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Just Call Him “Doc” : NLS Guitar Materials Featuring Doc Watson

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I grew up in the foothills of North Carolina in an area where music styles and lyrics known to the Southern Appalachians trickled down and nestled in my bones. In writing about the music culture of the Blue Ridge Mountains, what would a discussion of NC mountain music be without the mention of legendary guitar player Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson? Watson lost his sight at infancy, but went on to become one of the greatest folk musicians of the twentieth — and twenty-first — centuries.

I saw Watson perform during my undergraduate studies. He was accompanied by David Holt who led him on stage and prompted him to tell stories and anecdotes about his songs and how he learned them. 

Not just for the guitar player, but for all those with a hankering for folk, the NLS Music Section has:

  • Flatpick Country Guitar, by Happy Traum and the Homespun Tapes company (you may recall Traum from my earlier post). As its title indicates, this book teaches flatpicking styles — of Watson, but of other great artists too — of performers with distinct playing techniques like the Carter Family (see book number DBM00473). Also, we have Fingerpicking, another work of the company Homespun (see book number DBM00497). 
  • Ninety and Nine is the title of a single song, which musician/teacher Bill Brown uses as an instructional recording detailing how to play guitar in the style of Watson and Chet Atkins (see book number DBM02215).  

In mentioning Doc Watson, many folk music enthusiasts are familiar with the name Eddy Merle Watson, Doc’s late son. Maybe you have heard of Merlefest? It is a yearly music festival that sports many a big name in the folk and bluegrass world in the hills of western North Carolina, established to honor the life of Merle following his premature death in 1985. In 1973, twenty-four year old Merle was a known name in the music industry, evidenced by an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine in an article titled “Doc Watson and His Tall Drink O’ Water Merle.” It was left to interpretation in the publication as to whether or not he was fully aware of his talent or accepted it as anything more than a means to pass time.

I mention Merle to draw focus on one more selection from our collection, for the more advanced player:           

  • Country Guitar Styles, narrated by Merle, opens discussion with how he started playing. On his first tour he met Mississippi John Hurt, who would inspire him to write. A major theme of this book is playing technique, which Merle — joined later by Doc — goes to great lengths to demonstrate, slowing down sections of songs in order to highlight strumming, thumb technique, lead picking, etc. And, the two offer up talk about what Merle calls “twin fingerstyle,” showing off duets with double picking (see book number DBM01201).     

The night I heard Watson play, maybe I would have realized I was experiencing one of the best folk artists surely to come along within my generation if I had been a little bit older, or a little more skilled in my interests of pursuing the history of vernacular music. But, then, maybe that would have distracted me from just listening. 

When Watson passed away in the spring of 2012, I felt the weight of a legacy, that which a great artist’s life can leave behind.

Comments (4)

  1. It would be nice if you would mention Gene Earle, who discovered Doc,
    as well as Ralph Rinzler, who played a substantial part in Doc’s career.

    • Thank you for your comment. There is much more that could have been discussed here. The topic was narrowly focused to our holdings of Doc Watson titles. Ralph Rinzler is the most common name associated with the discovery of Doc, and the person to whom Doc gives credit for hearing him and getting him started in the business.

  2. Hi Amanda!

    Mention of Doc’s time at the School for the Blind in Raleigh might provoke some thought from your readers. It was not a good experience: “There was an amateur hour on the stage of the auditorium on Friday evenings. I got up there with my little homemade fretless banjo and played ‘Cripple Creek,’ ‘Shortening Bread’ and ‘I Like Mountain Music’ just as happy as I could be, tapping my little old foot and picking that banjo the best I could. I got back to the little boys’ dormitory and the matron slapped my face and told me I was conceited. That about fixed it for me forever as an entertainer. They had almighty authority, you know, and to do a thing like that to me at that time in my life . . . well, it drove deep.” Doc quit the school soon after and returned to his family . . . and fortunately, to music!

    • Thank you for commenting. While we cannot always verify a source for readers, Doc described this incident that occurred when he was twelve years old in the liner notes of the 2002 album, Legacy. We do not currently have this item in our holdings.

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