Doc Watson: An Old-Time Folk Musician With Soul In 1988, the legendary flatpicker and singer of traditional folk tunes spoke to Terry Gross about starting his musical career, touring with his son Merle and playing banjo during the folk revival of the late 1950s and '60s.

Doc Watson: An Old-Time Folk Musician With Soul

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Our first guest today, continuing our week-long celebration of country music, is Doc Watson, one of America's most revered folk musicians. For much of his career he performed and toured with his son Merle. Merle died in 1985 in a farm accident, just days before Frets magazine named him Finger-Picking Guitarist of the Years in folk, blues or country music.

An annual concert in North Carolina honoring Merle, called MerleFest, wrapped up a few weeks ago. We'll listen to Terry's 1988 interview with Doc and hear some songs recorded in 1989 in our studio. Let's begin with an excerpt from that FRESH AIR concert with Doc Watson and his long-time duets partner, guitarist Jack Lawrence.


I want to welcome both of you to FRESH AIR, and Doc Watson, can I ask you to introduce the first song?

Mr. DOC WATSON (Musician): Thank you, Terry. I think we'll do one that Merle and I, my son Merle and I, learned from John Hurt(ph), a good old tune called "Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor."

(Soundbite of song, "Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor")

Mr. WATSON: (Singing) Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, won't you make it down, make it soft and low, and then maybe my good gal, she won't know.

I'm goin' up the country through that sleet and snow, goin' up the country through that sleet and snow. Yes, I'm goin' up the country through that sleet and snow, ain't no telling just how far I'll go.

I get my breakfast here and my dinner in Tennessee, get breakfast here and my dinner in Tennessee. Gonna get my breakfast here, my dinner in Tennessee, told you I's a-commin', so you'd better look for me.

Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, won't you make it down, make it soft and low, and then maybe my good gal, she won't know.

What do you think about it, Jack? Hey, I like that notion right there.

Well, you know that I can't lay down on your bed. Now, honey, I can't lay down on your bed. No, baby, I can't lay down 'cross your pretty bed 'cause my good woman, she might kill me dead.

And don't you let my good gal catch you here. Hey, don't you let my good gal catch you here. If you do, she may shoot you, she might cut and stuff you too, ain't no tellin' what that gal might do.

Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, won't you make it down, make it soft and low. And then maybe my good gal, she won't know.

The way I've been sleepin', my back and shoulder's tired. The way I've been sleepin', my back and shoulder's tired. Yeah, the way I've been sleepin', my back and shoulder's tired. I think I'll turn, try sleepin' on my side.

Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, won't you make it down, make it soft and low. And then maybe my good gal, she won't know.

Let's play some country counterpoint, son.

Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, make it over, (unintelligible) behind that door. Make it where your good man will never go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATSON: Alright.

BIANCULLI: Doc Watson, with guitarist Jack Lawrence in our studio in 1989.

Watson was born in Deep Gap, North Carolina, and went blind after an eye infection around his first birthday. His father was a musician, although not a professional performer, but he introduced Doc to playing by making him his first banjo, as Doc Watson told Terry in 1988.

Mr. WATSON: That was the summer of 1934. He made my first little stringed instrument. I had a harmonica before that. But dad showed me a few of the old-time frailing or clawhammer banjo style tunes and 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. And some of these days we'll get you a better one. He said it might help you get through the world.

GROSS: And what was it like for you the first time you got the banjo into your hands? What did you do with it?

Mr. WATSON: I remember how I felt, but I don't remember hardly what it was like learning the first tunes. It was kind of hard for dad to show me because I couldn't see his hands.

But he finally got across to me how to do the licks on the banjo and how to note the thing. And I could figure out where the notes were because it was fretless. And you could slide along with your fingers and finally you'd come to the right one, you know, and I found out how to get there without missing them.

GROSS: So you were really pretty self-taught.

Mr. WATSON: For the most part, yes, I was. The guitar, absolutely, I was self-taught.

GROSS: How did you get your first guitar?

Mr. WATSON: One spring my dad told my youngest brother and I, boys, if you'll cut all those dead chestnut - small dead chestnuts down along the road and around the edge of the field there, you can sell it for pulpwood to the tannery.

And we went at it, and we cut a couple of big truckloads. And it didn't make us a mint of money, but it made me enough to buy me a good little guitar from - well, I thought it was good at the time - from Sears Roebuck. And my younger brother ordered him a suit of clothes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, considering that your early instruments were homemade banjos and a mail-order guitar, did you ever get really obsessed with the quality of instruments that you were playing?

Some musicians just play what they have, and others get really obsessed with having instruments that are just right for them or custom made for them.

Mr. WATSON: I was fairly contented with what I had. I never had had my hands on a good guitar back in those days and didn't for years. The first good guitar that I got hold of, that I would've considered much better than my mail-order box was a Martin guitar that Richard Green(ph) used to have a little music store under his - he had a boarding house or an inn there in Boone.

And I went in there one day with that little mail-order thing and he said: Why don't you let me help you get your good guitar? And I said, gosh, it cost too much. And he said: I'll tell you what I can do. I can get you a good Martin D-18 that will be a price that you can afford, and I'll take the payments down to five dollars a month.

And I couldn't beat that. I faded off quicker than that, but I couldn't beat that with a stick. And at that time I was playing at the little fruit stand and a couple of - a little bean market they had in Boone and making me a few shekels on a Saturday, having a good time a-pickin', and I paid for the guitar that summer.

He got me that thing at his cost, and it cost 90 bucks. Oh lord, I was proud of that guitar. But in all truth, compared to my guitar now, it was fretting a fence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATSON: It was really hard to play.

GROSS: I guess it's almost good, in a way, to get used to something like that because it makes it seem so much easier when you get a good guitar.

Mr. WATSON: Oh, it really does, and when I got into the folk revival in the '60s, I ran into people who could set a guitar action up to where you could play it, and I came onto another Martin along about that time, played a Gibson first on the road, borrowed. Then I came into another Martin, and the action was brought down to where you could play it.

GROSS: My guest is Doc Watson. You know, I'm glad you brought up the folk revival. It was really during the folk revival that you started to become nationally known. I think you'd been playing dances and, you know, playing in your area.

Mr. WATSON: I played rockabilly music through the '50s, and I played an electric guitar, a Les Paul.

GROSS: Well, see, this really interests me. You were playing rockabilly on an electric guitar.

Mr. WATSON: Uh-huh. Rockabilly and old pop standards with an old boy named Jack Williams(ph). Jack had a little group together, and when he heard me pick, he said, buddy, I want you to pick with me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, I want to play something that was recorded by Ralph Rinzler. I mean, Ralph Rinzler recorded it. You were performing it.

Mr. WATSON: In my living room. In my living room, yeah.

GROSS: Okay, so from the early 1960s, this is my guest, Doc Watson.

(Soundbite of song, "Every Day Dirt")

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

Then John sat down by the fireside weeping, and up the chimney he got to peeping. There he saw the poor old soul sittin' a-straddle of the pot-rack pole.

Then John built on a rousing fire just to suit his own desire. His wife called out with a free good will: Don't do that, for the man you'll kill.

Then John reached up and down he fetched him like a 'coon when a dog had catched him. He blacked his eyes and then he did better: He kicked him out right on his setter.

Then his wife, she crawled in under the bed, and he pulled her out by the hair of the head. And when I'm gone, remember then: He kicked her where the (unintelligible) had been.

Now, the law came down, and John went up. He didn't have the chance of a yellow pup. They sent him down to the old chain gang for beating his wife, the dear little thing.

Well, John didn't worry, John didn't cry, but when he got back home, he socked her in the eye. They took him right back to the old town jail, but wife got lonesome and she paid his bail.

Then the judge sent him back and made him work so hard, he longed to be home in his own front yard. They kept him there and wouldn't turn him loose. I could tell more about it but there ain't no use.

GROSS: Once you went on the road during the folk revival, now, you weren't used to traveling. There must have been a lot you had to learn how to do. Did you have a business manager to help you out with bookings and...

Mr. WATSON: Ralph Renzler did the bookings between he and Manny Greenhill(ph) of Folklore Productions. But Ralph traveled a lot with me, and if he didn't, when I would go to New York to work in the city, I came by Trailways bus. Someone would always meet me at the Port Authority and take me over to Ralph's apartment.

I worked - lots of times I'd work at Gerde's Folk City a week or two weeks at a time, doing either opening act or just playing the job straight there.

It was scary. I was as green as a green apple as far as the city, country boy...

GROSS: Oh, yeah, sure.

Mr. WATSON: As the old-timers used to say, a hayseed for sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, I think there's always clubs who - maybe not many, but there's always some clubs willing to take advantage of a performer. And I would guess that someone who was blind was a more likely target if they didn't have people who were watching out for them. Did you ever have any problems with that?

Mr. WATSON: I sure was glad when my son Merle started on the road with me because if we went to a place and they didn't treat me too good, Dad, we won't come back here no more. And that was the end of it.

You know, we didn't hit too many places that they weren't really decent to us. But once in a great while there - of course I won't call any name because we're on nationwide radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WATSON: But we were in a few places where they treated you like pieces of used equipment. And that was the end of playing there. We just didn't do it again. That's the best thing you can do, you know, is not tolerate that, just move away.

GROSS: You mentioned your son Merle. Did you teach him how to play guitar?

Mr. WATSON: No, Merle didn't show any interest in the guitar until he was 15. I was on my first concert tour, solo concert tour, that spring, and about mid-ways of it Ralph called me and said, Doc, I've got some good news. And I said, well, lay it on me.

And he said: Merle has started playing the guitar. His mother, Rosalee, started him on the guitar. She taught him his first chords and showed him how to play them and a little bit about timing, and he just took it and went with it.

And we met John Hurt for the first time that same summer we went to the Berkeley Folk Festival. And Merle played backup guitar for me. He'd only been playing about three months. And he played backup guitar on the stage, and we met - when we met John Hurt, Merle was enthralled by John's finger style on the guitar, and he took that and added a few little notions(ph) of his own, and that's where Merle's picking style, finger style came from.

GROSS: So he never felt that he had to work hard to differentiate his style from your style?

Mr. WATSON: Merle, he - once in a while he'd ask me for some pointers on a melody to a song or something. But Merle played his very own thing on the guitar. I don't think he even ever asked me how to hold the pick. He probably looked at the way I held it.

But I never really sat down and taught him how you get this note or that note. I just played a song and sang it, and he jumped in there and learned the lead to it.

GROSS: When your son Merle died, was it hard for you to go back on the road afterwards?

Mr. WATSON: If you'll pardon a little intimacy here, I'll tell you something that happened, or I wouldn't have.

Between the time he was killed and his funeral, I dreamed I was in a dark desert, and it was so hot, you couldn't breathe. And the sand was pulling me down like if you were in quicksand. And that big, strong hand reached back and said, come on, dad, you can make it. And he brought me, led me out to where it was cool. There was a cool - sunny, but there was a cool breeze.

And I waked up, and I thought, well, I'll try. And I took up the last job on that particular tour that we'd canceled. And my friend Jack Lawrence had been working some while Merle was off the road with us, for quite a while, and Jack stayed on as the other guitarist.

And I'm kind of glad I did. If I had stayed off the road a month, I never would've come back. It was so hard, you - well, no, you couldn't know, Terry, but it was really hard to go back out there without him.

GROSS: I guess that dream kind of gave you permission, in a way, to do it.

Mr. WATSON: I believe it was God-sent. I think the dream was.

BIANCULLI: Doc Watson, speaking to Terry Gross in 1988. Watson is now 87 years old and still performs occasionally. We'll conclude this half-hour by returning to the 1989 FRESH AIR studio concert performance by Doc Watson, featuring his long-time duets partner, guitarist Jack Lawrence. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

Mr. WATSON: Here's a little tune about an old boy that - excuse me -that decided he's going to leave home and learn to travel. And he found a pretty little girl and got married and got two for the price of one. And I'll let the song tell you the rest of the tale. It's called "Give Me Back My 15 Cents."

(Soundbite of song, "Give Me Back My 15 Cents")

Mr. WATSON: (Singing) I left my home in Tennessee, and I thought I'd learn to travel, but then I met a pretty little gal, and soon we played the devil. I loved that gal, and she loved me, and I thought we'd live together, but then we tied that fatal knot, and now I'm gone forever.

Gimme back my fifteen cents, gimme back my money; gimme back my fifteen cents, and I'll go home to Mammy. Yeah, let me hear your opinion.

(Unintelligible) (makes oink sound) 'twas 15 cents for the preacher man and a dollar for the paper. Then dear old mother-in-law moved in, and, lordy, what a caper. I fiddled a tune for her one day, and she called me a joker. Then that old sow got mad at me and hit me with the poker.

Gimme back my fifteen cents, gimme back my money; gimme back my fifteen cents, and I'll go home to Mammy.

I worked in town, and I worked on the farm, but there was no way to suit 'em, they're both so dad-burn mean to me, somebody ought to shoot 'em. I'm tired of looking at my mother-in-law, I'd like to see my Granny, gonna leave the state of Arkansas and go back home to Mammy.

Gimme back my fifteen cents, gimme back my money; gimme back my fifteen cents, and I'll go home to Mammy.

Mr. WATSON: Jack, I think a good-old train song might be in order right here. Son, I remember that song over there that brother Jimmy Jett(ph) wrote. And I'm going to plug an album right here. You ain't supposed to do this, but it's on an album I did for Sugar Hill call "Riding the Midnight Train," a bluegrass album, my first endeavor on pure bluegrass.

"Greenville Trestle" is a song for the train buffs that love the good old steam engine sounds and all that good - I remember when I went to school at Raleigh, there was a train went by every 20 minutes on average. And this song makes me think of those days.

(Soundbite of song, "Greenville Trestle")

Mr. WATSON: (Singing) I remember as a boy how in wonderment and joy I'd watch the trains as they'd go by, and the whistle's lonesome sound you could hear from miles around as they rolled across that Greenville trestle high.

But the whistles don't sound like they used to. Lately, not many trains go by. Hard times across this land mean no work for a railroad man, and the Greenville trestle now don't seem so high. Take it, son...

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