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Doc Watson, Folk Music Icon, Dies At 89

Originally published on Tue September 18, 2012 6:45 pm

A mountain-born treasure of American folk music, Doc Watson, died Tuesday in North Carolina at age 89.

His manager said in a statement that Watson died at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, after abdominal surgery last week.

Watson was born in Deep Gap, N.C., in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in a three-room house he shared with eight brothers and sisters. He revolutionized not just how people play guitar but the way people around the world think about mountain music.

Watson went blind when he was only about a year old, from an untreated eye infection. He told WHYY's Fresh Air that he was only 11 when his father made him a banjo using the skin of an old dead cat.

"He brought it to me and put it in my hands, and said, 'Son, I want you to learn to play this thing real well. One of these days we'll get you a better one,' he said. 'Might help you get through the world,' " Watson recalled.

His parents made sure young Arthel Lane Watson had the tools he needed to face life without sight or money. His father traded a week's worth of pay at the sawmill for a hand-cranked phonograph that came with 50 records, including country, blues and jazz. Watson incorporated those sounds into the Appalachian music surrounding him.

He worked on his father's farm cutting trees and saved up enough to buy a mail-order guitar. He played on street corners and on the radio. In the 1950s, he started touring with a square dance band that lacked a fiddler. So Watson figured out how to play the fiddle parts on his guitar.

"Doc never played anything the same way [more than] once," says David Holt, who played with Watson for decades. "There was just something about his rhythm that was just so driving ... you could not not tap your toe. You just had to."

Holt says you could hear the determination of a blind, self-defined man in every note Watson played.

"Doc was fierce, but not fierce in a bad way — just fierce in a determined way," he says.

Watson was as good a singer as he was a guitar player. He completely inhabited the characters in the songs he sang.

A Smithsonian folklorist named Ralph Rinzler stumbled on Watson while looking for another musician. He ended up recording Watson in his living room in 1960. As Watson told NPR in 2002, Rinzler persuaded him to hit the folk circuit blossoming across the country at the time.

"I was skeptical," Watson said. "He said, 'Now you've got something to offer in the way of entertainment in the folk revival. We want to get you out there.' You wouldn't believe the lonesome trips I did on that old big Trailways bus all the way to New York all by myself."

Within a few years, Watson was joined by his son Merle, who eventually became an accomplished guitarist, too. But Merle died in a tractor accident in 1985. Watson, devastated, almost gave up performing.

"It was the night before his funeral," Watson said. "I dreamed that I was in a desertlike place so hot that I couldn't breathe. And it was like quicksand. I was up to my waist. And I couldn't move. And that big old strong hand come back and grab my hand. 'Come on Dad, you can make it.' And he got me out of whatever kind of thing I was in, out to where it was cool. It was sunshine, but it was cool. And I waked up and thanked the Lord that he sent him. Guess I better provide for my family."

Perhaps Watson's greatest contribution was fusing all of his influences in a way that gave audiences around the world access to the culture of the mountains of western North Carolina.

"He's one of the few people that could take an old song and make it sound new ... or take a new song and make it sound old," Holt says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

A treasure of American folk music has died: Doc Watson was 89. He'd been in critical condition in a North Carolina hospital after undergoing colon surgery last week. Watson was born in Deep Gap, North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He revolutionized, not just how people play guitar, but how people around the world think about mountain music.

NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Doc Watson went blind when he was only about 1 year old from an untreated eye infection. He told WHYY's FRESH AIR his dad made him a banjo with the skin of an old dead cat when he turned 11.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DOC WATSON: One day, he brought it to me and put it in my hands and said, son, I want you to learn to play this thing real well. One of these days, we'll get you a better one. And he said, might help you get through the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WATSON: (Singing) My name is Georgie Buck, never had no luck. Always been treated this-a way, boys. Always been treated this-a way.

ULABY: Doc Watson's parents made sure young Arthel Lane Watson had the tools he needed to face life without sight or money. His dad traded a week's worth of pay at the sawmill for a hand-cranked phonograph that came with 50 records, including country, blues and jazz. Watson incorporated those sounds into the Appalachian music surrounding him.

He worked on his father's farm cutting trees and saved up enough to buy a mail-order guitar. He played on street corners and on the radio, and in the 1950s started touring with a square dance band that lacked a fiddler. So Watson figured out how to play those parts on his guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WATSON: One of the first things I learned to play successfully that was a fiddle hymn was "Black Mountain Rag."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK MOUNTAIN RAG")

DAVID HOLT: Doc never played anything the same way once.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ULABY: That's musician David Holt, who played with Watson for decades.

HOLT: There was just something about his rhythm that was just so driving and so - I don't know - just you could not not tap your toe. You just had to.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: Holt says you could hear the determination of a blind, self-defined man in every note Doc Watson played.

HOLT: Doc was fierce, but not fierce in a bad way, just fierce in a determined way. So that came out in his music. I wish I had a guitar here. I could play you an example. But he learned a tune from Merle Travis called "My Bluebell." And Merle Travis plays it really just sort of beautifully and gently.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAREWELL MY BLUEBELL")

HOLT: And then as you hear Doc's version, it's just very driving. And, you know, he's just punching the notes, and that's the way Doc was. Very intelligent, very intense.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAREWELL MY BLUEBELL")

ULABY: Doc Watson was as good a singer as he was a guitar player. Just listen to how he inhabits the song's stories and their characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYDAY DIRT")

WATSON: (Singing) Now, John come home all in a wonder. He rattled at the door just like thunder. Who is that, Mr. Hendley cried. It is my husband. You must hide.

ULABY: That song was recorded in Doc Watson's living room in 1960 by Ralph Rinzler. He's a Smithsonian folklorist who stumbled on Watson while looking for another musician. As Watson told NPR in 2002, Rinzler persuaded him to hit the folk circuit blossoming around the country at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WATSON: Well, I was skeptical. I said, Ralph, (unintelligible) and listen to me play this old time stuff. Yeah, they will too. He said, now you've got something to offer in the way of entertainment in the folk revival. We want to get you out there and get you heard so - oh, you wouldn't believe the lonesome trips I did on that old big Trailways bus all the way to New York by myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: Within a few years, Watson was joined by his son Merle who essentially became an accomplished guitarist too. But Merle died in a tragic tractor accident in 1985. Watson, devastated, almost gave up performing.

WATSON: The night before his funeral, I dreamed that I was in a desert-like place, so hot that I couldn't breathe. And it was like quicksand. It was up to my waist, and I couldn't move. And that big, old strong hand come back and grabbed my hand and said, come on, Dad. You can make it. And he got me out of whatever kind of a thing I was in out to where it was cool. It was sunshine, but it was cool. And I waked up and I thanked the Lord that he sent him. I said, I guess I better provide for my family, son.

ULABY: Doc Watson continued performing and toured for more than three decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND BY ME")

WATSON: (Singing) When the storms of life are raging stand by me. When the storms of life are raging stand by me.

ULABY: Perhaps Doc Watson's greatest contribution was fusing all of his influences in a way that gave audiences around the world access to the culture to the culture of the mountains of western North Carolina. Again, David Holt.

HOLT: He's one of the few people that could take an old song, a really old song, and make it sound new to a modern audience or take a new song and make it sound old.

ULABY: Because some things aren't about old or new. Hurting, keeping on, the rush of faith, lives, little pleasures. Doc Watson's picking and singing pulled it out. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Doc Watson died today in North Carolina at age 89. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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