Saturday, March 03, 2007

March 3: Doc Watson (b. 1923)

Bluegrass and folk music legend Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson (shown at left, embracing a guitar) was born on this date 84 years ago, in Stoney Fork, Watauga County, North Carolina. He was blind from infancy. Watson's environment from early childhood was rich in traditional music, from his mother's singing lullabyes to the family's evening shape-note singing to the church where his father led the congregation in Southern hymns. He started playing a harmonica around the age of 6, and took up stringed instruments beginning with the fretless banjo his father built for him when he was 11. Watson attended the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, beginning in 1933. It was in Raleigh that he first heard jazz guitar, including a chance to hear Django Reinhardt. Watson began to develop his own style on guitar, and in about 1940 he began playing guitar for tips in Lenoir, NC. From there he was encouraged to enter amateur shows and folk-music festivals. He married in 1947 and with two children to support, he became a piano tuner until 1953, when he was hired to play guitar in a western swing band, Jack Williams and the Country Gentlemen.

Watson gained a national reputation after appearing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and 1964. He was paired with Bill Monroe for some shows, and recordings of those shows were immediate bootleg treasures (they were later released by Smithsonian Folkways). At many other shows over the years, Watson's son Merle (1949-1985) accompanied him--as driver between shows, and on guitar on stage. Since 1988, Doc Watson has hosted "Merlefest," a huge traditional music festival held every April at Wilkes Community College. Watson and his wife live in Deep Gap, NC.

Mark Watson's birthday 2007-style--checkout some good YouTube videos of his performances: Tennessee Stud (played with Ricky Skaggs, Earl Scruggs, and others), Down in the Valley (with Skaggs and Alison Krauss), or Make me a Pallet on the Floor (apparently from Japanese TV, given the captions). (There are loads of others, but these have the best audio.)


Ruth said...

I really enjoy these bios that you put up. ( thanks for the information about the videos - love this kind of music)!

Penny L. Richards said...

Revisiting this post tonight, on the news of Watson's passing--none of the video links are still working five years on, so here are some new links:
Black Mountain Rag:
Tennessee Stud:
House of the Rising Sun (audio only):