By now, you’ve probably heard music legend Arthel “Doc” Watson died last night at the age of 89. He was surrounded by friends and family near his home in North Carolina. I’ve been trying to think of how best to mark his passing — a musician who redefined the way an instrument was played, but who also always, without exception, delivered the music for the sake of the music.
In all my time working and playing in the folk music world, I somehow only managed to see Doc play live once – last year at Merlefest 2011. It was Sunday morning and he was leading a gospel song service by the river. He paused at one point, asking the festival chaplain say a prayer for his wife Rosalie. At 88, Doc was still remarkably dexterous, still one of the greatest guitar pickers living.
And that’s the thing. He wasn’t just a great guitar picker. He was theguy who changed the way the guitar was used in folk and country music. It had just been a rhythm tool until he came along and started picking out fiddle parts on it. While folk music “revivalists” were turning the craft into a marketing monkey for the burgeoning recording industry, Doc held it down for the glory of Appalachian music – all those old fiddle tunes and dance songs, the blues and laments, the songs rooted somewhere so far back nobody could remember anymore. His delivery of those old songs was a major influence on Bob Dylan (who, incidentally, won a Medal of Honor from the President of the United States yesterday) and, no doubt, most of the revivalists on the New York scene, who hadn’t heard anything like it until he came along.
To see Doc fingerpick was a thing of simple grace. To watch him flatpick was like watching some kind of alien machine. Check that video above.
But for all the glory in his flatpicking, from what I understand, Doc just considered it a skill he had with a tool – like some guys can swing a hammer and build a house; some guys can pull a wrench and fix a car; Doc could pick a guitar. There was no ego there, no flashy spotlight hogging. I imagine Doc would be pleased to know that someone’s best memory of him was a time he sang some old Carolina gospel tunes one Sunday morning by the river.
So, with that, I’ll let him have the last word.
[Editor’s note: This appeared first on NoDepression.com. Portrait of Doc is by Peter Figen, circa 1986.]