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ESSAY: Doc Watson

Remembering Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson

March 3, 1923-May 29, 2012

doc watson

I almost met Doc Watson—in fact, I almost visited him at his house in Deep Gap, North Carolina. It was June 1984, and I had recently arrived in the northwestern corner of North Carolina to work as a summer seasonal park ranger on the Blue Ridge Parkway. My landlords—a family who owned the farm on which I was renting a small trailer—knew Doc personally, because Doc was part of their community; during the 1950s they had heard him perform regularly around Watauga County, particularly on the streets of Boone, North Carolina. They called Doc to see if he might allow me, a young man from the city who sang old songs and played old-time banjo, to visit him at his home. His wife said yes, I could visit Doc the following week after he returned from his current tour.

“Tennessee Stud”

At the time I was a starry-eyed fan of Appalachian music and something of a self-styled purist, in that I preferred traditional music styles to more commercial reinterpretations of older material. I had developed a rather restrictive personal aesthetic that placed the music of long-dead, sometimes completely obscure performers in higher esteem than the music of well-known, contemporary musicians. By 1984, perhaps only two living Appalachian musicians were incontestably on my list of favorite musicians: Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson, both of whom were stalwarts of old-style mountain music yet who maintained strong presences on the contemporary music scene.

Interview: “I played like the rest of the boys...” 

Further connecting these luminaries of the urban folk revival was the fact that they had made an album together: 1963’s Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City on Folkways Records. By 1984, though, Ritchie’s recording and performing career had slowed considerably, whereas Doc’s career was arguably at its peak, as he was frequently headlining concerts in major venues across the U.S., usually in conjunction with his son Merle (a gifted guitarist whose playing and personality perfectly complemented Doc’s). For me, meeting Doc Watson—particularly at his home—would have been a dream come true, but Doc’s wife called my landlords the day before my planned visit to report that Doc, who had just returned from his tour, said no to inviting guests to their house—he needed some rest.    

“Beaumont Rag” 

I remember feeling disappointment and sadness—perhaps even a vague sense of rejection—at not being able to meet the master. Growing up in Washington, D.C., I was initially introduced to the music of rural America through records. The first such recording I stumbled upon—in perhaps 1967—was The Folk Box, a multi-album 1964 compilation from the Elektra label, and the sole release in my parents’ record collection that contained traditional rural American music. That box set featured tracks from folk revivalist performers alongside recordings by more traditional musicians. From my first listen to that sprawling collection, one track captured my imagination: Clarence "Tom" Ashley's mesmerizing 1962 version of "The Coo-Coo Bird." I initially focused on Ashley's ethereal voice and chiming modal banjo, yet with multiple listenings I couldn't help but notice the distinctive guitar accompaniment. It was played by Doc Watson. While Ashley sounded as if he was echoing out of some remote past, that guitar playing was modern, forceful yet controlled, even refined in its execution. Doc’s playing was different in terms of style and technique from everything else on The Folk Box, a compilation bursting at the seams with recordings showcasing all manner of guitar accompaniment.

“Raincrow Bill Goes up Cripple Creek”

I learned that the track on the Elektra box set was licensed from the Folkways label. Doc, a generation younger than Ashley, had performed with the veteran performer at the behest of Ralph Rinzler. A folklorist and a folk music promoter, Rinzler traveled to the Blue Ridge in 1961 to document the music repertoire associated with Ashley and several friends and neighbors, beginning with recordings made at Ashley’s house near the Tennessee-North Carolina border and continuing with recordings from subsequent concerts held in Chicago and Los Angeles. The resulting two albums, released as Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s, Vols. 1 and 2 by Folkways Records in 1961 and 1963, introduced countless music fans during the waning years of the urban folk revival to a large storehouse of traditional music; perhaps more importantly, those albums introduced Doc Watson to the world.

Interview: The Legend of Tom Dooley:

A couple of years after learning about Doc Watson from The Folk Box, I realized the extent of my penchant for older music upon becoming repulsed by the phony folksiness of the Kingston Trio’s chart-topping 1958 hit version of “Tom Dooley” (another record in my parents’ collection). Wanting to locate and listen to more “authentic” versions of that blood-soaked ballad of the North Carolina Blue Ridge, I headed to the local public library and heard three versions of “Tom Dooley” by actual Appalachian musicians: one by Grayson and Whitter, one by Frank Proffitt Sr., and another by Doc Watson. Seeking more information about the latter musician, I learned that by then—the late 1960s—Doc had become a nationally renowned musician who toured frequently as a headlining act and who had recorded a number of critically acclaimed and varied albums for the Vanguard label. I learned that Doc, who had been blind since the age of one, was not only a virtuoso on both flat-picked and finger-style acoustic guitar, but he could also play old-time banjo and harmonica with assurance and power. I learned that he could sing with warmth and conviction, and that his voice could handle a wide range of material with equal authority, from traditional mountain songs and ballads to hymns to blues to commercial country and pop songs. And I learned that he was a difficult musician to categorize, as he was equally adept in performing music from a wide range of genres—traditional folk, contemporary singer-songwriter music, blues, bluegrass, gospel, country, and rock, not to mention jazz and Tin Pan Alley. After listening to several of his Vanguard albums—and particularly after being astonished by his titanic guest appearance on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s groundbreaking 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken—I came to the conclusion that Doc’s performances were consistently rooted in his Appalachian experience yet were always universal in their appeal.

“Tom Dooley”

When I first journeyed to Doc's neck of the woods, I had long appreciated both his musical virtuosity and his artistic and spiritual philosophy—his unapologetic blending of the past with the present, of rural Appalachian cultural values with contemporary cosmopolitan sensibilities. Doc's philosophy was certainly a major influence on my own decision to study and teach American folk music and Appalachian culture. Eventually moving permanently to the mountains on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, I became Doc’s neighbor. I continued to buy Doc’s albums, and I heard Doc perform live in nearby venues on several occasions—the last time in 2009 at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina, where Doc reminisced about his life and music career as much as he performed music; but I never again tried to meet him.

“Stand By Me”

Often over the years, after I performed folk music or gave talks about Appalachian culture, people asked me if I knew Doc Watson. I always answered “no, I’ve never met him”; but in truth, because his music and his life have seemingly always been a source of inspiration to me, I knew Doc, and I’ll miss him.        



Buy music by Doc Watson. 

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