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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

A treasure of American folk music has died: Doc Watson was 89. He'd been in critical condition in a North Carolina hospital after undergoing colon surgery last week. Watson was born in Deep Gap, North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. 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 with the skin of an old dead cat 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. One of these days, we'll get you a better one. And he said, might help you get through the world.


WATSON: (Singing) My name is Georgie Buck, never had no luck. Always been treated this-a way, boys. Always been treated this-a 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 hymn was "Black Mountain Rag."


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


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 - just you could not not tap your toe. You just had to.


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 you an example. But he learned a tune from Merle Travis called "My Bluebell." And Merle Travis plays it really just sort of beautifully and gently.


HOLT: And then as 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.


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


WATSON: (Singing) Now, John come home all in a wonder. He rattled at the door just like thunder. Who is that, Mr. Hendley cried. It is my husband. You must hide.

ULABY: That song was recorded in Doc Watson's living room in 1960 by Ralph Rinzler. He's 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, (unintelligible) 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 in the folk revival. We want to get you out there and get you heard so - oh, you wouldn't believe the lonesome trips I did on that old big Trailways bus all the way to New York by myself.


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

WATSON: The night before his funeral, I dreamed that I was in a desert-like place, so hot that I couldn't breathe. And it was like quicksand. It was up to my waist, and I couldn't move. And that big, old strong hand come back and grabbed my hand and said, come on, Dad. You can make it. And he got me out of whatever kind of a thing I was in out to where it was cool. It was sunshine, but it was cool. And I waked up and I thanked the Lord that he sent him. I said, I guess I better provide for my family, son.

ULABY: Doc Watson continued performing and toured for more than three decades.


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

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 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, lives, little pleasures. Doc Watson's picking and singing pulled it out. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


BLOCK: Doc Watson died today in North Carolina at age 89.

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