String Theory:
Remembering Doc Watson

1923-2012

By Ross Altman

Doc_Watson_2“Just one of the people,” said Doc Watson, when asked how he wants to be remembered; “Don’t put me on a pedestal.” Sorry Doc, but you belong on a pedestal—along with other musical geniuses like Jascha Heifitz, Andres Segovia and Vladimir Horowitz.

Pete Seeger once said of Doc that his musical standards were uncompromisingly as high as Isaac Stern’s. This in a field where “close enough for folk music” is considered acceptable currency. Close enough for folk music wasn’t close enough for Doc. His guitar playing—both flat-picking and finger-style--was purer than Ivory Soap.

Born at the root of the tree of Southern traditional music—Deep Gap, North Carolina, the birthplace of the modern folk festival—on March 3, 1923, Doc was the best folk guitarist of the 20th Century, the standard against which all others are still measured. At McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica there are photographs on the ground floor of most of the great musicians who have played there over the past 30 years. But climb the stair case to their guitar instruction room, where their staff of excellent teachers pass on the lessons of the masters, and there is only one photograph—that of Doc Watson—their tutelary deity of the guitar.

He could not see the instrument he played; he was blind since two years old—from an eye infection. To have seen him led on stage by his late son Merle like the Greek prophet Tyresias once led blind Oedipus the King was an unforgettable sight. Gently set down at center stage on his straight back chair, and his flattop acoustic guitar lowered into his waiting hands, he suddenly transformed it into an instrument of expressive depth unlike any in the history of folk music. He would usually start a show with Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down, a comic meditation on death—not wanting to leave this world until “your last gold dollar is gone.” But what made the song come alive, and put the audience in a collective sense of near-electric anticipation for the later flat-picked and finger-style guitar anthems that were his trademark, was his uncanny turning of the guitar into a percussion instrument as well. Doc would start a guitar run with his hands and fingers, but finish it with a quick double or triple drum roll on the back of the instrument—as if he once performed at a medicine show with a string band and now had to recreate their full sound all by himself.

Which is exactly how Doc in fact got started as a musician—with his neighbors Clarence and Tom Ashley—who folklorist and bluegrass mandolin player Ralph Rinzler came south to record for Folkways Records in 1958. Like Alexander Fleming discovering penicillin by accident, Rinzler discovered Doc Watson playing guitar in the background—behind the lead banjo and fiddle of the Ashley’s. Rinzler could barely believe what he had stumbled on—a blind guitar player who kept his ears pinned down in rapt attention, holding the trio together with notes that seemed to come from a different place altogether.

Ralph couldn’t wait to bring Doc up north and out west—which he did, both to the Newport Folk Festival and the UCLA Folk Festival, and Ed Pearl’s legendary folk club The Ash Grove—which had also opened in 1958. Once Rinzler realized that the audience was lifted up another level every time Doc took a break, and that Doc’s guitar was clearly the star of the show, he prevailed on Doc to start performing solo.

Thank Ralph Rinzler for digging the gold out of them thar hills—and Doc Watson out of Deep Gap, North Carolina, making him a national treasure.

Known for the lightning speed of his flat-picking fiddle tunes on his Tennessee-handmade Gallagher guitar, the best Doc Watson story I know is about the notes he didn’t play, not the ones he did. Jean Ritchie appeared at a folk festival where Doc was also performing, and she thought he would make her set more exciting if she could get him to back her up. So she invited him to play guitar on the Riddle Song, I Gave My Love a Cherry, thinking he would take a trademark flashy break in the middle. Much to her chagrin, he didn’t, leaving its inherent simplicity untouched and unadorned.

When she expressed her frustration to him later, asking him why he didn’t “play it like Doc Watson,” he replied, “But Jean, I did just what the song called for.”

No more, and no less.

That’s just what Doc always did, but he was a showman of unparalleled gifts, who knew when his playing could raise the roof as well as express the deepest emotions—as he did in an unaccompanied hymn: “Talk about suffering here below, talk about loving Jesus; talk about suffering here below, and just keep a-following Jesus.” He learned these hymns from his mother and grandmother, and sang them with a bedrock religious sense of music’s essential role in comforting the afflicted.

But Doc could afflict the comfortable too, as in his charming performance of The Intoxicated Rat, satirizing alcoholics who had more than one too many.

His fingerpicking classic Doc’s Guitar should be on any finger-style guitarist’s list of essential instrumentals, and Doc does it all with just his thumb and index finger; the first time I heard it I fell off my chair, and the second and third as well. But I kept practicing and eventually got to at least a simulation of what Doc put into it.

The signature song that Doc recreated early on (for his first Vanguard album in 1962) was Deep River Blues, which he first learned from The Delmore Brothers; Doc recreated their brother’s duo harmony by combining the bass notes played by his thumb with the high tenor part played with his index finger on the treble strings. Most memorable fingerpicking songs from the likes of Merle Travis and Chet Atkins would start on the first three frets and then work their way up the neck.

Doc Watson: Deep River Blues
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qyQOCJ4SUSk)

Doc turned that theory on its head, and started the song (in the key of E) on the seventh fret, working his way down to the first position. It was the arrangement that lit the way for his second great contribution to modern folk guitar—finger-style counterpoint picking with the thumb playing alternating bass and index finger playing lead; until late in the song Doc reverses their role and the thumb plays lead as well. Doc’s birthplace, Deep Gap, North Carolina was also the birthplace of the American folk festival in 1927, just four years after Doc was born. The man known as The Appalachian Minstrel, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who composed the modern folk classic That Good Old Mountain Dew also lived in Deep Gap and inaugurated a flower festival to celebrate their local flower—the Tulip. In order to bring people into the festival he decided to invite some of his old time musician friends to play on its grounds. Within two years it was clear that the people were coming to hear the music, not smell the flowers, and they changed its name to a Folk Festival. The greatest folk guitarist of the century was born right at the center of the modern folk revival.

His father made him a banjo when he was eleven, and Doc started to play the instrument that would eventually be superseded by the guitar—but he never gave it up. To hear one of his most moving banjo ballads listen to the murder ballad Georgie Buck:

My name is Georgie Buck

I ain’t never had no luck

And I ain’t a gonna be treated this a’ way.

But the instrument that in Doc’s hands would change the way young people learned to play folk music was the acoustic guitar—and the instrumental that Doc played which put a flat pick in every picker’s guitar case was Black Mountain Rag—where Doc first put fiddlers on notice; they were not the only leaders of an old-time string band or a bluegrass band. For the first time Doc made the bluegrass guitar a lead instrument, not just the rhythm instrument—equal in stature to Earl Scruggs’ banjo, Bill Monroe’s mandolin, and Gaither Carlton’s fiddle.

It takes a village to do justice to a protean figure like Doc Watson; so let me add some other voices to my own. In Los Angeles memories of Doc linger on long after his first visit decades ago.

*****

Topanga Banjo Fiddle  Contest former president Mary Ellen Clark sent this note to Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club newsletter editor Rick Sewell and me:

Dear Rick and Ross,

Thank you so much for letting us know about Doc Watson. I remember him well from his visit here in the Sixties. He came with banjo player Clarence Ashley and fiddler Fred Price and stayed at Peg Benepe's home in Santa Monica. I sketched all three and the pictures are framed and on our dining room wall. I will watch for your plans to remember him and try to be there. He and Fred were very quiet when not actually playing. Clarence was the jokester and looked after them.

Bye now, Mary Ellen Clark

*****

Even those who never saw Doc play live were profoundly influenced by him and sent their tributes; at the news of Doc’s passing Folk Club member Jill Fenimore wrote this:

How sad. Sorry I never got the chance to see him play live. I'll play Deep River Blues in his memory. I'm a very appreciative and enthusiastic student of Doc and proud to be able to memorialize his passing with one of his own songs, which has become one of my best songs. It will be an expression of gratitude on my part. 

Thanks for letting me know. Jill Fenimore

*****

From Folk Club member Leonard Ellis came these links to hear Doc in performance:

From the Florida Folk Music archives...

Doc Watson & Jack Lawrence

Recorded on May 25, 1996 by the Florida Folklife Program at the 1996 Florida Folk Festival in White Springs, Florida.

Pete Seeger

Recorded in 1977 at the Stephen Foster Center in White Springs.

*****

Folk Club member and patron Bob Weekley also sent a note, reminding us of the breadth as well as depth of Doc’s audience: “And even the Wall Street Journal today had a good laudatory article on the Doc passing.”

*****

And from David Horgan, online marketing director of Smithsonian Folkways came this tribute and further links, including some selected quotes from Ralph Rinzler:

“Smithsonian Folkways remembers influential and inspirational folk singer and guitarist Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson (1923-2012), who passed away yesterday. Watson, who was first-recorded in the 1960s by the late Smithsonian Folklife director Ralph Rinzler, recorded four albums in the Smithsonian Folkways collection and appears on many compilations.”

More info:

Washington Post Obituary

Smithsonian Folkways Discography

Hour-long “Sound Sessions” Podcast about Doc Watson (MP3)

Video of “Deep River Blues”

“On the road to Los Angeles, Doc made a significant commitment to share the automobile driver’s responsibility. He kept me awake and attentive for forty-eight hours at the wheel by singing unaccompanied songs and regaling me with stories of his family and music. We rolled straight through from Dallas to Los Angeles, barely arriving in time to climb on the stage for the first night’s performance. After that, I felt as though Doc and I had grown up together from early childhood, and the group’s repertoire substantially benefited from Doc’s remarkable memory.”

– Ralph Rinzler, Original Folkways Recordings of Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, 1960-1962

“Doc's significance as an artist may well be evaluated in terms of his influence on musicians across the nation and around the world. He is single-handedly responsible for the extraordinary increase in acoustic flat-picking and finger-picking guitar performance.”

– Ralph Rinzler, Live Recordings 1963-1980: Off the Record Volume 2

“In addition to being a warm and highly skilled stage performer, Doc Watson off-stage is truly Doc Watson on-stage. There is no entertainment industry gloss added for the benefit of the audience. He’s simply the great human being and musician that we have all come to respect.”

– Ralph Rinzler, Live Recordings 1963-1980: Off the Record Volume 2

*****

Ash Grove founder Ed Pearl sent a link to The LA Times obituary, along with Ed’s own more recent remembrance which follows:

“I hope you read today's [May 30, 2012] obit on Page 1 in the LA Times (EXtra) for my friend Doc Watson, the greatest of country guitarists, the inspiration for so many who learned from him, famous and otherwise, and just as important, the most powerful, human conveyer of his culture and people in the Appalachian mountains, and far beyond.Warts and all.

I last spoke with him two years ago in Santa Cruz. We interviewed him for a film on the Ash Grove, and he played a concert. After the show, we spoke backstage for quite a time. When we said goodbye, I said this might be the last time we spoke. He answered, “'What's the matter Ed, are you sick?"

We burst out laughing, as usual. I might write a remembrance, and will send it to you. He was such an important part of the world, his people, the Ash Grove, and me, personally, culturally and politically”.

– Ed Pearl

*****

And finally, I hope Ed’s brother, blues guitarist Bernie Pearl, won’t mind my including his wonderful remembrance of Doc sent to Folk Club member Ellen Silverman:

“The news of the passing of the great guitar-man Doc Watson this week evoked some fond memories. I'd like to share them with you. The early 1960s were years of great musical discoveries generally, and personally. I had met Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Jesse Fuller, Lightnin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Rev. Gary Davis, and many other greats of American traditional music. I had the opportunity to see them perform many, many times, and had availed myself of their knowledge in informal settings and through paid lessons (Brownie and Lightnin').

Then came word of the re-discovery of a great Appalachian recording star of the pre-WWII era, Clarence "Tom" Ashley. He had recorded a new LP on Folkways with some of his neighbors, and had appeared at a couple of large festivals back east and were on their way to L.A. to play the Ash Grove, my brother's club. I bought the disc and thought it was interesting and fun, but by then I had made a strong move towards the Blues and little appreciated mountain music.

The cover of "Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's" (#1) depicted a few guys on Toms' front porch back home. In particular, there was a guitarist in work clothes somewhat taller than the rest. This turned out to be Doc Watson, but I get ahead of myself.

I was mildly interested in seeing them play, but as they were coming with dulcimer artist Jean Ritchie, and the Greenbrier Boys, I made sure I was there on opening night.

My brother asked me to go into the dressing room and make Mr. Ashley and the guys feel welcome. I knocked and was invited in. There sat four men in white shirts and suspenders. As I shook their hands, I noticed something notable about their eyes: Tom Ashley's were slightly crossed, guitarist Clint Howard had enlarged eyes - probable thyroid condition, in retrospect -, fiddler Fred Price's eyes were as red as they could be - like he had been awake for 24 hours, which might have been the case. And then I shook Doc's hand. It was quite apparent that he was blind. They were very friendly, and it made me more eager to hear them play. It was not long coming.

They took the stage, and from the first note they won me over. It was as great a band performance as I have ever seen. Banjoist Tom Ashley was an old medicine show performer and a carrier of the deep Appalachian tradition. His combination of riotous humor, rollicking dance tunes, and deeply moving old songs had us all enthralled. Clint's honky-tonk vocals were raw and all-out, and Fred Price's fiddle was drenched in the blues. But, when it came Doc's turn to sing it was instantly apparent that he was a star. We all gasped and applauded in stunned and unanticipated appreciation.

I had the good fortune to be around the group for several days, and at one point I asked Doc if he would give me a guitar lesson. I was into the blues, but still kept at the old-time flat-picked guitar. Besides what I wanted to learn from Doc were some of his blues licks. I offered him $20. He was reluctant to do it, but John Herald of the Greenbrier Boys told him he ought to do it - it was good money. In 1962, I was paying about $45 a month rent. We did have a lesson, and a good time.

And I did learn some of his blues riffs.

It didn't take long for Doc Watson to establish himself as a featured performer on his own. I was teaching guitar classes at Cal Sate L.A. in the late 1960s, and on one occasion when Doc was in town, touring with his son Merle, I asked if he would come and play for my class. To my amazement, he agreed. Driving to school I asked him why he was doing it, and he replied that these young people could remain his fans and supporters for many years to come. How's that for the long view?

I have half-jokingly claimed, in various settings, speaking to students and small audiences, that I am probably the only person they'll ever run into who can state that he has had paid lessons with both Lightnin' Hopkins and Doc Watson. I fully expect to be contradicted in my assertion somewhere along the way. But, until then, I'll smile at the unique opportunity I was presented with long ago.

His brilliant musicianship aside, Arthel "Doc" Watson was a thoughtful, informed, and articulate man. While he was very proud of having made enough of a living to be "off the dole", he was always humble, and always a gentleman, aware of the importance of personal and cultural integrity. He lived an admirable life. He was beloved for good reason. Well done, Doc.”

– Bernie Pearl

*****

From Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club members to our national museum, from the LA Times to blues guitarist Bernie Pearl to The Wall Street Journal, Doc’s passing has left a deep gap that as Boswell said of another Doc, Dr. Johnson, “Not only can no one fill, no one is even inclined to fill,” In the end, a few words from Auden’s great poem In Memory of W.B. Yeats may be said equally of Doc Watson: He became his admirers.

Ross Altman may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. This Saturday’s June 2nd meeting of The Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club is dedicated to Doc’s memory. Most guitarists who have learned Deep River Blues leave out at least some of the trickier passages; you can hear Jill Fenimore play it right at the Folk Club, at The Santa Monica Synagogue, 1448 18th St, Saturday June 2, 6:30-10:30pm, or at the end of the month at The Talking Stick, 1411 Lincoln Blvd. on Saturday, June 30 at 8:00pm for their closing Gala Concert in their month-long June fundraising series. Ross and Jill will open the concert; don’t you dare miss it!