My great friend and mentor, Doc Watson, passed away May 29, 2012. I lost a dear friend and “musical” father.
Playing with Doc since 1998 has been one of the highlights of my life and career. Doc is one of America’s greatest musicians influencing and inspiring millions, but at the core he always considered himself, “One of the people.”
Doc Watson -“Music Is Such A Wonderful Sound.”
By David Holt
In almost every concert we performed over the last fourteen years someone in the audience would spontaneously yell out, “We love you, Doc!” It was as though the feeling just welled up in the crowd until one person gave voice to what everyone was feeling.
At his bedside on May 29, 2012 the nurse said he could still hear although he was sedated. I told Doc about the hundreds of calls and emails that had come in from all over the country, reminding him how much folks loved him and what wonderful memories they had of hearing him in concert and how someone would always yelled, “We love you, Doc!” A half hour later he was gone.
Arthel “Doc” Watson was born March 3, 1923 in the mountain community of Stoney Fork in Watauga County, NC. In his 89 years he influenced almost everyone who picked up a guitar or sang a folksong. He is most noted for bringing flatpicking to the forefront, but his rich singing and tasteful banjo and harmonica playing were equally impressive. For many of us he was a mentor for how to be a professional traditional musician in the modern world. For me he was a friend and a musical father.
With great strength of character Doc was able to overcome many hardships. He even used his blindness to focus all his listening into the music he was playing. That only added to the soulfulness of his singing and playing. He was a natural musician. His sense of what notes to put in and which to leave out is unmatched to this day. Some can play faster and fancier, but few can play as tastefully.
As a toddler, Doc’s mother, Annie, gave him pots and pans to beat on. Doc’s father, General Watson (his given name), realized early on he had a musical child. When Doc was 5 his dad gave him his first harmonica and taught him the rudiments of harp playing. Arthel took it from there. He rigged a wire to a sliding barn door, pulled the door back until the wire was tuned to a C note and accompanied himself on the harmonica with a mountain diddley bow. As Doc recalled, “Music was a wonderful sound to me.”
Doc said that in his day many blind children were told to sit in the corner. But General put Doc to work on the end of a crosscut saw and showed him he could be helpful and strong. Having five brothers and three sisters taught him to stick up for himself and have a forceful personality. Doc said, “I did all the things the other boys did, swing from grape vines, throw rocks and play hoopeye (hide and seek). My brother David was my eyes.”
The King’s Treasure
Doc’s father worked for a week in the sawmill in trade for a wind up Victrola. The talking machine came with fifty demo 78rpm records. The recordings ranged from Louis Armstrong, Gene Austin, Uncle Dave Macon, Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis to Fiddlin’ John Carson and Moonshine Kate. For a little blind boy deep in the North Carolina mountains, this was “the king’s treasure.”
I once asked Doc what happened to those old records. He said, “We played them until they were completely worn out and smooth, just had to throw them away.”
These records and others his father later acquired by growing and trading boxwoods became the basis for Doc’s repertoire. There was some music in his family: General was the singing leader at church, his mother and grandmother sang gospel tunes and a few mountain ballads around the house, but records and radio were Doc’s link to the larger world of music.
The Blind School
At ten years old Doc was sent to Moorehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, NC. Having never been away from home he was extremely homesick. Doc, a very bright child, learned braille and caught up to his grade level quickly. Another blind student,
Paul Montgomery had a guitar and Doc had his homemade banjo. They traded lessons on the instruments and Doc learned his first guitar chords. They became lifelong friends.
Back home, on a break from Moorehead, General Watson heard Doc noodling on his older brother’s guitar. General said, “If you can learn to play a song by the time I get home from work, we’ll put our money together and buy you a guitar of your own.” Doc didn’t tell him that Paul Montgomery had been teaching him and that evening played “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland” for General. The next day they bought a little Stella guitar.
Doc was exposed to classical music and learned how to tune a piano at Moorehead, but there was no place for jazz or country music at the school. During his third year Doc and Paul played in the school talent show. They did a rousing rendition of “I Like Mountain Music.” When they came off stage the matron of the school slapped Doc for playing a country song. He told his teachers he was going home and not coming back. His favorite teacher, Miss Nora Norris, told him, “Your education doesn’t have to stop just because you are leaving school. There are recorded books, so you can keep learning your whole life.” Doc took that advice and educated himself.
In 1939 he heard Merle Travis on radio station WLW in Cincinnati. The way Merle played the bass notes with his thumb and the melody with his index finger was a revelation to Doc. The “Carter Scratch” and Jimmie Rodgers’ rhythmic strumming were already part of his early arsenal of styles.
By the time Doc was 18 he was playing land sales with old time medicine show performer Clarence “Tom” Ashley and performing on local radio shows. One evening on a live radio show, the announcer said, “Arthel is not a very good name for the radio. It’s hard to hear clearly.” The announcer asked the audience, “What should we call him?” A woman called out from the crowd, “Call him Doc” and it stuck.
The Woman from Wildcat
An old time fiddler, Gaither Carlton, moved in across the mountain from the Watsons. Doc would walk by himself over the mountain to play tunes with him. It was there he met Gaither’s daughter, Rosa Lee Watson. It was love at first hearing. They married in 1947. She was 14 and Doc was 23. To help make a living Doc began playing on the streets of Boone and Lenoir. Doc was never ashamed of playing for spare change. In fact, throughout his career he knew that making a living for his family was his foremost goal.
Playing a Les Paul electric guitar in the Jack Williams band gave Doc an additional source of income. The band played Elks Lodges and Lions Club events around Johnson City, TN. Most of the jobs were for square dances but the band didn’t have a fiddler. It fell to Doc to play the fiddle tunes note for note on the electric guitar. Doc had heard Hank Garland and others play a few fiddle tunes on the guitar, but Watson set about working up all the local fiddle tunes on the guitar. The dances lasted from 30-40 minutes so there was lots of time to hone his flatpicking to a razor’s edge. As Doc said, “It gave me ten years of good solid practice.”
Clarence “Tom” Ashley
It was the old recording “The Cuckoo” that Clarence “Tom” Ashley made in 1929 that led to the discovery of Doc Watson. Folklorist Ralph Rinzler came to the Union Grove festival looking for Clarence in 1960. He asked Ashley to assemble a band for a recording. Ashley suggested Doc as the guitar player. But when Rinzler met him he was dubious. Doc only had an electric guitar and Rinzler was looking for authentic mountain music.
While riding in the back of a pick to the recording session Doc borrowed Rinzler’s banjo and played him the “Cuckoo” and “Tom Dula.” He told Ralph his great grandmother knew Tom
Dula and everyone mentioned in the song. Ralph realized he had found the real thing in Doc Watson.
A year later Doc, Fred Price and Clint Howard accompanied Tom Ashley in a concert in New York City. The band was a revelation to the burgeoning New York folk scene. Authentic, entertaining and musically exciting the band began to travel to colleges, clubs and folk festivals. Doc’s amazing guitar playing, singing and easy-going stage presence soon propelled him into a solo career. Rinzler began managing Bill Monroe as well as Doc. Rinzler told Doc to perform as though he were playing for folks in his living room. He advised him to play folksongs until he was well established, then he could add the big band and popular tunes that were part of his repertoire from the beginning.
The 1960s Folkways recordings “Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s,” “The Watson Family” and the groundbreaking Vanguard recording “Doc Watson” were where most of us first heard of Doc. By this time he was starting to perform nationally with Manny and Mitch Greenhill as his agents.
As Jean Ritchie said, “The early folk scene was full of good singers, but most were just guitar strummers. Doc came on the scene fully formed. People had never heard such picking before.”
Doc called the 60s the “dues paying days.” The weeks spent away from home, often for little money, took him to the brink of quitting many times. In 1965 his son Merle began to perform with Doc on most of his shows and that made the road tolerable.
In 1966 while in Nashville to record “Strictly Instrumental” with Flatt and Scruggs, Doc suffered a ruptured appendix. The doctors gave him a 5% chance of surviving. But Doc was strong and willful and pulled through. Earl Scruggs asked the Opry fund to pay the medical bills for the relatively unknown young guitarist. Doc was forever grateful to Earl. They were fast friends for the rest of their lives. And that album they made together inspired a new host of young guitar and banjo pickers.
One great recording followed the next (a total of over 60). The first Grammy in 1973 for “Then and Now.” Another in 1974 for “Two Days in November.” The seminal album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (1972) brought in a whole new, younger audience.
When I was interviewing Doc for “Legacy” I asked him if the album created lots of new opportunities. Doc said, in a completely dead pan voice, “More jobs.” That was the way he looked at his career: performing to support his family. He had little use for hype or showbiz color. In 1973 T. Michael Coleman was added on bass to make a memorable trio.
On the Road with Doc
I first worked with Doc when he and Merle were guests on my TNN show “Fire On the Mountain” in 1984. We really enjoyed playing together. I was thrilled when they agreed to be on my recording “Reel & Rock.” You can hear the fun we were having captured on tape. As it turned out, this was the last project Merle played on. In October 1985 Merle was killed in a tractor accident. Doc almost quit performing, but in a dream Merle encouraged him to keep going and he did for the next 27 years.
After Merle’s passing Doc asked Jack Lawrence to accompany him on the road.
Strangely, in 1989 when we were working on “Grandfather’s Greatest Hits” my daughter, Sara Jane, was killed in an automobile accident. Doc came to the house, knowing the grief Ginny and I were going through. He sat in the living room saying little and playing powerful quiet music. After each losing a child we found solace in a deep mutual understanding.
In his later years he was very gratified to have his grandson Richard playing with him. His daughter Nancy was right there to keep the home fires burning and look after Doc and Rosa Lee.
In 1998 UNC-TV asked us to do a concert for PBS called “An Evening with Doc Watson.” We followed that with the 3 CD set of interviews and music: “Legacy.” After winning Grammys for the CD, presenters started asking us to perform together and for the next 14 years we played concerts all over the United States. What a thrill and challenge it was to perform with Doc. He never wanted to practice and he never played any tune the same way once. He could be cantankerous, stubborn and deeply wise. It was the highlight of my career to play with him and call him a friend. Traveling on the road and hearing his life stories in the car, listening through the wall as he played his guitar in the hotel room next door, playing on stage with him night after night and witnessing pure musical genius are things I will always cherish. He was the best. We are all lucky to have walked in this world at the same time he did.
He will never be forgotten.
We love you, Doc.
May 29, 2012