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Give Me Back My Old Boat—Doc Watson

June 5, 2012

When we lose someone in the music community it is a clarion call to acknowledge, celebrate, mourn, honor and hone in on all those memories of how that person entered our lives and why it mattered. Music is such a visceral thing, as a writer I shy away from writing about it at all because it is so ephemeral. It is the art form that is all about the ears and the body below the ears. Sure we can watch it, but it is how it makes us feel, how we feel the beat and how we really hear that Albéniz tango, that drummer from Ghana, that liquid Miles riff, that poem sung by the Fado singer, that long instrumental Wilco break or the unequaled guitar picking of Doc Watson.

Doc Watson died last week at the age of 89. I am just one more person who was a Doc Watson fan. There are many of us all over the world. Why did he matter to me? When I was twelve years old my mother bought me a guitar for Christmas. Why she did it I can’t really say. I didn’t ask for one. But still there it was all rounded and honey-colored and it took up residency in my suburban bedroom where I poured over my Folksinger’s Guitar Guide, Guitar Finger-Picking Styles  and other instructional books. Each day I painfully approximated chords, built grieving calluses and timidly attached myself to an American folk music lineage that not only allowed a ghostly pale tweener with glasses to puzzle over Elizabeth Cotton’s tablature, but also gave me the words to I’m Sitting on Top of the World and Deep River Blues and then showed me how to play them. And I played them. And I sang them as best I could. And I read about how Doc had been blind since he was one year old. I was a sickly kid, always and forever visiting the doctor, missing weeks of school at a time. It sounds odd, but I would page through my songbooks and look at those photos of Doc taking his guitar and assembling those Doc Watson sounds and it made me feel like I too could slip in and join the group of American guitar players. Not that I ever wanted to play in public, never ever, but to me there was an unspoken invitation in those books, a ‘come join us’ to those stories behind the songs and the people who made them come alive.

Deep Gap, North Carolina was a far cry from Columbia Heights, Minnesota, but somehow I was a lonely kid who found her tribe, the tribe of song-makers. I was not a flatpicker, nor am I today, but I spent years listening to Doc Watson and his lightening-speed playing because he was a virtuoso. I went to concerts where I watched Doc and Merle play together as only they could, finishing each others musical sentences, enhancing each others riffs and giving the world that unique Watson take on Red Rocking Chair, Salty Creek or Way Downtown. Playing their “traditional plus” collaboration of tunes you left their concerts feeling your own fingers were simply a set of broken pencils.

Doc Watson was an immensely creative player of traditional songs that appealed to an amazing array of fans. You could always sense humility in everything he sang or played. And when he sang it was like drinking a cool glass of clear well water, pure and true. He was an important mentor to the world of American traditional playing, but to many others who played blues, country and rock. Last year they dedicated a life-size statue of Doc in Boone N.C. It is inscribed upon his request with these words, “Just one of the people.”

In this world of YouTube I am forever grateful that I can sit for hours and watch all that footage of Doc dazzling and generously putting his stamp on Nine Pound Hammer and Windy and Warm. In this world of entertainers who are just one with the media and lipsync inside a corolla of barely clad, greased-up dancers and employ their own staff of pyro-technicians, we will greatly miss the genuine, humble artistry of Doc Watson.