This remembrance of Doc Watson on the first anniversary of his death is a contribution from Kent Gustavson, author of the Watson biography, Blind But Now I See. Kent also serves as editor of Blooming Twig Books, based in Tulsa, OK where he resides, and New York City.
On March 11, 2001, my life changed forever. My father and I — headed for a father-son weekend — hit a tree in rainy, cold northwestern Arkansas, and wrapped the front of our car’s engine around its unforgiving trunk. A fencepost went all the way through Dad’s body, and he was a breath away from death for the next three weeks. I broke my wrist, but was otherwise just a survivor looking for solace. I found that solace for the first time three months later, in the words of Talk About Suffering, belted out from the edge of a mountain precipice, standing next to my best friend in remote Washington state. He learned that song from a Doc Watson record, and he taught it to me.
Doc Watson’s licks and tunes are borrowed more than any other musician’s work in the canon, short of perhaps Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan. The difference between singing Doc’s version of Talk About Suffering and a Dylan tune is that Doc was also borrowing Talk About Suffering. In fact, he borrowed most of his songs from the hills and valleys of Appalachia, and from records and radio. He made them his own, and then he passed them along. That has enabled all of us, his fans, to make Doc’s music our own; in awe of his picking and singing, we pick up the guitar and we sing and play the tunes Doc gave us.
Doc Watson died a year ago today, on May 29, 2012, having lived a life filled with music, friends, and family. In my opinion, he was the greatest musician to ever stroke the strings of a flattop guitar. There are many other incredible acoustic guitar players, but none with the hearty, sweet sound of Doc Watson hitting the strings in his prime.
As much as Doc Watson was honored following his death as a great flatpicking guitar master and Appalachian singer, I have been astounded by the number of musicians I have interviewed who remarked to me that it was Doc’s personality, friendship, and loyalty that they valued most highly. Marty Stuart, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Mark O’Connor, and countless others counted Doc as a friend first. That got me to thinking: Why did so many musicians make pilgrimages to Doc Watson’s home after hearing The Watson Family for the first time? Why did every interviewer always ask about Doc’s background and family, not just his music? Why did every musician I interviewed, from Pete Seeger to Warren Haynes, speak about Doc in reverent tones — not only for his musicianship, but for his friendship?
As I prepared for a memorial concert after Doc Watson’s passing last year, I thought about what I could offer the discussion about Doc and his life. I paged through my biography of Doc, dog-earing various pages and passages, but I felt uncomfortable sharing anecdotes from the book, because they had little to do with my personal feelings about this great man. Instead, I decided to note a few things I had learned from Doc besides simply his music.
I came up with the following five Doc Watson Principles — things that, as I researched and wrote a book about him over six years of my life — Doc Watson taught me about my own life.
Doc Watson Principle #1: Honoring Tradition
Doc respected and honored his parents, his culture, his religion, and the people around him, both in Deep Gap — his home of 89 years — and around the country, where he played music on both little and big stages. He honored his fans by always coming out after shows, signing hats, shirts, records and CDs for anyone willing to wait in line to shake the aging bard’s hand. But most importantly to me, he honored his traditions.
As a Swedish-American, I grew up eating Swedish cookies at the holidays, and hearing my grandmother sing Tryggarye Kan Ingen Vara (Children of the Heavenly Father) in dulcet tones when she would visit. I will pass those traditions along to my children someday. But the audience for those traditions is only a few people; my work every day has less to do with my heritage than it does with my interests. But Doc was different; he brought the heart of his Appalachian family to the world in his seven decades on stage.
A great illustration of this is the great story Doc always told about his granny’s old cat. Doc told the story so many times in his countless interviews through the years that he often forgot a detail here or there, and other times would add a precious snippet I hadn’t heard before. I did my best to compile the entire story into one cogent narrative in my book. The following is my feeble attempt to create a cliff notes version of that narrative.
Doc’s grandmother had an old, ailing cat, and she wanted the Watson boys to put it out of its misery. She gave them a coin for their effort, and they humanely killed the animal, then — following the careful instructions of General Watson (Doc’s father’s given name, not a rank), they skinned the cat. General worked on the tough hide, and tanned it until it was paper thin. Doc had a banjo at the time that his father had made for him, but its drum was covered by a groundhog hide, and it didn’t make much sound — the skin was too tough. General took the tanned catskin and pulled it taut over the banjo head and secured it in place. Doc swore his entire life that this little catskin banjo was the best sounding banjo in the world.
That catskin banjo infused Doc’s playing as a boy with the blood of the land, the ancient stringiness of the hills, and the sound of the mountains. He never could shake that sound, whether in his hip, rocking electric guitar in the 1950’s (listen to the new Milestones compilation from Nancy Watson, Doc’s daughter), or in his incredible, blistering steel-string guitar solos in the 1960s and beyond. Doc always honored the sound of that humble catskin banjo, whether on stage in front of presidents or during living room jam sessions with famous pickers who would stop by his home.
That should inspire us to look back at our roots, talk with the old-timers in our own lives, bring out dusty old volumes and take another look. I need to do a better job of honoring my true self and my traditions.
Doc Watson Principle #2: Hard Work
One thing that Doc always hazed over a little bit is that he had been suspended from school for smoking. He was a little bit of a rebel at the (then-called) Raleigh School for the Blind, and he was also known for taking mechanical things apart (like radios in the main lounges of the dormitories), and not always being able to put them back together! In any case, after three years at the Raleigh School, and after what he said was abusive treatment at the hands of the staff there, Doc refused to go back. He hid from his parents until after the bus had left Deep Gap.
Doc described sitting in the corner for quite a while following that day — his brothers all out worked outside with his dad, and his mother was usually busy with chores. Unfortunately, there weren’t activities at home like those he had once had to keep him busy from morning until night at the Raleigh School, so he sat in the corner (as he described it), feeling sorry for himself.
Next comes the story that Doc Watson loved to tell more than any other story in his vast collection of personal tales. His daddy, General, came to him one morning and asked him to go stand on the other end of a huge crosscut saw and work all day. In a few interviews, Doc opened up and admitted that his mother, Annie Watson, was terrified by the prospect of her son cutting down timber and possibly getting in the way of a falling tree. General reassured her, but we can put ourselves into her shoes pretty easily — her 13-year-old blind son was going out to put himself into the middle of a dangerous situation like that — it makes sense that she was worried!
Doc did what his father said, and he followed him out to the saw that morning, picked up his end, and started to pull his weight. He learned that day that he would nearly always be able to do anything someone else could do, as long as he had a little help. That’s the key for me, and for all of us. The incredible lesson is, if we work hard, and get a little help, anything is possible. This made Doc’s virtuosic guitar playing possible. It made his trips alone on the Greyhound bus from North Carolina to New York City possible. All it takes is a look at Doc’s incredible life and career, and I am inspired again to do great things in the world.
Doc Watson Principle #3: Hospitality
If you ever saw Doc Watson play on stage, the first thing you might remember is what he always told audiences. He told us that we should imagine that we were in his living room. The first time I saw him live — playing alongside Jack Lawrence at the Flynn Theater in Vermont — I shut my eyes tightly, as if imitating the old master musician’s own smiling visage, and I was able to picture his living room. I heard the frogs and the crickets, and the rush of mountain air through the open windows. I smelled the humid, sultry air of North Carolina summer. Doc invited me into his world.
There are two kinds of hospitality, and Doc Watson extended both. The first is when the world comes to your doorstep. After his first appearance in New York City in spring 1961, beatniks, folkies, and musicians of all kinds made pilgrimages to Doc’s home in Deep Gap. They would politely knock on the door, and the family would host them, feed them (even though they were still on state aid for the first few years of the 1960s), and house them. In later years, Doc would sign a record or two, maybe pick a song, and then send them on their way, but for the first decade, countless fans and friends graced Doc and Rosa Lee Watson’s living room.
The other kind of hospitality is when you take your living room to the world. I can’t think of another performer who was ever able to successfully do what Doc did with his audiences. Doc sang the songs of home, he told the stories of the mountains, and he brought his family on stage with him.
There is one more aspect to this second kind of hospitality; Doc was the best houseguest in the world, according to anyone who had the chance to host Doc at their homes during his “dues-paying days” in the 1960s. He regaled his hosts with stories, laughter, and songs — trading his traveling hospitality for their food, shelter and friendship.
Imagine the world around us with a little more hospitality. Let’s try to take our living room to work this week, and invite friends to our homes. I might even surprise my friends and family with a few songs and stories.