Legend Language: The Life and Words of Doc Watson
The defect was in the vessels that carry blood to his eyes. Before his first birthday in 1924, Arthel “Doc” Watson had lost his vision completely.
Raised in a highly musical family, Doc’s mother would sing old-time songs while performing chores, harbored deep under the Appalachians in western North Carolina, where Doc still lives today. Music continued at the church, Doc’s interest in singing developed into a habit of banging on anything in the house that would make noise, and at age 6, he began learning the harmonica. Soon after, he had strung a steel wire across the sliding door of the family’s woodshed for a bass accompaniment. The Watson parents may have then had their first clue there was something quite different, quite sacred forming under their eyes.
Growing up in Deep Gap, North Carolina, Doc would later develop proficient and stunning skills on a fretless banjo his father had built for him. It was while away at the Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, however, that Watson heard the music of Django Reinhardt, and the magical gypsy guitar sound that would change his life. Shortly after, Doc’s father invested in a $12 Stella guitar and the flood gates were now open for his musical development. This led to, at age 17, a Martin D-28 Doc invested in, literally. He was given a year to pay it off and would play for tips at a Lenoire, North Carolina cab stand, making upwards up $50 a day. The guitar was paid off in four months.
In 1947, Doc was married, two years later giving birth to a son they named Merle, after Merle Travis. Working as a piano tuner and playing electric lead guitar for a country band, Doc supported his new family until 1960, when the folk boom that had engulfed the nation led many music fans into the acoustic and traditional music gold fields of western North Carolina. Playing in Manhattan coffeehouses (once teaming with Bill Monroe at New York’s Town Hall) led Doc into his first major exposure to the music world, at nearly 40 years old, during the 1963 and 1964 Newport Folk Festivals.
“I made my first big trip at 39. I’d never been out into the world much, didn’t care to have that much to do with it at that time,” Watson said. “When I left, I was homesick a lot of the time.”
However, while Newport headliners Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, along with the vast majority of folk singers, were writing and singing songs about social revolution, oppression and the Vietnam War, Doc steered clear of such topics. Watson chose to stay musically close to his home, playing the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers’ tunes of his youth. His songs spoke of daily Appalachian life, light years from the war in Vietnam, the civil-rights streets of Birmingham or protest-ridden Chicago and Miami.
“I didn’t want any part of it,” Watson said from his home, days after a performance at the 2001 Flat Rock Music Festival outside of Asheville. “I wasn’t comfortable with it, they were just too far left of the middle of the road for me. I just didn’t agree with a lot of what they were saying,” he said.
In 1964, Merle accompanied Doc on the road, performing first at the Berkeley Folk festival. Merle’s style developed a flow and tone in stark contrast to that of his father’s, incorporating delta blues influence and the slide in 1973, inspired by the then recently-deceased Duane Allman. The father-and-son team developed and traveled the world in the late seventies and early eighties, recording almost fifteen albums during that span.
Many, as I did, may have felt Doc’s blindness would have hindered his musical development, or perhaps, conversely, led Watson to develop a keener musical sense. Watson disagrees. “No, it doesn’t,” he said. “My normal senses minus the eyesight did all that in the formative years. I trust my main senses. Music doesn’t enhance what I feel or hear. I might have learned to play proper chords other than ethnic ones, then again it might have hampered it as well,” he said.
“I mean, I obviously don’t read sheet music. Chet Atkins once said, in relation to sheet music, I can play it but not enough to hurt my pickin’,” Watson said through a laugh. “You know the guitar is a beautiful instrument. It’s like standing with a good friend, caressing a sweet ladyit’s a fine instrument,” he said.
One fact many may also not know about Watson is his reluctance for songwriting, having only written, he claims, “three or so” songs over the span of his career. “I’ve written so few songs, I don’t know how, it’s very hard. I’ve done arranging, but lyrics don’t rhyme without changing the context of what I’m trying to say in the song. I just never felt that I was a writer,” he said. “I wished hard I was a good writer.”
So, as Doc maneuvers through a cold and steely version of the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” at Flat Rock, I’m curious as to why Watson chooses the songs he eventually covers. “Songs differ too much to try to explain. It can be a beautiful bouncing tune and have fun lyrics. Or, it can be a real serious deep blues, indigo as the old folks would say, like “Nights in White Satin.” But even blues can be light-hearted, blues arrangements can vary. Songs vary so much that we love,” Watson said. “But if you know the instrument, can play it off the wall’ as they say, lots of times you can just be inspired, or just listen, and things just happen.”
Merle injured himself working in his basement late one evening in 1985. He climbed on his tractor to climb the steep hills between his and a neighboring spread where he was headed for help in bandaging and treating the severe cuts he’d absorbed. Barely conscious upon arriving at the house, he was looked over and bandaged, before leaving out again on a return trip home. The blood loss was more than expected, Merle lost control of his tractor traversing an embankment, the tractor falling on and then killing him.
Doc had trouble continuing his musical career with the loss of his son, best friend and collaborator, deciding to quit the night before his funeral. That same night, Watson tells the story of a dream which found him in the grip of quicksand, enveloped in fear he was to die. Suddenly, a large, strong hand appeared and a voice said “Come on Dad, you can make it. Keep going.” Watson kept playing, pairing with Merle’s friend and fellow guitarist Jack Lawrence, who still partners with Doc today.
While Watson doesn’t stay on the road as much as he used to, the magic at his performances is still readily available. Wading through a “Sweet Georgia Brown” encore at Flat Rock, you can’t help but focus on Doc’s wide smile and nod along to his shouts of “Go” and “Take it, son!” as he and Lawrence trade leads, reminding me of the Beat poets lost in the frenzied moment of their art. Watson is not surprised at the depth of his enthusiasm, even after all this time. “No, if you love it, you’re not surprised,” he said. “That travelling is hard, though. I love the audience and the music, but I’d rather be home than anywhere in the world,” said Watson.
Watson stresses this point further in a 1987 interview, “Whether I’m playing for myself or for an enthusiastic audience, I can get the same emotions I had when I found that Dad had seen to it that Santa Claus brought exactly what I wanted for Christmas. A true entertainer, I think, doesn’t ever lose that feeling.” He went on to say, “When I play a song, be it on the guitar or banjo, I live that song, whether it is a happy song or a sad song. Music, as a whole, expresses many things to meeverything from beautiful scenery to the tragedies and joys of life.”
Since Merle’s death, perhaps the most significant development in Doc’s life, besides the showers of awards and honors he his regularly bestowed by cultural historical and music societies, is MerleFest. Begun in 1988 as a small festival to honor Merle’s life, MerleFest has grown exponentially into the premier Americana music festival in the world. Last year, over 77,000 people saw music on fourteen stages over one April weekend.
If you can force yourself to look behind the incredible music at MerleFest each year, you’ll see the legions of volunteers that work this massive event, lending to this festival’s best asset, it’s helping hand to the community. In 1999, over 45 non-profit groups benefited from the event, splitting over $760,000 raised by the over 2,300 volunteers. Also, in a trait unique to MerleFest, many of the artists performing also are asked to visit one area school and perform a short set there for the kids prior to their performance at the festival. Pretty cool.
There’s simply way too much about Watson to try to chronicle thoroughly. There’s simply too much talent to squeeze into the descriptions of words. He’s done too much and gone that far. As I leaned my camera over the stage at Flat Rock, my elbows resting only a few short feet from where Watson was flowing through another incredible solo, I was caught in the wake of this legend’s music, his true language. I was awe-struck at the talent that lives inside a world of darkness that has so inebriated the musical spirit of so many with light. As I fumbled back through the smiles on the faces of the crowd heading back to my spot on the festival grounds, I knew then what history sounds like.
History sounds like Doc’s guitar.
Ben Williamson is a freelance music journalist thumbing rides in and around Asheville, North Carolina.