Americans, particularly Southerners, lost one of the last living bridges to our cultural past when seven-time Grammy award-winning folk musician Arthel “Doc” Watson passed away last week near his home in rural North Carolina.
He was 89 years old and still a resident of Deep Gap, his birthplace.
Watson’s knowledge of Appalachian folk and rockabilly tunes will live on, though, having been initially recorded by Smithsonian Curator Ralph Rinzler in the early-1960s and later documenting his life in a three-volume recording, Legacy, along with numerous albums, compilations, and singles for five separate labels.
Raised on a Carolina farm, Watson came to tour the world, delighting crowds with songs and tales from the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee, but his tremendous success was tempered with great sorrow when his son and musical protege, Merle, died tragically in a tractor accident in 1985.
And did I mention he was blind?
Watson lost his sight to an eye infection before his first birthday, but his parents taught him to work hard and care for himself.
He attended a North Carolina school for the visually impaired in Raleigh, and loved to listen to popular albums on a gramophone his father brought home from the sawmill, the result of a bargain with the foreman for extra work.
Watson was soon imitating those Delmore Brothers, Louvin Brothers and Monroe Brothers records, mixing them with traditional mountain folk tunes on his banjo, a cat gut three-string with a calico’s hide for a resonator that his father had made him.
Within months he was playing on street corners, and his father soon determined that Watson could make a living despite the disability that prevented his working on the family farm.
When his father offered Watson and his brothers the chance to earn some cash by chopping down the dead American Chestnut trees along the edge of their field, Doc used his $10 pay to buy a Stella guitar from the Sears Roebuck catalog, and he soon had a paying gig with a Johnson City, Tennessee-based country and western swing band.
The band rarely had a fiddle player, but was regularly hired for square dances, so Watson’s repertoire grew to include another staple of Southern mountain culture, fiddle tunes, flat-picking them on both electric and acoustic guitar.
Watson blossomed into both a phenomenal flatpicker and fingerpicker who was able to make any style of American folk music his own, and could recall from memory a seemingly-limitless catalog of mountain ballads which he had learned in the oral tradition.
If it hadn’t been for an idealistic wandering historic preservationist from Greenwich Village, Watson would have probably just continued his life as a backup rockabilly musician, and his discovery was really an afterthought.
When Rinzler visited the Southern Appalachians in 1960 with a truckload of bulky recording equipment intending to record an aging banjo player by the name of Clarence “Tom” Ashley, they needed a guitar accompaniment and Ashley suggested his friend, Doc Watson.
Rinzler wasn’t enthused about including a rockabilly electric guitarist, but realized it was all they could get on short notice.
Flatpicking traditional folk tunes for Rinzler on his acoustic in the back of the truck on the way to the recording session, Watson surprised the crew so much that he soon made a recording of his own, and his appearance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival received rave reviews, cementing his popularity among both folk enthusiasts and the general public.
Watson rode a bus to the event – alone.
A guitar was the only companion for a blind Carolina farm boy leaving home for the first time on a trip through seven states to what must have seemed another world.
Watson recorded his debut album, a self-titled LP for Vanguard, the next year, and music critic Jim Smith praised its “incredible flatpicking skills that wowed audiences,” but added that it was “Watson’s complete mastery of the folk idiom that assured his lasting popularity.”
As the folk revival waned in the late-1960s, Watson remained popular with a recording of “Tennessee Stud” on The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s breakthrough collaborative Will the Circle Be Unbroken of 1972, in which he is heard introducing his favorite Gallagher guitar to Merle Travis as “a pretty good ol’ box made in Wartrace, Tenn.”
Watson and his son Merle, a highly influential picker in his own right, went on to record dozens of albums and compilations until Merle’s untimely death in 1985, which prompted him to found MerleFest, an annual bluegrass and folk music festival in North Carolina.
Watson continued to perform annually at the Doc Watson Music Festival on a stage just yards from his boyhood home in Deep Gap, N.C., which is where I saw him in the summer of 2000, fulfilling a longtime wish of mine.
Watson seemed feeble even then, requiring considerable help to enter the stage, but proceeded to put on a show that erased any notion of frailty from the minds of the audience.
During a rendition of the traditional spiritual “I Am A Pilgrim,” I caught a couple of new verses he had slipped in which had particular meaning for him, I think.
I’ve got a father, a son, a brother, and a mother
And a sister gone to that other shore
Well I’m determined to go and see them good lord
And live up there forever more.
When they lay me down in my coffin
with these old tired hands resting on my breast
Please don’t do none o’ that ol’ weepin’ an’ cryin’ over me
‘cause you’ll know, oh yes you’ll know, I’ve gone to rest.
After more than seven decades of recording, performing, and documenting more than two centuries of American musical heritage, Watson has taken that well-deserved rest, leaving his life’s work to the benefit of future generations.