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.

A Stack o’ “Stack O’Lee”

Well, it seems there really was a Stetson hat.  And one cold night in 1895, William “Billy” Lyons and Lee Shelton (otherwise known as “Stack Lee”) fought over that hat in what would become one of the most infamous altercations in folk history.  You know which one of them walked away, because Mississippi John Hurt, Ma Rainey, Champion Jack Dupree, Woody Guthrie, The Fruit Jar Guzzlers, Furry Lewis, and countless others immortalized the story in song.

The Southern Folklife Collection has recordings of the grim tale by at least 30 different musicians; there’s a version for every taste.  In the mood for a little Hawaiian guitar? Sol Hoopii recorded an instrumental version in 1926:

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(Clip from SFC FC-4006, Master of the Hawaiian Guitar)

Want something with a little more blues flavor? Try Ma Rainey’s iconic 1925 telling of the tale:

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(clip from SFC CD-3845, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)

Mississippi John Hurt got in on the act in 1928, and brought the song to live audiences throughout the country in the 1960s:

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(clip from SFC CD-4025, Before The Blues: The Early American Black Music Scene)

Maybe that’s where Doc Watson heard it – he recorded his own old-timey version in 1967:

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(clip from SFC FC-14460, Ballads From Deep Gap)

Many more versions can be found in the Southern Folklife Collection’s online catalog, and you can read more about the true story in Cecil Brown’s Stagolee Shot Billy.

New Addition: The David Holt Collection

HoltThe SFC is proud to announce our latest addition: The David Holt Collection, containing material relating to the career of musician, storyteller, and historian of Appalachian music David Holt. The collection includes correspondence, photographs, and press clippings documenting four decades of Holt’s performing career, as well as audio-visual material relating to the many television and radio shows he has hosted since the 1980s, including TNN’s Fire on the Mountain and American Music Shop, Public Radio’s Riverwalk Jazz, and UNC-TV’s long-running Folkways program.

The collection also contains documentation relating to Holt and Doc Watson’s 2002 Grammy award winning album of performance and conversation, Legacy.

Listen below to clips from the Legacy album (SFC CD-7936), wherein the old friends discuss the proper term for a guitar-banjo hybrid instrument and Holt plays his arrangement of “Don’t Get Weary”:

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