Assignment: Write something in your Flatpicking Guitar column about Doc that is worthy of him, captures something authentic about him, avoids saying the same things that everyone else is saying about the life and passing of Doc Watson. It turns out to be very difficult assignment: so much has already been said about the guy, he has been decorated, praised, applauded, and lauded by the whole world it seems, and well-deserved too.
The ancient Greeks, who were great speechmakers, had a category of oratory called “Epideictic;” speeches in praise of the deeds of heroes. These speeches were often funeral orations like Pericles after the Peloponnesian War and Lincoln after Gettysburg. Ironically, these tribute speeches don’t do much for the departed heroes themselves: we should have given them flowers while they were living, as the old Stanley Brothers song has it. Well we did… happily Doc received many honors in his lifetime. But epideictic speeches do something important for those of us left behind. Our sadness and loss at Doc’s departure is not the only thing: there’s also the joy and satisfaction that we are in the lucky generation of people he touched, and his life continues to teach us important things.
Many writers will tell you more details and stories of Doc, so the best I can do here is to add a couple of things you might not have heard about him.
For one, Doc was unique in his ability to avoid labels, to duck being categorized or fenced in. Was he folk? Yes, of course. Blues? Damn straight. Country? Yes he was. Bluegrass? Whenever he wanted to. He was at the top of all those fields of music, and totally free to step outside any of them to go do something else. In my last interview with him, he said it was because as a youngster he loved Guy Lombardo and Woody Herman just like he loved Wade Mainer. From the first he found all kinds of music to be beautiful.
Something else about Doc: he was a full-on citizen of his world. The stereotypes of blindness and of musicians might lead one to think of this guy as sequestered, out of touch, etc. But he was anything but: in a conversation with Doc in the early 70’s backstage at the Walnut Valley festival, he told me he had just bought and installed a high-powered shortwave radio so he could listen to the BBC. I asked him why, and he said he didn’t completely trust the US media to be giving him the full story, so the BBC would give him more perspective.
Something else not often recognized about Doc: the worldwide popularity of the steel-string guitar has occurred in the last 50 years, and it started with the international touring of Doc and Merle in the late sixties. In 2006, when we were planning and writing our film Primal Twang, the first call I made to any musician was to Doc himself at home. When I told him we intended to tell the story that he and Merle during the sixties had started the rise of the steel-string guitar, he said: “Well, Dan, I’m not all puffed up about it, but I’d sure like to have that story told.” Then when he appeared in the film and we returned to the subject in the interview, he said he wasn’t egotistical about it, but he knew that great guitarists worldwide had been inspired by what they did.
Here is another wonderful Doc-ism: the guitar chose him, rather than the other way ‘round. There is a theme in the biographies of great musicians about how “they chose” their instrument. Often as not, it is more like the instrument chose the player; the little kid unpredictably and inexplicably hears something beautiful in the instrument and wants it, desires it with a passion unexpected in children. Doc said that while he was listening to all those kinds of music as a child,
“The guitar to me was the most fascinating sound I ever heard and knew; I don’t know why it was and it was something wonderful, and I wondered what it looked like.”
Something he had never seen or touched, grabbed the little blind boy, made him want it, and with one in his hands, he literally change the world.
So in the ancient tradition of speeches praising heroes, we both honor the man and also remind the living to learn from him. Doc Watson rose from humble roots to move the world, and performed and recorded a vast array of brilliant music. He was multi-layered, funny, kind to fellow musicians, counter-stereotypically worldly and sophisticated, and proud of the dues he had paid to do it. And those who worked with him and knew him better than I, can tell you more of the personal stuff of Doc’s life.
But this much I do know: we who have been influenced by him can be reminded by his life to love music more than camps and clubs and genre. Doc’s example reminds us to play the guitar better not to be cool or to posture for audiences, but because, like him, we just love the sheer beauty of the thing. And he reminds us that playing traditional music for people is not a little thing, it is a big thing, worth doing more of, worth supporting in society, and worth giving to unlikely little kids from nowhere, little kids who may just become the next implausible world-beating prophet of the beautiful.
If that seems too idealistic or implausible, listen to Doc’s own words:
“…we paid the dues in full. Being away from home out there, and well, I’ll say it and talk just like it was, workin’ our butts off for very little money, but we kept at it. I needed the income, but even more than that, I needed to play the guitar for the people. I had to do that. And Merle and I took pride in playing the best we could when we had an audience that was there that knew what they came to hear. That was wonderful.
And the guitar made us welcome wherever we went.”
– Watson Interview, “Primal Twang,” September, 2006.