2012 Honorary Member
The following remarks come from a panel at the honorary member ceremony at the 2012 annual conference in Charlotte, NC. Watson died shortly after attending the conference, on May 29, 2012.
Doc Watson: Old Made New
Doc Watson is a national treasure, a musicianer of remarkable creativity and soul who drank deeply of our American song in forging a traditional music that was freely unfettered from tradition. Doc Watson absorbed the sounds of balladry, shape note hymnody, Carter Family gospel, and fiddle tunes and transformed them through his imagination, his voice, and his guitar into a fresh and vibrant new language that honored the past while embracing the future. Doc understood just how to make the old new.
Born in the rugged mountainous country of Wautauga County, North Carolina in 1923, Arthel Lane Watson grew up with music closely tied to home and hearth. Each evening a bedside verse of Bible would be washed down with singing from William Walker’s seven-shape hymnal, the Christian Harmony. Number 341 was “The Lone Pilgrim,” one of Doc’s deepest memories. One Christmas Doc’s father, General Dixon Watson, slipped a harmonica into his son’s stocking, and six-year old Doc was trying to coax fiddle tunes out of that harmonica right away.
Doc encountered ballads and lyric folk songs through his mother, Annie Greene, who sang about the house, coupling the tempo and cadence of chores with ballads like “Omie Wise,” the story of a girl seduced and killed in a nearby North Carolina community. He also learned frolic songs like “Shady Grove” from his father. When Doc was about ten years old his father built him a banjo with a maple hoop and groundhog hide—later replaced by the hide of an old family cat. Doc learned to play two-finger style—a regional technique forming a bridge between old-time frailing and more modern Bluegrass picking—by watching his father and his brother Arnold.
About this time, the family purchased a Victrola and Doc was introduced to hillbilly recordings by the Skillet Lickers from Georgia, Charlie Poole from North Carolina’s piedmont area, and the Carter Family from Virginia. Firmly rooted in his local music, Doc was gaining a larger regional perspective as country music itself began to expand beyond its local boundaries.
At age ten Doc entered the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, where his musical horizons were expanded by radio and recordings that introduced him to classical music and to progressive musicians including Django Reinhardt, the Monroe and Delmore Brothers, and Opry entertainer Uncle Dave Macon, innovative performers who took traditional material and created something different as the emerging commercial media demanded new wine in the old skins.
Around age thirteen, Doc started playing a guitar with a school friend, Paul Montgomery. Back home for a visit, Doc was chording a guitar that his brother Linny had borrowed. Their father said that if Doc could learn a song by the end of the day he would buy him a guitar. When Doc’s father came home, his son managed to sing the Carter Family’s “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland,” so his dad went to North Wilkesboro and brought home the Stella that launched Doc’s flatpicking style.
Doc and Linny started playing at community gatherings in the brother duet style of the Bolicks, Monroes, and Delmores. His guitar playing evolved from a Carter Family thumb-lead style to a flatpicked style influenced by Jimmie Rodgers and the Delmores. In 1947 Doc married Rose Lee Carlton, whose father Gaither was a local fiddler from whom he learned fiddle tunes and songs. By 1953 Doc was playing electric guitar with Jack Williams and the Country Gentlemen, making the old new by picking out fiddle tunes on his Les Paul electric guitar during local dances. By now, Doc had a head full of songs, fingers full of notes, and was creatively fashioning something new and unique from his treasury of tradition.
Ralph Rinzler and Doc Watson: (Re)Presenting the Folk
I’m quite pleased to see this award going to an extraordinary musician, Doc Watson, who lives some two hours northwest of here. One can only speculate about his life had Ralph Rinzler not accompanied Eugene Earl to western North Carolina in 1960 to meet and hear Clarence “Tom” Ashley. At that point Doc’s public musical persona was firmly planted in popular music—playing electric guitar in a local rockabilly/country swing band—but Ralph soon discovered the depth of Watson’s music, which ranged from ballads to fiddle tunes adapted to the guitar to sacred songs. Ralph also discovered that the Doc wasn’t the only talented member in his family; his late son Merle was an excellent guitar player while his father-in-law (Gaither Carleton) played banjo and fiddle. Rinzler encouraged Doc to explore the music associated with his family and community, and Mr. Watson is now world-renowned for his wide-ranging repertoire and high level of musicianship.
Although Ralph Rinzler “managed” Doc Watson (as well as Bill Monroe) in the early-to-mid 1960s, Ralph did more than simply set up live musical performances. He helped Watson navigate his way out of the Watuaga County, North Carolina welfare system. As Watson performed for more audiences outside of western North Carolina, Rinzler worked hard both to document and to spread Doc’s Deep Gap music. Many people, myself included, first became acquainted with songs like “Shady Grove,” “Soldier’s Joy” or “House Carpenter” due to Doc’s records and live performances from the early 1960s into the present day. In retrospect their relationship transcended that of performer/manager; rather it was a collaboration that benefited both men in many ways and remained firm until Rinzler died in 1994. We are very fortunate that Doc Watson is still playing and with us today.
Doc Watson—Personal Reflections on his Music
When I got my first guitar in 1975 at the age of ten, I wanted to play rock music. The sounds of acoustic guitars and a commercialized “folk” style could be heard in the house from my older brothers’ Bob Dylan and Neil Young records, but I was certainly not immersed in traditional American folk music at home. My first formal guitar teacher, who was neither a great musician nor an innovative pedagogue, did have a few moments of brilliance—one of which was introducing me to the music of Doc Watson. Once I heard Doc’s seminal recording of “Black Mountain Rag,” I was hooked. Although I was never able to play it as cleanly as Doc, from that moment I considered myself a flatpicker.
As I discovered more of America’s traditional musical styles through my teenage years, Doc Watson always seemed to be at the core, an entrée into both older and newer styles. Through Doc’s music I found my way to the pre-war music of the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Skillet Lickers; to the first-generation bluegrass of Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs; to the classic country of Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, and Eddy Arnold; to the country blues of John Hurt and Frank Hutchison; and to the contemporary and progressive flatpicking of Clarence White, Norman Blake, and Tony Rice.
Now, years later, I approach these musics not solely as a performer but also as a scholar, with a focus on the evolution of vernacular American guitar styles; once again Doc Watson stands at the center of this astonishingly complex story. In his unassuming way, he has been a primary conduit between the older and newer styles, country and bluegrass, old-time music and folk revivalism, between tradition and innovation. Listen to Doc’s recordings from the 1960s and you will hear Riley Puckett, Alton Delmore, Jimmie Rodgers, Maybelle Carter, and Merle Travis revitalized and transformed. Listen to the music of Clarence White, Tony Rice, Dan Crary, Bryan Sutton, or any of today’s hot acoustic flatpickers showcasing their virtuosity in Nashville clubs and studios, and you will hear Doc Watson. He may not have been the first to play a fiddle tune on guitar (see Joe Maphis and Jimmy Bryant), nor the first to fingerpick accompaniment to an old-time song for urban folk audiences (see Mike Seeger and Dave Van Ronk), nor even the first to flatpick a lead guitar break in a string-band setting (see Don Reno and George Shuffler). He was, however, the man who brought all of these streams—and indeed, many others—together, changing the landscape of American music forever. Thus I am humbled and deeply honored to stand before you as a representative of the Society of American music to award Doc Watson, truly one of my lifelong musical heroes, with our honorary membership.