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R.I.P., Doc Watson


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Doc Watson Bluegrass Legend Dies At 89 In Winston-Salem


Written by Devetta Blount

Winston-Salem, NC-- Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson, recipient of the National Medal of Arts, a National Heritage Fellowship, and eight Grammy Awards died on Tuesday, May 29 at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC following abdominal surgery last week. He was 89.

Watson had colon surgery at the hospital last week.

Folklore Productiosn provided this obit information on the legendary singer: Doc Watson was born in Deep Gap, North Carolina on March 3, 1923, into a family already rich in musical tradition. His mother, Annie Watson, sang traditional secular and religious songs, and his father, General Watson, played the banjo, which was Doc's first instrument as well. At age thirteen he taught himself the chords to "When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland" on a borrowed guitar, and his delighted father bought him a $12 Stella.

He later picked up some chords from a fellow student at the Raleigh (NC) School for the Blind, and began to incorporate material that he heard on records and the radio with the music of his heritage. Back home he played mostly with neighbors and family, among them fiddler Gaither Carlton, who became his father-in-law when Doc married Rosa Lee Carlton in 1947. They had two children, Eddy Merle (named for two of Doc's idols, country stars Eddy Arnold and Merle Travis) and Nancy Ellen.

In 1953 Doc met Jack Williams, a local piano player, and began to play gigs for money. Doc stayed with Williams' rockabilly/swing band for seven years, a period and a style that he later revisited in the album Docabilly. But he also continued to play acoustic traditional music with his family and with his banjo playing neighbor, Clarence "Tom" Ashley. In 1960, spurred by the growing folk revival, folklorists Ralph Rinzler and Eugene Earle came south to record Ashley, and heard Doc Watson in the process. These sessions resulted in Doc's first recordings, Old-Time Music at Clarence Ashley's.

In 1961 the Friends of Old-Time Music invited Doc, Ashley, Clint Howard and Fred Price to perform at a now-legendary concert in New York City, and one year later Doc gave his first solo performance at Gerde's Folk City in Greenwich Village. From then on, he was a full-time professional, playing a wide range of concerts, clubs, colleges and festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival and Carnegie Hall.

By 1964 he had recorded his eponymous first solo album, and was represented by Folklore Productions, a relationship that continued until his death.

In the late 1960s, Doc was joined on the road by his son Merle, who provided both musical and emotional companionship; with Merle playing guitar and banjo and serving as partner and driver, the father-son team expanded their audience nationwide. After working for a while with the band Frosty Morn, they continued to tour with bassist T. Michael Coleman, and brought their music to Europe, Japan and Africa. A series of remarkable recordings, including collaborations with Flatt & Scruggs, Chet Atkins and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, helped make Watson the gold standard among traditional pickers.

Although he briefly stopped performing after Merle died in a 1985 tractor accident, Doc (accompanied by his grandson Richard Watson and guitarist Jack Lawrence soon resumed a full-time recording and touring schedule. He later teamed with banjoist David Holt, and the two shared a Grammy in 2002 for Legacy. In 2003 Doc reunited with Earl Scruggs and mandolinist Ricky Skaggs to film The Three Pickers, telecast on PBS. During his long career he recorded over fifty albums, many of which are still in print today.

Doc was a legendary performer who blended his traditional Appalachian musical roots with bluegrass, country, gospel and blues to create a unique style and an expansive repertoire. He was a powerful singer and a tremendously influential picker who virtually invented the art of playing mountain fiddle tunes on the flattop guitar. In 2011 a life-size statue was unveiled in Boone, NC, on the same spot where decades earlier the young Doc Watson had played for tips to support his family. At his own request the inscription reads "Just One of the People."

Although not a prolific songwriter, Doc and his wife Rosa Lee co-wrote "Your Long Journey," which was featured on the Grammy-winning album "Raising Sand" by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

It begins:

"God's given us years of happiness here

Now we must part

And as the angels come and call for you

The pains of grief tug at my heart

Oh my darling

Oh my darling

My heart breaks as you take your long journey."

He is survived by his wife of nearly sixty-six years, Rosa Lee Carlton Watson, and their daughter Nancy Ellen, as well as his grandchildren Richard Watson and Karen Watson Norris, several great-grandchildren, and his brother David Watson, not to mention thousands of guitarists worldwide who fell under his spell. As President Bill Clinton said, in awarding the National Medal of Arts, "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."

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To Hear Doc Watson, You Really Had to See Him


Beyond recordings: Doc Watson, the guitarist and folk singer, in the 1960s.

Doc Watson, who died on Tuesday at age 89, was the first truly great guitar

player I ever saw up close. For me, growing up in Santa Monica, Calif., in the

1950s meant that great musicians were only manifested on records and radio,

making it hard to catch a glimpse of the person behind the layers of sound and

presentation. You knew people like Hank Snow and Merle Travis were great, but

you couldn't be sure how much the Nudie suits and custom boots had contributed

to the sound you heard on KXLA radio.

Then, Doc and the banjo player Clarence Ashley and some of the boys drove out to

Los Angeles for the first U.C.L.A. Folk Festival in 1963. On the lawn by Royce

Hall, the gothic classical music venue, they gathered around and sang "Daniel

Prayed," an intricate call-and-response-style gospel tune. The public was here

and there, wandering around aimlessly, like they do at these events. It was

casual and unannounced — we hadn't entered into the hyperorganized way of music

appreciation just yet — that came later with the big rock shows.

Fred Price led the song with his old man's ghostly voice, Clint Howard joined in

on farm-boy tenor and Doc added his resonant bass, which was severe and

shocking. In their tradition, the instruments are rested and the song is like a

breathing exercise. Daniel prayed every morning, noon, and night, it says. I

wondered if there were more people right there on the lawn than had ever

assembled in their church back home in Deep Gap, N.C., to hear about Daniel and

the nonstop prayer, but that didn't bother Doc and the boys.

Then, Ed Pearl, the owner of the folk music club the Ash Grove, took them away

somewhere to get a sandwich. Their place back home would probably just about fit

in between the lawn and the food tent, I remember thinking. I also remember

thinking that these men know something about music I'll never know, even if I

practice and study all my life. You have to be born into it. That way, every

note and word and gesture has meaning, and your notes and sung words line up

with those of your friends and make a whole statement about life that is tiny

but eternal. Now another rounder has gone. Doc made many good recordings, but

you needed to be in his close presence to pick up the sound of his life and

times; the microphone can't do that for you, I'm sorry to say.

Later that day, I was sitting on a bench playing guitar, and Doc and Ed Pearl

walked by. Doc stopped and listened. "Who's that?" he asked Ed. "That's Ry

Cooder, he's a youngster."

"Sounds pretty good," Doc said, and they walked on.

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^^ Ry Cooder has knack for conveying the spirit behind music for music sake. Musicians played for pure joy of it ( and a ham sandwich). We are losing that simplistic way of life with every lost artist from the 60's. We'll miss Doc and so many more when they're gone.

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Artwork from local (NC) poster artist Casey Burn

The accompanying article to the illustration above from this week's edition of Durham, NC's Independent Weekly. Very highly recommended reading even if you've never heard of Doc Watson before. Let me rephrase that, very highly recommended reading, especially for those that have never heard of Doc Watson before.

The regional loyalty and stylistic liberty of Doc Watson

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  • 2 weeks later...

This is the trailer for Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass, a newly unearthed documentary that was filmed at a house party in Greenwich Village in 1961 which was hosted by folklorist Alan Lomax. It includes appearances from Doc Watson (in his oldest known filmed performance), Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim. For those that may be interested, there's more info on the documentary here.

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The Doc Watson Symposium and tribute concert is this coming weekend at the Museum of Art in Raleigh. The concert was originally supposed to be headlined by Doc himself but has since turned into a tribute to him from his peers. Raleigh News and Observer music writer David Menconi talks a bit about that as well as opening up the floor to some of Doc's friends so they can share their thoughts on him in this article.

Remembering Doc Watson (News & Observer)


Solitary and powerful, music legend Doc Watson performs a solo set to a packed town square at the Old Soldier's Reunion in Newton, N.C. in 2005.

(Photo by Jeff Willheim of the Charlotte Observer)

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  • 3 weeks later...

It first came onto my radar via J.J. Cale's version from his Shades album that came out in '81.

You must have heard Johnny Cash and June Carter do it, before that? Also, look up "Jimmy Page 1957" on youtube, and get a nice suprise. Sorry, I'm not up on how to post videos...

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You must have heard Johnny Cash and June Carter do it, before that? Also, look up "Jimmy Page 1957" on youtube, and get a nice suprise. Sorry, I'm not up on how to post videos...

Oh, I'm sure I heard it well before J.J. Cale's version since it's a traditional song that goes way back. I should have said that's the first time it ever registered with me in a big way. As for the Page clip, yep, I've definitely seen that. Thanks for the recommendation. To post a clip, you just click the "Share" button on YouTube and then cut and paste the URL which appears just beneath the video (no tags needed).


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