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Folk That: Death Of A Living Legend
A truly mythic figure Doc Watson changed the face of roots music by cleaving faithfully to its most timeworn traditions.
Greg McAteer, 18 Jun 2012
I’m getting sick of this. I’ve started so many columns recently by telling of the sad demise of one or other massive figure in folk music. Lester Flatts and Charlie Louvin passed within a few short months of each other and now, as if to prove the adage that bad news comes in threes, it falls on me to report the passing of Doc Watson. The cruel truth is that there aren’t many left now from that pioneering generation.
Music fans love to bandy about the title ‘legend’. You’ll hear ‘Elvis was a legend’, ‘Johnny Cash was a legend’, when the former was a beautiful flawed individual who enthralled a generation and then fell victim to his own constructed image of stardom. Cash, it’s true, had more of the ‘mythic’ about him. He had the rise out of nothing, the fall that marked him out as all too mortal, then that phoenix-like reinvention as a sublime interpreter of songs. Doc Watson, though, was a living archetype of all the qualities that mark out someone of legendary stature. Born into the same kind of grinding poverty that Elvis and Cash experienced in their youth, the kind of poverty without a safety-net that we can’t any longer comprehend but which our own forebears would have known only too intimately, he was afflicted by blindness from a young age. An eye infection before his first birthday robbed him of his sight. His family couldn’t afford to carry any dead weight and when he wasn’t attending the Governor Moorehead School for the Visually Impaired he was expected to help out around the family farm just as much as his brother David. He showed a talent for music from an early age and like all good legends there’s a colourful story of how he got his first guitar, as well as the more prosaic version he himself told. According to legend, his first instrument wasn’t a guitar at all but a homemade fretless banjo that his father constructed using the skin of the recently deceased family cat as the head.
Having mastered that, he would then try to play any guitar that came his way. Hearing him play a neighbour’s guitar one day his father is said to have promised him his own guitar if he could perform a tune start to finish by the end of the day. He duly taught himself The Carter Family’s ‘When Roses Bloom In Dixieland’ before night fell and his father, true to his word, arrived home at the weekend arrived with a ten dollar Sears Roebuck Stella guitar. Doc’s own version is less romantic. As he remembers it, he and his brother cut down the small dead trees surrounding the family field so that their father could sell the wood to the local tannery. As a reward he was bought the guitar and his brother chose to buy a suit.