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About The Genius of Doc Watson

Doc Watson Two Videos

Doc Watson – Jazz and Heritage Festival, New Orleans 2009 – Photo: LTTL

The Great Doc Watson

Two Videos

By Carl Weinschenk

What can be said about Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson that has not already been said? Untold numbers of musicians have deconstructed his technique (no doubt with a mix of admiration, envy and depression). Those more interested in his history have checked out his profile and discography at Wikipedia and dozens of other sites.

Perhaps the best thing to do is let Watson tell us why his music is great and ageless. YouTube — our collective memory — makes that easy.

Two videos of the same song come to mind. Both show Watson playing the classic “Deep River Blues.” One was taped when he was young (I am guessing in the early 1950s) and the other many decades later. A bonus in the latter video is that he discusses the song with Pete Seeger.

A case can be made that the songs an artist covers, especially multiple times, is in some ways as indicative of who they are as those they write. After all, there are thousands and thousands of wonderful songs from which to choose. Something about the lyrics, the music or both must resonate for an artist to adopt them. Those choices provide important clues about that artist. If this is so, the fact that “Deep River Blues” was a Watson staple should be noted.

The song was written by the unfairly forgotten Rabon and Alton Delmore (the Delmore Brothers). The theme is suicide: “If my boat sinks with me/Going to go down, don’t you see” and “Now I’m going to say goodbye/If I sink just let me die.” However, there is humor within that depressing context: “My old gal is a good old pal/She walks just like a water fowl.” Happily, the depressed narrator decides not to hurt himself — or had just been letting off some steam: “I’m going back to Muscle Shoals/Times getting better there I’m told.”

It doesn’t hurt that the song references a town that has played such a big role in American music.

Watson, of course, had his share of tragedy. He lost his sight when he was a baby and lost his son Merle to a farm accident in 1985. It seems possible that the attraction that the song held for him was more than purely musical.

The earlier video is simply Watson playing the song and speaks for itself. It’s always fascinating to see somebody make something that obviously is very difficult look easy. It’s important to remember that you really are looking at a lot of raw talent and thousands of hours of practice.

The latter video, which is about 10 minutes long, is a performance of the song followed by a conversation between Watson and Seeger about how it is played. (There may be longer versions of what feels like a broader interview between the two legends elsewhere on YouTube.)

The Watson that comes across is a genuine, calm, self-effacing and good humored man. A highlight for me is Watson’s reference to Merle Travis, another legendary guitarist. He refers to him affectionately as “Brother Merle Travis” and ironically “confesses” that he stole a lick from him for the song. Unsaid is that Watson and Travis were close enough that Watson named his son after Travis. (Merle actually was the younger Watson’s middle name. His first name was Eddy.)

The other interesting thing is Watson’s description of how he plays the song. I am not a guitarist and won’t attempt to describe it. What is important here is that he presents what obviously is something that took years to learn – playing a solid rhythm and lead at the same time – as if it is no big deal. (It’s an “All you need to do is mix up some paint and fresco, build a scaffold and paint a few biblical scenes on the ceiling of the chapel. No biggie”-type description.)

Anybody with even a passing interest in Americana, roots music, blues, folk and most other of the overlapping genres have listened to Doc Watson. Indeed, there is nobody more responsible for the direction those genres took.

Carl Weinschenk is a freelancer in the New York City area who writes about telecommunications, information technology and music. He publishes The Daily Music Break and runs The Internet Music Mapping Project, a constantly growing listing of music-related websites.

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Doc Watson Two Videos

Doc Watson Two Videos

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3 Comments

    • Not sure about our author Carl, but once for me – Jazzfest New Orleans 2009, played with his grandson I believe. I’m so pleased I got to see him, Rob

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