Self-Taught Folk Music Icon Doc Watson Dies At 89

Doc Watson was considered one of America's greatest musicians — as good a singer as he was a guitarist. Blind from the age of one, Watson taught himself to play primarily by listening to the records in his father's collection and to the other musicians in his North Carolina mountain community.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A treasure of American folk music has died. Doc Watson passed away yesterday in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, at the age of 89. He was born in Deep Gap, North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in a three-room house that he shared with eight brothers and sisters.

During a long and productive career, he revolutionized not just how people play guitar, but how people around the world think about mountain music. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Doc Watson went blind when he was only about 1 year old, from an untreated eye infection. He told WHYY's FRESH AIR, his dad made him a banjo when he turned 11.

DOC WATSON: One day, he brought it to me and put it in my hands and said, son, I want you to learn to play this thing real well. Some of these days we'll get you a better one, he said; might help you get through the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GEORGIA BUCK")

WATSON: (Singing) My name is Georgia Buck, never had no luck. Always been treated this way, boys, always been treated this way.

ULABY: Doc Watson's parents made sure young Arthel Lane Watson had the tools he needed to face life without sight or money. His dad traded a week's worth of pay at the sawmill for a hand-cranked phonograph that came with 50 records - including country, blues and jazz. Watson incorporated those sounds into the Appalachian music surrounding him.

He worked on his father's farm cutting trees, and saved up enough to buy a mail-order guitar. He played on street corners and on the radio and in the 1950s, started touring with a square dance band that lacked a fiddler. So Watson figured out how to play those parts on his guitar.

WATSON: One of the first things I learned to play successfully that was a fiddle tune was "Black Mountain Rag."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK MOUNTAIN RAG")

DAVID HOLT: Doc never played anything the same way once.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ULABY: That's musician David Holt, who played with Watson for decades.

HOLT: There was just something about his rhythm that was just so driving and so - I don't know, it just - you could not, not tap your toe. You just had to.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: Holt says you could hear the determination of a blind, self-defined man in every note Doc Watson played.

HOLT: Doc was fierce, but not fierce in a bad way. Just fierce in a determined way. So that came out in his music. I wish I had a guitar here; I could play an example. But he learned a tune from Merle Travis, called "My Blue Bell." And Merle Travis plays it really, just sort of beautifully and gently.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "MY BLUE BELL")

HOLT: And then if you hear Doc's version, it's just very driving and, you know, he's just punching the notes. And that's the way Doc was - very intelligent, very intense.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "BLUE BELL")

ULABY: Doc Watson was as good a singer as he was a guitar player. Just listen to how he inhabits his songs' stories and their characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GROUND HOG")

WATSON: (Singing) Now John come home all in wonder, he rattled at the door just like thunder. Who is that? Mr. Henley cried. 'Tis my husband - you must hide.

ULABY: That song was recorded in Doc Watson's living room in 1960, by Ralph Rinzler. He was a Smithsonian folklorist who stumbled on Watson while looking for another musician. As Watson told NPR in 2002, Rinzler persuaded him to hit the folk circuit blossoming around the country at the time.

WATSON: Well, I was skeptical. I said: Ralph, people ain't going to sit and listen to me play this old-time stuff. Yeah, they will, too, he said. Now, you've got something to offer in the way of entertainment and the folk revival; we want get you out there and get you heard, so...

Oh, but you wouldn't believe the lonesome trips I did on that old, big Trailways bus, all the way to New York - by myself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ULABY: Within a few years, Watson was joined by his son, Merle, who eventually became an accomplished guitarist, too. But Merle died in a tragic tractor accident in 1985. Watson, devastated, almost gave up performing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND BY ME")

WATSON: (Singing) When the storms of life are raging, stand by me. When the storms of life are raging, stand by me. When the world...

ULABY: Perhaps Doc Watson's greatest contribution was fusing all of his influences in a way that gave audiences around the world access to the culture of the mountains of western North Carolina.

Again, David Holt.

HOLT: He's one of the few people that could take an old song - a really old song - and make it sound new to a modern audience; or take a new song and make it sound old.

ULABY: Because some things aren't about old or new: hurting, keeping on, the rush of faith, lies, little pleasures. Doc Watson's picking and singing pulled it out.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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