Doc Watson, R.I.P.

The great Doc Watson passed away today. He was one of the most talented and classy bluegrass performers that ever graced the stage. I vastly prefer fiddle over the guitar, but Watson was a helluva guitarist.

As Wikipedia notes, “Watson was born in Deep Gap, North Carolina. He got the nickname ‘Doc’ during a live radio broadcast when the announcer remarked that his given name Arthel was odd and he needed an easy nickname. A fan in the crowd shouted ‘Call him Doc!’ presumably in reference to the literary character Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick Doctor Watson. The name had stuck ever since.”

Dunno why they assumed it was in reference to Sherlock Holmes’ stories. Lots of folks get nicknamed “Doc” back in the hills.

The New York Times obit notes:

Mr. Watson, who came to national attention during the folk music revival of the early 1960s, injected a note of authenticity into a movement awash in protest songs and bland renditions of traditional tunes. In a sweetly resonant, slightly husky baritone, he sang old hymns, ballads and country blues he had learned growing up in the northwestern corner of North Carolina, which has produced fiddlers, banjo pickers and folk singers for generations. His mountain music came as a revelation to the folk audience, as did his virtuoso guitar playing.

The Los Angeles Times obit notes:

“Doc Watson sort of defined in many ways what Americana has become,” Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Assn., told The Times. “He played different styles of American roots music. He played traditional country, he played what would be traditional folk, he played what was traditional bluegrass, he played gospel… Nothing is more definitive than Doc Watson’s appreciation for a broad spectrum of music in the Americana world.”

He was the organizer of MerleFest, which, as the LA Times notes, “has grown into one of the country’s major folk festivals.”

He overcame the blindness he was struck with at age two prior to becoming a music legend. The New York Times notes, “Arthel dropped out of school in the seventh grade and began working for his father, who helped him get past his disability. ‘I would not have been worth the salt that went in my bread if my dad hadn’t put me at the end of a crosscut saw to show me that there was not a reason in the world that I couldn’t pull my own weight and help to do my part in some of the hard work,’ he told Frets magazine in 1979.”

I appreciate that his trademark songs were not the schmaltzy type of bluegrass that sometimes appeals to audiences. His character shined through beautifully on stage and in his life. He helped Americans recognize that there was far more depth to the Appalachians than Hollywood or much of the media would ever admit.

James Bovard
Twitter @jimbovard

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