It’s perhaps easy to underestimate the impact that Doc Watson has had over the course of his career, in part because of the ways we choose to express it. We like superlatives—first, longest, fastest, best. He’s credited as the first to play fiddle tunes on guitar, and certainly he’s been influential in that regard, though it’s likely that, if not Doc, someone else would have shepherded the fiddle repertoire onto flattop.
His true legacy lies not in whichever posts he may have passed first, but in the person and the performer that he was. Humble, talented, giving, rational. He often mentioned that if it were not for his blindness, he likely would have become an electrician. His love for his wife was palpable, and his rootedness in his religion, while never cloying, was real and deeply felt, bringing him to tears on stage at times when discussing it.
He was also a walking encyclopedia of Appalachian song, having grown up in a local culture that in his youth was largely beyond the reach of mass media and recorded music. He often recalled that the first record he ever heard was one by the Delmore Brothers. So, while there were records, the fact that he can remember the first one he ever heard is evident they weren’t yet abundant. Instead, he was one the last of the generation that learned music from people rather than a record player. (The album The Doc Watson Family is the first recording made of him, and brilliantly documents the kind of music and the songs that were in the air when he was growing up.)
He strayed from that music, later learning much of his performance repertoire from recordings, but the thread of his childhood music was one that ran throughout his career. He mentioned his disbelief that there was really an interest in those old songs, but there was, and many of them are the pieces that he his most remembered for today. He learned “Down to the River to Pray” from his grandmother. His father made his first instrument in 1934—a small fretless banjo skinned with the hide of his grandmothers’ cat—and taught him to play to play “Rambling Hobo.” At that time, Doc remembered in a 1988 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, his father told him that he needed to learn the instrument because “it might help you get through the world.”
It was the real deal, and it’s safe to say that there isn’t really anyone born today that will learn music in the same way. It was an approach to music that allowed songs to grow, and to change, and for musicians like Watson to use them to communicate their own ideas and concepts. His “Shady Grove” isn’t exactly like that he heard, or exactly the way that other people may play it. But as he did with all of his repertoire, he “added a few notions” here and there, ultimately making each song indelibly his own.
In so doing, he brought others to an appreciation for the music of his home, and provided a tangible foundation for much of the roots and Americana music we hear today. Whether or not he was the first to play fiddle tunes isn’t nearly as important as the effect that his playing those tunes had on so many that heard them. He got some of his notions from guitarists Grady Martin and Hank Garland, yet it’s Watson’s name that we remember. His was a sound that was pure and infectious.
His singing had a similar effect. He came to national notice during the folk revival, but like some others—John Hurt perhaps especially—he didn’t approach music with a studied earnestness, and his object wasn’t preservation; he played songs not to demonstrate them, but in order to touch people, and it was the emotion, the stories, and the humor that audiences took away from his performances. Watson often said, especially later in life, that he conducted himself on stage just as if he were sitting in his living room. And indeed that’s exactly how it felt, whether in an audience of a few, a few hundred, or a few thousand.
Those are the reasons, I think, that so many have found him such a compelling mentor and musical inspiration. He embodied an approach and a message that others simply wanted to participate in. His approach is one that has had legs far beyond anything we may imagine. Jens and Uwe Kruger, growing up in Switzerland, wanted to be Doc. And despite all of the places their music has taken them, in a way that’s something that remains. The Best Of collection they released this year includes three songs that come to them directly from Doc.
And, whether listeners are aware of it or not, his music is very much alive even in the present day, and is used in the same way that he used it: to convey an emotion, tell a story, and to move an audience. A gospel song that he wrote with his wife, “Long Journey” was recently a hit of sorts for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on their Grammy-Award winning “Raising Sand.” “Down to the River to Pray” was a hit at the time of the Coen brothers film “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” and one that Alison Krauss learned from Doc. It’s an impressive legacy, and no doubt one that will be with us for a very, very long time.
The library of Doc Watson’s recordings is vast—from rockabilly, to roots, to folk, to bluegrass—and the volume of recorded material can be overwhelming to approach. But if someone were unfamiliar with his music, these are some of the pieces that I’d point them to:
A signature song that really showcases what Doc was great at. Watson recorded it many times, ranging from a solo version [Doc Watson (1964)] to one with drums, Merle, and electric [Doc and Merle Watsons’ Guitar Album (1972)]. A particularly nice recording is the one on 1998’s Mac, Doc, and Del, with Mac Wiseman and Del McCoury.
“Banks of the Ohio,” from The Original Folkways Recordings of Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, 1960-1962
It sounds like a room of people singing a song they all know intimately. And, indeed, that’s exactly what it is. It’s the kind of recording that makes you feel like you really missed something. Watson was young, and part of a distinct musical community, and that’s what you hear in this recording. His guitar work on this piece is simply gorgeous, such that you can see why it was such a sensation at the time.
“Life Gits Teejus Don’t It” from Doc Watson on Stage
Another live recording from, in my opinion at least, one of the golden eras in Watson’s career; he was on the road with Merle, and had been out for some time, was relaxed, and things just flowed. This song, in particular, shows both Watson’ humorous side, as well as the poignancy.
“Walk On Boy” from Southbound
Just because I love it. It’s a song that remained in his performance repertoire for something like decades.
“Don’t Monkey ‘Round My Widder” from Reflections
Good lord this is a fantastic album of two greats just having a whole lot of fun, and this song is just one of a number here that show both humor and mastery. Doc’s asides are classic Doc, and the ease with which everything is presented is breathtaking. Also on the album is “Me and Chet made a Record” … and “Flatt Did It” … and “On my way to Canaan’s Land” … and on and on.
“I Am a Pilgrim” from Doc Watson on Stage
Doc named his son after Merle Travis in tribute to the style of guitar that Travis played, in the hopes that “some of that good picking might rub off.” (It’s astonishing that the first meeting between Watson and Travis was recorded, but it was. You can hear it on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s release Will the Circle Be Unbroken. ) Pilgrim is a song that was important for Watson, and is also a great example of Travis picking, the style he learned from Travis’ recordings.
“Southbound Passenger Train” from Songs from Home
Just a whole lot of fun. Again, Doc Watson wasn’t a museum exhibit: he had fun, entertained, taught, and provided an example of what one person could do if he put his mind to it.
“Your Long Journey” from The Doc Watson Family
Attributed to his wife, Rosa Lee, Doc also had a hand in writing this song which so many have since recorded including John Hartford, Emmylou Harris, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. The recording, from a collection made by the Smithsonian in 1960 and guided by Ralph Rinzler, is one of those brilliant improbabilities: Watson had not been recorded before, and was entirely unknown, but Rinzler saw something unique in him and his extended family. The album has an edge that matches it’s pedigree, but also includes recordings of songs that Watson learned in his childhood and would go on to play and record for the rest of his career. “Shady Grove,” “Frosty Morn,” “Southbound,” “Darling Corey” are presented here as Doc would have heard them in his youth. “Your Long Journey” is a particular gem, sung as a duet with Rosa Lee, the woman who stood by Doc’s side from the days when he was, even into his 20s, busking at a cab stand in Lenoir, NC. The lyric, indeed, presages what she no doubt is feeling today:
God’s given us years of happiness here
Now we must part … My heart breaks as you take your long journey