Doc Watson

Doc Watson passed away last month, and this piece is now pretty embarrassingly late in coming. We were traveling for a couple of weeks, playing shows up the west coast, and busy with all the full-day activities that that entails – the long walks with old friends, the gas station mealtime deliberations – and we’ve been trying to make sense of re-entry in the few days we’ve been back in Brooklyn. But the fact is that the musician who I really think has meant more to me than any other is now done making music for us, and I hope that’s as good reason as one needs to crank back up a long-silent blogophone.

I was probably 15 when my aunt and uncle gave me a dubbed cassette of Doc Watson’s Home Again. It came with the disclaimer that it “may take some getting used to”, but having heard similar warnings before for such curiosities as lobsters and Bob Dylan, I only took that as an invitation – or dare – to really dig in. And I did. I’m not sure how to break down what I heard, or if that would even be interesting or relevant to a eulogy of sorts, but the music absolutely took hold of me. The gothic ballads, the old American hymns, the straight nonsense children’s songs were all sung in clear strains that, after many repeated listenings, felt nearly familial to my ears. And the quick, strong flatpicking guitar for which he was famous (hell, which he’s been credited for basically founding in country and folk music) even fit comfortably, though oddly, next to the likes of Jimmy Page, or Randy Rhoads, or any number of other guitarists whose speedy playing was the object of my early teen idolatry.

But the main thing I found in this music was something that is much harder to identify or break down – it became “mine” in that way that any semi-conscious teenager is looking for things to hold on to, things by which to mark themselves. I was certainly not fresh on Doc’s trail, with twenty five years of Americana superstardom separating Doc’s first recordings and my discovery of them, but no-one in my high school had ever heard of him that I could tell, and this was worth a lot. Doc’s delivery was earnest, but it was unflinchingly matter-of-fact, a heaven-sent antidote to the 60’s and 70’s folk-revival sweetness that formed the bulk of most campfire guitarists’ diet. This directness was what made the music important to me, what held me to him, and made him someone worth fighting that “no, you really should check this out” fight with my metal, punk, or folky comrades.

So a kid, like piles of kids before him, found this music groundbreaking or original or curious enough to bring to show-and-tell. That’s a real mark of distinction, knowing how seriously kids take these things. More important to me now, though, is the groove that has been worn in my adult self by the number of times this music has played over the years. It feels like home, however trite that sounds. Doc Watson’s North Carolina via Greenwich Village America became the America that I hear in song, and his singing and guitar playing absolutely set the foundation for my approach to the same. He’s really just a lot of what I know.

Here’s a song, from Home Again, that I used to sing to Hazel every single night before bed, until she got old and squirmy enough that she’d protest its length. Now we sneak in a stanza or two of “Down in the valley to pray”, off the same album, before we shut the door on our way out.

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