SFC Spotlight: Doc Watson

– Please welcome our summer student guest writer, Emma Lo. Emma will be writing about her experiences exploring the SFC this summer. Her first post remembers North Carolina’s beloved Doc Watson.  A symposium and concert celebrating Watson’s life and music will take place at the NC Museum of Art on Saturday, June 30. Details are on the NCMA website. –

Legendary guitarist Doc Watson, born in Deep Gap, North Carolina, passed away at age 89 on May 28th, 2012, in Winston-Salem, NC. Watson is often described as embodying the sound of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In addition to his champion flatpicking guitar skills, Watson mastered the banjo, mandolin, and boasted a warm, honest voice to complement his picking. Although Doc Watson acquired fame through his performances in clubs and universities in Greenwich Village, Los Angeles, and Rhode Island, North Carolina stayed at the heart of his music. He began his musical career as a regular performer on a radio show in Lenoir, NC, playing traditional music of Appalachia, and after the loss of his son Merle in 1985, he cofounded the successful traditional arts festival, Merlefest, in Wilkesboro.

Watson’s most notable contribution to the folk guitar style was his adaptation of fiddle solos for flatpicking guitar. He was known for being a humble, introverted man who requested that the phrase “Doc Watson: Just One of the People,” be engraved beneath his likeness in sculpture in downtown Boone, N.C. Nevertheless, he brought the guitar to center stage by utilizing the guitar as a melody instrument. Watson played a unique fusion of musical styles that included a broad spectrum of Appalachian folk, old-time, bluegrass, and blues. On Merlefest’s website Watson titles this mixture “traditional plus.” According to Watson, “When Merle and I started out we called our music `traditional plus,’ meaning the traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play.”

For his first public performance, in 1941, 18-year-old Doc Watson played the song “Precious Jewel” at the Boone Fiddler’s Convention. Appalachian State’s Digital Collections contains a field recording of this performance (Watson’s bit begins at 1:36).

After a stint playing in various country bands for square dances, Watson joined a folk band headlined by Clarence “Tom” Ashley, Clint Howard, and Fred Price.

Along with the band, Watson was discovered by musician and folk music promoter Ralph Rinzler and record collector Eugene Earle.  Earle and Rinzler made the initial recordings that officially introduced Watson into the folk music industry in 1961 with the recording, Old-Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s, one of many live recordings in Watson’s wonderful catalog. Another live recording from 1963 documents Watson’s first true solo concert at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village and was later released as an album titled Doc Watson at Gerde’s Folk City Live.  This CD, call no. CD-1604, is available at the Southern Folklife Collection. Listen here for a clip that captures the intimacy Doc shares with his audience as he plays “The House Carpenter,” a song he learned from his father.

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Many more recordings and photographs of Watson are housed at UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection and can be located using the UNC Library online catalog.