The Doc Watson Principles



by Kent Gustavson (from

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.

Doc Watson Principle #4: Humility

The thing Doc talked about in almost every interview was humility. He didn’t want people to put him on a pedestal for his talents, his incredible story, or his fame. Doc could have let all of the praise go to his head, but he worked hard not to let that happen, which makes him an incredible example for other musicians and celebrities.

The praise started early. From the beginning of his career, Doc was known as an incredible guitar player. In his local area in the 1940s and ’50s, people already knew that Doc was the best guitar player anywhere around, and they asked him to come to various jam sessions, dances, and so on. He played with a band for several years, and he did brief stints on the radio, but was only an occasional professional until 1960.

All of a sudden, in 1961, Doc Watson was launched into a folk music scene, and he was soon playing to tens of thousands of people at Newport, and every guitar player in America was buying his records and slowing them down to imitate his licks. Future stars such as Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Clarence White, Taj Mahal, and countless others came to Doc Watson concerts and watched his hands, transfixed by his deep voice and lightning-fast runs. Many started to think of him as a guitar god — someone with incredible innate talent who was far more capable of this music than the rest of us…

Even in his prime Doc didn’t like being put on a pedestal — he wanted to be a simple country fellow who came out and played several weeks a year to earn money for his family. But when stories started spreading of him wiring his house for electricity, fixing an air conditioner in a hotel room, playing auto-harp, banjo, mandolin or any style guitar thinkable, he couldn’t avoid the mythology surrounding him and his family.

Doc had the last laugh on this matter. In a wonderful sequence of events, the city of Boone commissioned a statue of Doc to sit in the downtown area, and he refused to give them his blessing unless they included a special phrase along with the statue. He insisted that they write “just one of the people” on his likeness. Now, children and adults can sit next to Doc Watson, put their arm around him, read the inscription, and feel inspired by Doc’s desire to be one of us, despite his fame.

Our whole world is filled with hierarchies, power inequalities, and misunderstandings. Doc taught us, through his humility, to seek greatness in our own way, but also to smile, be gracious and humble, leaving a spot on the bench for someone to sit next to us.

Doc Watson Principle #5: Home

The previous four principles, honoring traditions, hard work, hospitality, and humility, all point towards the principle that Doc followed most religiously. In his thinking, all roads pointed towards home. No matter where he was in the world, his heart was counting down the hours and days until he could return to his family and home. For 89 years, Doc returned to Deep Gap, to his parents, to his wife and children, and to the sounds and smells of home.

Deep Gap kept Doc Watson alive (and picking) for 89 years, sharing his love, friendship, and tunes with the world. God willing, our homes, and our own sense of home will keep our hearts ticking — we can always hope.


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