Doc Watson

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photo by John Cohen, 1961

from http://www.nytimes.com

Doc Watson, the guitarist and folk singer whose flat-picking style elevated the acoustic guitar to solo status in bluegrass and country music, and whose interpretations of traditional American music profoundly influenced generations of folk and rock guitarists, died on Tuesday in Winston-Salem, N.C. He was 89.

Mr. Watson, who had been blind since he was a baby, died in a hospital after recently undergoing abdominal surgery, The Associated Press quoted a hospital spokesman as saying. On Thursday his daughter, Nancy Ellen Watson, said he had been hospitalized after falling at his home in Deep Gap, N.C., adding that he did not break any bones but was very ill.

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. Unlike most country and bluegrass musicians, who thought of the guitar as a secondary instrument for providing rhythmic backup, Mr. Watson executed the kind of flashy, rapid-fire melodies normally played by a fiddle or a banjo. His style influenced a generation of young musicians learning to play the guitar as folk music achieved national popularity.

“He is single-handedly responsible for the extraordinary increase in acoustic flat-picking and fingerpicking guitar performance,” said Ralph Rinzler, the folklorist who discovered Mr. Watson in 1960. “His flat-picking style has no precedent in earlier country music history.”

Arthel Lane Watson was born in Stoney Fork, N.C., the sixth of nine children, on March 3, 1923. His father, General Dixon Watson, was a farmer and day laborer who led the singing at the local Baptist church. His mother, Annie, sang old-time ballads while doing household chores and at night sang the children to sleep.

When Mr. Watson was still an infant an eye infection left him blind, and the few years of formal schooling he received were at the Raleigh School for the Blind. His musical training, typical for the region, began in early childhood. At the age of 5 or 6 he received his first harmonica as a Christmas gift, and at 11 his father made him a fretless banjo with a head made from the skin of a family cat that had just died.

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.

By then, Arthel had moved beyond the banjo. His father, hearing him plucking chords on a borrowed guitar, promised to buy him his own guitar if he could teach himself a song by the end of the day. The boy taught himself the Carter Family’s “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland,” and a week later he was the proud owner of a $12 Stella guitar.

Read entire article here.

 

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One Response to “Doc Watson”

  1. REED MARTIN Says:

    Many years ago I sat next to Doc Watson on the stage of a banjo workshop at a folk festival. He was asked to play a couple pieces in the old time style…..and he prodeeded to mix “up-picking” and “down-picking” (clawhammer) back and forth within the tunes he played. So smoothly that one could not tell which direction the string was being struck, yet visable to the fellow (me) sitting next to him.
    ….and there is Ralph Rinzler’s story of having Doc as a house guest once. The Mantel Clock had stopped working and somehow was mentioned during daytime activities in Ralph’s home. At 3 a.m. the next morning, Ralph awoke to the sound of what he thought were burglars. He crept downstairs, flipped on the lights, and there sat Doc with the mantel clock completely apart on the kitchen table. Ralph said, “I thought you were a burglar – I could have shot you.” Doc replied – Well, I could not stop thinking about that clock not working – so I got up to fix it for you.”
    Ralph said, “Why didn’t you turn on the lights to help you?” And Doc simply replied, “I always work best in the dark.” The clock was fixed by Doc and worked forever more.
    ….reed martin / old friend of Mr. Rinzler.

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