Remembering Doc Watson

Doc Watson in the 1960s. Photo: John Cohen/Getty Images

When singer/guitarist Arthel “Doc” Watson passed away on May 29 at the age of 89, the world lost one of its last links to what journalist Greil Marcus famously dubbed, “The old, weird America” of traditional, pre-WWII folk music. Blind since infancy, Doc met the world with a quiet authority and a down-home kind of warmth that belied the stark, stoic image he struck onstage, seated and leaning intensely into a mix of country, bluegrass, gospel, blues, and old-timey folk. But his lightning-flash licks humbled several generations of folk, country and rock guitarists.

The man who sent six-string hotshots running for cover, earned an armload of Grammys, and received a National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton was born amid humble circumstances in Stoney Fork, N.C. on March 3, 1923 to a family that first homesteaded the area in the late 18th century. He grew up hearing old-time ballads from his mother, hymns in the local Baptist church, and 78s by the likes of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. He learned harmonica at age six and banjo at 11, his father building him a banjo using the skin of little Arthel’s grandmother’s recently deceased cat. While attending the Governor Morehead School for the Blind, he learned guitar at the age of 13, spurred by the influence of jazz — especially fleet-fingered Gypsy guitar demon Django Reinhardt — and The Grand Ole Opry. Early on, his move from Carter Family-style thumb-pick technique to standard flat-picking was crucial to forging Watson’s rapid-fire style. He played for tips at a Lenoir, N.C. cabstand in 1940 to pay off his first Martin guitar.

Watch Doc Watson perform “Deep River Blues”:

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