I’d like to take a brief moment here to share a memory of a musician who was an inspiration to me and all my musician friends. Doc passed away last week and although his audience these days is probably only a fraction of what snoop dog has, he is still an American musical icon.
Arthel Lane (“Doc”) Watson was born in Stoney Fork, N.C., the sixth of nine children, on March 3, 1923. The folklorist, Ralph Rinzler, discovered Doc and brought him into the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 1960’s. Subsequent recordings on Folkways Records called Doc to my attention and, as young musicians, we were all in awe of his guitar playing as well as his banjo and harmonica. Although Doc was primarily a folk musician, he played (and played well) any music that interested him. He was, by all accounts, a consummate gentleman.
I had the good fortune to be on the bill with him in the 1970’s at a folk festival in Winfield, Kansas, which was held at the county fairgrounds. On Saturday night, right before the performances, we suffered a vicious thunderstorm with torrential rain and lightning. To get to the stage we had to cross the race track which was, by the time of our crossing, a quagmire. Backstage, everybody was grousing about the weather, except Doc. John Hartford even demanded that the festival staff clean his muddy boots for him! Shortly thereafter, in spite of the inclement weather, I witnessed what was possibly the best set of music I’d ever heard in my life. Doc went on stage and started his set with just his banjo and did a beautiful rendition of the old-time standard, “Little Sadie.” Then he brought out his son, Merle, for some guitar duets. Then his bass player. Then a dobro player. Then a drummer. And by the time his set was over, Doc was rocking that festival crowd with a version of “Blue Suede Shoes!” It was a short, delightful history of American music brought to us by a man who embraced and embodied that history. He has walked on into that history now.
However painful his passing, we can still revel in his inspiration by playing our music, whether on instruments or iPod, and thus celebrate the life of one of our greatest American assets—Doc Watson.