Doc Watson leaves us with wonderful music

Doc Watson died last week at the age of 89 and I quietly mourned his passing, as will many around the world.  He was the single most important influence on my playing.  I can still recall the first time I heard him.  It was a recording of several live performances at the Newport Folk Festival and his speed, accuracy and exhilarating musicality was a revelation.  I went in search of everything I could find of him on vinyl and discovered a musician who seemed to embody almost the entire history of American traditional music – folk, bluegrass, country, the blues, rockabilly, even the popular music of his youth.  Yet, for all the diversity of his repertoire he was never less than utterly convincing.

If you have never heard him try and find his first two or three solo albums.  Recorded for the Vanguard label back in the 60s they are among the most important albums of that remarkable decade.  I doubt it would be an exaggeration to say that there is not a virtuoso acoustic guitarist alive today who hasn’t been profoundly influenced, either directly or indirectly, by the playing of Doc Watson.  He was that important.  And yet it is said of him that for all the accolades he gathered during his long life he remained a humble, engaging man.

I sat for hours beside the turntable in my parents house, dropping the needle on to the vinyl, slowing down the disc to try and work out what he was doing.  I was in awe of his ability to translate traditional fiddle tunes to his acoustic guitar and still retain the speed and accuracy of the best fiddle players.  I tried to learn several of them but never quite mastered the technique – at least not enough to feel comfortable performing them on stage.

His finger picking style intrigued me when I discovered that he used only his thumb and first finger.  To this day I still occasionally drop Deep River Blues into my concert sets – I have been playing it ever since I first learned it back in the late 60s.  Now when I do it will have a slightly different introduction.  I will honour his passing and quietly thank him for his inspirational music.

RIP Doc.

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2 Responses to Doc Watson leaves us with wonderful music

  1. Nigel Foote says:

    Hello Mike
    It was your playing of Doc Watson’s ‘Deep River Blues’, at PACT Folk in the late 60s, that made me catch a bus/train/bus from Paddington to your place in West Pennant Hills for guitar lessons ($3.50 for a 1/2 hour lesson back then). I asked you if you would teach me the tune and you said, “You better play me something first”. So I played you a simple accompaniment to East Virginia, after which you told me that I wasn’t ready for ‘Deep River Blues’. When I asked you how long it might be, you said – with a smile – “Maybe ten years.” So you taught me some simpler tunes to build my finger-picking foundation.

    You were right, I wasn’t ready, but that didn’t stop me trying to learn ‘Deep River Blues’. I slaved over that tune in my candle shop in Paddo until my fingers tingled, went numb and then bled. Obsessive streak? You bet! The frustrating thing was that I could ALMOST play the tune… but in the end I got so fed up with it that I actually SOLD MY GUITAR! (Maton FG100) to a mate of mine who moved to Byron Bay.

    I suffered ‘guitar withdrawal’ for about a month, before buying a plywood-topped Takamine from Harry Landis in Park Street, and I was back in the shop trying to play ‘Deep River Blues’ once again. I finally got it – but it took me five years… and a guitar.

    Now, when a new student asks me to teach them an advanced tune that they’ve heard me perform, I say, “Well, you better play me something first”… I’m sure Doc would have a chuckle. I was sad to hear of the death of Doc Watson, and will keep teaching his ‘Deep River Blues’… to those who are ready for it!

    Thanks for the lessons Mike – you saved me from having to get a real job.

    Always loved your music

    Nigel Foote

    • admin says:

      Thanks Nigel. The inspiration we all get from those with whom we make contact in our lives has a long lineage. I know Doc acknowledged his influences just as warmly as you and I do ours. For me it is a blessing that I have been able, in some small way, to absorb and pass on the impact he had on me as a young guitarist. I guess the real measure of the contribution we might make to the music of future generations is what we might bring to those influences, how successfully we might add to them and grow them. I hope I have been able to do so. If there is a little evidence to be found for such ambition it lies in a note like yours. Thank you. It is that confirmation that has sustained me and encouraged me to devote this phase of my life to making music fulltime.

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