Doc Watson as a music historian
Doc Watson’s legacy will grow after his passing, since he touched generations of music lovers with his retelling of traditional songs rooted deep in American history.
Watson died Tuesday at the age of 89 in North Carolina after a brief illness.
But Watson’s story isn’t in his passing, it is in what he left behind culturally as an oral historian of songs that told rural America’s story.
Watson’s repertoire included a lot of bluegrass, country, and folk standards, including a few classics that Watson restored from dusty old records.
After touring the country for more than four decades, Watson influenced several generations of musicians with his guitar-playing style.
He often played to healthy-sized audiences at colleges and smaller venues, and at folk festivals (including his own family’s festival in North Carolina).
Audiences left his shows not only with the joy of being entertained, but also with a brief music history lesson.
To understand Watson’s influence, you need to understand his own history.
Watson was born in 1923, grew up in rural North Carolina and was blind since the age of one.
He went to school, got married, had two children, and played music locally in rockabilly and country swing bands in the 1950s.
Musicologist Ralph Rinzler was in Watson’s part of North Carolina in 1960 looking for Clarence “Tom” Ashley, a regional music star from the 1920s and 1930s he was hoping to record.
Rinzler found Ashley and Ashley arranged for Watson to accompany him–on electric guitar.
Rinzler asked Watson to play acoustic guitar and Watson balked, because he didn’t have one.
A day later, Rinzler returned, and Watson had borrowed an acoustic guitar, and he was accompanying Ashley.
When Rinzler passed a banjo to Watson, he picked out a version of “Tom Dooley” that Rinzler had never heard.
Watson told Rinzler it was his family’s version, and that many of the “lost” songs that Rinzler talked about from the region were still played widely in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Watson took the advice of Rinzler and others, switched to folk music, and listened to old records to expand his repertoire, to add to the songs he heard growing up.
So in his late 30s, Watson started a career as a nationally known traditional musician.
His career took off after an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival and a guest role on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” album.
Watson toured with his son Merle until Merle’s death in 1985, and he also benefited from the release of his record catalog digitally.
He resumed touring after his son’s death, and Watson also made high-profile appearances with the biggest names in his field.
A typical Watson concert would include a few standards that he arranged for his guitar style, some gospel songs, a few folk standards, early country classics from Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, and a few old, obscure songs.
For example, Watson played “The White House Blues,” a song from the 1920s that recounted the assassination of President William McKinley. Or he would play a version of “The House Of The Rising Sun.”
He also played songs that were originally recorded by country legend Merle Travis (who Watson named his son after) Travis heard his songs growing up in Kentucky’s coal region in the depression.
Watson’s son, Merle, added songs from Mississippi John Hurt, another “lost” artist discovered during the 1960s folk revival.
Watson actually thrived after the folk movement faded out in the late 1960s.
He had built up repeat audiences using history as the backdrop for his performances, and he toured widely (and recorded often) with his son, and usually a third musician.
Recently, Watson had been performing with his grandson on guitar, but he scaled back his live shows in the past few years.
Watson was also involved in “MerleFest,” an annual music festival and musicians’ camp in North Carolina named for his son.
But perhaps Watson’s greatest legacy was his chance to preserve the musical heritage of his region.
Watson’s shows, like those of musical storytellers from Pete Seeger to Bruce Springsteen, had a sense of purpose, bolstered by Watson setting up songs with a few stories about people long forgotten, until they were remembered in song.
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Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of Constitution Daily.