Given name, Arthel Lane Watson; born March 2, 1923, in Deep Gap, N.C.; son of General Dixon (a farmer) and Annie (Greer) Watson; married Rosa Lee Carlton, ca. 1946; children: Merle (deceased), Nancy. Education: Attended Raleigh School for the Blind. Addresses: Folklore, 1671 Appian Way, Santa Monica, CA 90401.
Doc Watson, a native of the North Carolina mountains, has been belatedly recognized as one of the nation's best folk artists. Watson plays and sings traditional Appalachian string music--the sort of songs heard on rural front porches before radio began to homogenize American tastes. Blind since early childhood, Watson taught himself to pick guitar and banjo by listening to old recordings; his own award-winning albums contain numerous tunes he listened to on his mother's knee. People magazine contributor Roger Wolmuth suggests that for Watson, music "would become the means of passage from a life of darkness into one made rich and bright by his artistry." Wolmuth continues: "Watson's blizzard-quick flat picking and warm, mountain-clear baritone have ... established the soft-spoken Blue Ridge Mountain native as one of America's premier acoustic musicians."
Watson was pulled from the obscurity of his Blue Ridge birthplace by a resurgent interest in traditional folk music. He was almost forty when a recording he made for the Smithsonian Institution led to invitations to such prestigious concert sites as the Newport Folk Festival, Carnegie Hall, and even the White House. Between 1960 and 1987 Watson undertook a full schedule of touring and studio work, often accompanied by his son Merle, who died in 1985. Wolmuth states that Watson's records "are often capsule courses in American music history. Hoedown dance tunes, gospel hymns, even '50s rockabilly hits seem part of a cultural continuum when translated through his guitar.... To a mostly Northern audience more familiar with such folkie pretenders as the Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four, [Watson and his family] represented old-time music at its authentic best. Homespun and unpretentious, they were the embodiment of the family string band that had been a Southern tradition for generations."
Born Arthel Lane Watson in Deep Gap, North Carolina, Doc grew up in a large farming family of very modest means. His parents and eight siblings were crowded into a three-room house that admitted snow and rain through cracks in the siding. Watson was not blind from birth; he lost his sight as a young child through an undiagnosed illness. Growing up disabled, Watson drew solace from music. Both of his parents loved to sing, and his father could play several instruments. When Watson was eleven his father made him a banjo, using the skin of a recently-deceased cat. Watson learned to play by listening to his father and to old recordings by the Carter Family and Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers. After briefly attending the Raleigh School for the Blind (he dropped out at fourteen), Watson went to work with his father, cutting wood with a cross-saw. He earned enough to buy his first commercially-made instrument, a Sears-Roebuck guitar.
Watson made his performing debut at a fiddlers' convention in Boone, North Carolina. He was seventeen. The following year he began to play regularly on a radio broadcast from Lenoir, North Carolina. With professional musicianship in mind, he gave up his acoustic guitar and old mountain songs for an electric guitar and a repertory of standard country hits; soon he was a local favorite as a member of the Jack Williams Band. Watson played with the Williams group throughout the 1950s, supplementing his income by tuning pianos. Thus he was more or less a fixture in his mountain community when Ralph Rinzler visited in 1960.
Rinzler, a folk and bluegrass enthusiast, was the assistant secretary at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He had travelled south to record banjo player Clarence Ashley. Ashley introduced Rinzler to Watson, who somewhat grudgingly picked up his old acoustic guitar and sang some traditional tunes. Rinzler made a recording of Watson and his family, brought it north, and released it the same year. "Within months," writes Wolmuth, "the guitarist would be on tour, a local secret no more." By 1963 Watson found himself performing before 13,000 fans at the Newport Folk Festival--he both benefitted by and contributed to the new wave of interest in folk among educated Northern audiences.
In 1964 Watson's son Merle joined him on the road and in the studio. The two were inseparable, and Merle's attentive care allowed Watson to travel to such exotic locales as Japan, Europe, and Africa. When Merle died in a tractor accident in 1985, the elder Watson--grief-stricken and bereft of an indispensable companion--began to restrict his concert appearances. Today Watson is in semi-retirement on his property in Deep Gap. He has never produced a so-called "hit" album, but his numerous recordings on folk labels have brought him relative prosperity. To quote a contributor to the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Watson "is now a revered figure among old and young alike, drawing wild receptions quite out of keeping with his down-home musical style."
Although Watson has played at bluegrass festivals and even has opened for Bill Monroe, his music is not to be confused with bluegrass. Many of Watson's songs, and his picking style as well, predate the advent of bluegrass--his is the sound of the old country string band, his songs the ballads of the hill country. His best-known tunes such as "Tom Dooley," "Shady Grove," "Darlin' Cory," "Ground Hog," and "Willie Moore" date to far simpler times in the last century. Watson's resurrection of these earthy folk works form "an antidote to a pop business ... backsliding into blandness," according to the reviewer in the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music. Watson told People that, had he kept his sight, he might have become a carpenter or an electrician. "I sure wouldn't have gone on the road with the guitar," he said. "But a man's got to do what he can do. When they let you in this world, they hand you a little box. It's invisible, of course, and it's got a few talents in it. And if somethin' happens that you can't lean on one, why, you got two or three more you can get hold of." Watson's particular "talent box" produced a musician who has helped to retain, re-establish, and revitalize a vibrant form of American expression--the old-time country sound.
by Anne Janette Johnson
Doc Watson's Career
Singer, guitarist, banjo player, 1933--. Made first appearance at a fiddlers' convention, Boone, N.C., 1940; played on the radio in Lenoir, N.C., 1941. Recording artist, 1960--. Has given concert performances in America, Europe, Africa, and Japan. Appeared at Newport Folk Festival, 1963, and Carnegie Hall, 1985; invited to play special concert at the White House, 1980. Performed music for film "Places in the Heart."
Doc Watson's Awards
Recipient of four Grammy Awards, including 1986, for best traditional folk album.
- Folk City Folkways.
- The Watson Family, Volume I Folkways.
- The Watson Family, Volume II Folkways.
- Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's, Volume I Folkways.
- Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's, Volume II Folkways.
- Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson at Folk City Folkways.
- Doc Watson Vanguard, 1964.
- Elementary Vanguard.
- The Essential Doc Watson Vanguard.
- Home Again Vanguard.
- Old Timey Music Vanguard.
- Doc Watson in Nashville Vanguard.
- Doc Watson on Stage Vanguard.
- Southbound Vanguard.
- Doc Watson and the Boys United Artists.
- Memories United Artists.
- The Watson Family Tradition Rounder.
- Riding the Midnight Train Sugar Hill, 1986.
- Portrait Sugar Hill, 1987.
- With Merle Watson
- Doc Watson and Son Vanguard.
- Then and Now Poppy.
- Two Days in November Poppy.
- Red Rocking Chair Flying Fish.
- Guitar Album Flying Fish.
- Pickin' the Blues Flying Fish, 1985.
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony Books, 1977.
- Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
- Stambler, Irwin and Grelun Landon, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin's, 1969.
- People, August 10, 1987.