- 18 Jun 12
A truly mythic figure Doc Watson changed the face of roots music by cleaving faithfully to its most timeworn traditions.
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.
Within months he was earning a living busking Delmore Brothers and Louvin Brothers songs in nearby Boone. By the time he was out of his teens he had progressed to playing electric guitar which, somewhat at odds with the purist backwoods image that was overlaid on him later, was his preferred instrument. He played in local dance bands and developed his impressive flat picking technique in response for the band’s need to play fiddle tunes at barn dances when they didn’t have a fiddle. With a young family to feed, including his son Merle, who would later join him on stage, he supplemented his income as a piano tuner.
During a live radio performance the announcer commented that his given name, Arthel, was hard to remember. An audience member shouted up that he should be called ‘Doc’, presumably a reference to Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick Doctor Watson. He obviously agreed and the moniker stuck.
In 1960 at the height of the folk revival, at the age of 37, he was asked to accompany Clarence ‘Tom’ Ashley who was being recorded by musicologist Ralph Rinzler. Rinzler encouraged him to give up playing electric guitar and helped him find bookings on the burgeoning New York folk scene. After receiving rave reviews for his performance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival he started touring with his son Merle. Being blind was not something that greatly disturbed him but touring in strange cities as a blind performer was daunting and having Merle at his side gave him the confidence to do it. Over the next 20 years they toured the world over, often as a trio with bass player T. Michael Coleman.
His performance of the song ‘Tennessee Stud’ on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s seminal 1972 album Will The Circle Be Unbroken found him a new audience as the folk revival had started to wane. One of the most human moments on the album is a little snatch of conversation between Watson and Merle Travis in which he tells Travis how much of a fan of his work he is and tells him that he named his son after him, seconds before launching into a stunning one take rendition of Tennessee Stud’.
In 1985 his son Merle was killed when a tractor he was driving on the family farm rolled over. Legends are like that. Loss and suffering are never far away. Ever the stoic, he kept touring and in his later years he was often accompanied by his grandson Richard, Merle’s son.
Never a musical elitist, his skill as an innovator on the guitar is sometimes eclipsed by his reputation as an interpreter of the mountain music tradition. He had amassed a vast repertoire of songs from his native area and although he played them in him own distinctive style, flat picking at blistering speed, his gift and his legacy is that he never eclipsed the songs he loved.