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In memoriam: Doc Watson

By Tony Russell

Doc Watson, who has died aged 89, bore the most illustrious name in traditional American folk music. A superb and original guitarist, and a singer of warmth and handsome simplicity, he set countless musicians, both within and beyond the United States, on the road to careers in folk music. Probably no folk performer of his time has inspired greater admiration and affection.

Doc grew up in the small community of Deep Gap, North Carolina. Blind since early childhood, he quickly learned to play harmonica and banjo, then, at 13, a guitar his father bought for a few dollars. No investment in a young musician ever paid such dividends: in Doc’s hands, the use of the guitar in American folk music would be radically expanded. His folklorist friend Ralph Rinzler described him as “single-handedly responsible for the extraordinary increase in acoustic flatpicking and fingerpicking performance.”

Doc first came to general notice when, in 1960, Rinzler recorded the two Folkways LPs Old Time Music At Clarence Ashley’s, alerting folk music enthusiasts to a man who until then had played chiefly electric guitar in a rockabilly band. In 1961, Doc performed in New York for the Friends of Old-Time Music, and, in 1963 and 1964, at the Newport Folk Festival; in 1963 he also recorded his first solo album, for Vanguard.

For two decades, Doc’s musical companion was his son Merle, a gifted guitar-player and banjoist. They toured the world, made albums for Vanguard, Sugar Hill, and other labels, and notably appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s influential Will The Circle Be Unbroken. After Merle’s death in a tractor accident in 1985, Doc found it hard to work without him, but he resumed playing with guitarist Jack Lawrence or with his own grandson Richard.

He made more than 50 albums, earning seven Grammys and, in 2004, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He also received a National Medal of the Arts, presented by President Clinton, who remarked, “There may not be a serious, committed baby-boomer alive who didn’t at some point in his or her youth try to spend a few minutes at least trying to learn to pick a guitar like Doc Watson.”

Doc had an extraordinary breadth of musical interests. He played old-time music with family members like his wife Rosa Lee and her father, fiddler Gaither Carlton, then went to Nashville and worked easily with country music’s leading studio players. He revealed a deep knowledge of the blues, drawn from both black musicians and white. His memory was remarkable, stuffed with songs from old recordings by artists like Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and another blind guitarist, Riley Puckett.

Latterly, weary of the road, he had made fewer personal appearances, mostly near his home. One booking he always kept was the music event MerleFest, held in memory of his son every April since 1988. He is survived by Rosa Lee, their daughter Nancy Ellen, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Doc Watson
3 March 1923 – 29 May 2012
Doc Watson. Photo by Austen Millkulka. Creative Commons License. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This is an edited version of a longer notice written for the Guardian newspaper in London.

Tony Russell is a music historian who has written on country music, blues, jazz, and other forms of popular music in a wide variety of publications and has researched, written, and presented many musical programs for BBC Radio. He is the author of Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost, Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942, The Blues from Robert Johnson to Robert Cray, and other books. He lives in London.

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