthel finds in his world. In a few spreads, soft blue and violet hills rise out of green meadows into a pink or orange sky. In one, a tiny church steeple peeps over a low hill; meanwhile, Arthel lounges with his cat and dog in the meadow. Around him, in small balloons, float the sounds that inspire him from the “Peep-Peep” of birds to the “Moo” of cow to the “Amen” chorus at church. Young Arthel may be unable to admire the view, but he is acutely aware of the mountains’ beauty.
Talkin’ Guitar is a lyrical introduction to Doc Watson and his music. It is also a moving journey into another’s world, a reminder that disabilities can coexist with extraordinary abilities, and a celebration of the music we encounter every day.
-Dorothy A. Dahm