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Doc Watson, a legend in his own time

By Jack Swift

Much has been written about Doc Watson both during his prolific lifetime and following his death Tuesday, May 29, 2012. While I may not write about him as eloquently and professionally as some, I want to add some of my thoughts to what has been written recently. I never knew Doc well but I talked with him briefly at the old Cove Creek High School several years ago and my conversation with him revealed to me that he was indeed an outstanding person.
One of my lasting impressions of him was his humility. I was aware of some of his fame and many of the accolades he had received. He was a man who had ascended to the top echelon of flat-picking type guitar music. Later in his career he also incorporated the finger-pick style of guitar playing in his performances. He was exceptionally good at that mode as well. He was a man who excelled in several genres of music including folk, blues and bluegrass. He had a mellow baritone voice that was very entertaining. Yet he was kind and considerate, answering my questions in depth and making me feel comfortable asking them.
I was interested in his early life before he became famous. I asked him what was the first song he learned to play on the guitar. He said it was “When the Roses Bloom Again in Dixie Land.” One morning his father, whose name was General Watson, promised to buy him a guitar if he would learn to play one song by the time he came in from work. Doc did just that. Doc’s father followed through on his promise and purchased a $12 Stella guitar for Doc and the rest is history.
In his early years, Doc played for money on the streets of Boone and Lenoir, North Carolina. Later he played with a local band. It was in the folk music revival of the 1960s that Doc ventured out from his home in Deep Gap, North Carolina to play in college auditoriums and other venues, including Carnegie Hall and the Newport Folk Festival.
Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson was born March 3, 1923 near Deep Gap. He contracted an eye infection by the time he was one year old and lost his sight. Being blind was not an impediment to his lightning fast picking as every note was played to perfection.
I was never so impressed as when I first heard him play in concert in Boone several years ago. I just couldn’t understand how anyone could play and sing so impressively. I was thoroughly delighted at his performance that night.
Doc died at the age of 89 at Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem following surgery a few days earlier. His legacy is that he entertained and delighted audiences in many locations with a guitar playing style that was unique and highly entertaining. While I didn’t know Doc well, along with his guitar virtuosity, I will always remember the easy manner and humble spirit he conveyed to me that day at the old Cove Creek High School.