R.I.P. Doc Watson

Doc Watson passed away yesterday at the age of 89 after complications from abdominal surgery last week. Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson was an American folk music treasure, famous for his acoustic flatpicking and fingerpicking styles. Watson was born in Deep Gap, North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge Mountains and grew up with eight brothers and sisters. He went blind after leaving an eye infection untreated when he was only about a year old. His father made him a banjo using the skin of a dead cat when he was eleven years old. “He brought it to me and put it in my hands, and said, ‘Son, I want you to learn to play this thing real well. One of these days we’ll get you a better one,’ he said. ‘Might help you get through the world,’ ” Watson recalled.

Watson was determined to play music and his parents made sure he had what he needed to get by without sight or money. His father traded a week’s worth of pay at the sawmill for a hand-cranked phonograph that came with 50 records, including country, blues and jazz. All of these sounds filled Watson’s head as he incorporated what he heard into Appalachian music. He worked on his father’s farm and cut down trees to save up for his first acoustic guitar. Within no time, Watson was playing songs on street corners. In the 1950s, he began playing in a square dance band that lacked a fiddler, so he learned how to play the fiddle parts on his guitar. This was one of the most important moments in the history of the guitar. Up to that time, the guitar was mostly used as a backup to banjos and fiddles. Watson revolutionized the guitar by playing melody lines in a fast, flatpicking style that stole the stage. He is also one of the few traditional pickers that went from electric guitar to acoustic guitar as the folk revival gathered steam in the 1960s. A Smithsonian folklorist named Ralph Rinzler convinced him to hit the folk circuit.

“I was skeptical. He said, ‘Now you’ve got something to offer in the way of entertainment in the folk revival. We want to get you out there.’ You wouldn’t believe the lonesome trips I did on that old big Trailways bus all the way to New York all by myself.” – Doc Watson

The transformation worked and Watson became one of the most recognized acoustic players in the world. His performances at the Newport Folk Festival are legendary. He never played a tune the same way twice, improvising his picking to keep things exciting. His soulful voice embodied the struggle facing the characters portrayed in his repertoire of songs. Watson gave us so much music, revitalizing old songs and making new songs sound vintage. He educated the world on Appalachian mountain music and played his heart out. His influence will live on forever. Watch Doc Watson perform “Deep River Blues” below.

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