Editor’s Pick
MAY 30, 2012 11:21AM

Doc Watson's Front Porch Spirit

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Just a moment after Doc Watson died, at 89, on a Tuesday in a Winston-Salem North Carolina hospital, his spirit pushed open a weathered wood frame screen door on to God’s front porch.


Way beyond the boundaries of any map. With glistening shafts of summer sunlight pouring through the rich green trees. About a mile from Wildcat Creek where Doc Watson was born, a small crowd materialized from the forest and started a slow, rhythmic stroll to that front porch. Because coming through that screen door, one of their own, one of the giants of music had arrived.


Arthel “Doc” Watson, blue eyes seeing it all, seeing in the same way he had spent his life on earth listening, looked around that porch, saw who was approaching, saw the one empty rocking chair. And he cocked his head, as if to ask some sort of permission. Jimmie Rodgers, first to reach the porch, motioned for Doc to sit. Doc sat down, hoisted up his guitar, and Jimmie Rodgers nodded towards Doc elbowed Chet Atkins in the ribs and said, “You know this boy Doc used to listen to me.”


Atkins nodded to Mother Maybelle Carter, standing quietly with her hands folded in prayer next to her beautiful daughter June Carter Cash. At their feet, Johnny Cash and his pal Waylon Jennings sitting on the worn, wooden step.


But as the crowd begins to grow bigger under that Carolina sun and whispering trees, the fact that this was not some small family gathering, became apparent.


That man without all his fingers, also holding a guitar. Django Reinhardt stood on that porch. In another corner, the impeccably dressed Gershwin brothers weren’t far from Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. Elvis stood quietly, paying attention. And off beneath a pine tree that touched the Carolina sky, a bright eyed German choirmaster, J.S. Bach was there to listen to Doc Watson play.


As the spirits came to listen from every corner of creation, the full picture of what was happening dawned on all. Music itself had turned out to pay its respects. That holy golden tone that connected all music was here in force. Across time. Across all space. Music was here to welcome one of its giants.


Doc Watson’s given name was “Arthel.” It’s a Gaelic name that translated means “ingenious valor.” The name was misspelled as “Orthel” on his birth certificate.  His Mother was Annie. She hailed from Meat Camp North Carolina. And she sang to her nine children. His father’s given first name was “General.” He led the singing in church. Doc’s blindness came from an infection shortly after his birth. The 6th of the 9 children, he was raised as if he wasn’t blind. In a 1979 interview in Frets Magazine, Watson said, “I would not have been worth the salt that went into my bread if my Dad hadn’t put me at the end of a crosscut saw to show me that there was not a reason in the world that I couldn’t pull my own weight and help to do my part in some of the hard work.”


On an early radio broadcast from a furniture store, the host decided that Arthel was not a good musician name so he asked the crowd for another name. Somebody in the crowd yelled out “Doc!” and it stuck.



Doc married Rosa Lee Carleton in 1947. They had two kids. Merle and Nancy. Merle began playing guitar with his father, helping him on the road, in 1964. Together they made 20 albums, on up till Merle’s death in 1985. Doc is survived by his wife, daughter, brother David, two grandchildren and several great grandchildren.


In the Watson biography, “Blind But Now I See,” Kent Gustavson quotes folk singer Greg Brown, “If the wind and the rain could play guitar, they would sound like Doc Watson.” The threads of what Watson did abound. They will be explored on down through the years. Like Reinhardt, Doc changed the way the guitar is played. Doc played the guitar like a fiddle, bringing the music the forests and the hills, grown and nurtured through the generations, out into the wider world. He influenced legions of musicians such that artists with the stature of Paul Simon  were even in awe before they met Doc Watson. All of that will populate the stories on down through the years. There will undoubtedly be a movie. And there will be other books.


But back on God’s front porch, now that Music has arrived and taken up its rightful place; all of us past, gone and even now here on earth, begin to fill in that clearing in the woods not far from the cabin where the Watson children were raised, their cellar built into the side of the hill that held the preserves that got the family through the winter, the Carolina breeze that carried the sounds of Annie Watson singing her children to sleep. Back on that front porch, we who got to see or hear Doc Watson, if we closed our eyes while he was singing, we got to join the outskirts of that crowd.


I am at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. I am, at 21, clueless as to just how young I am. I remember everything in the room as being some sort of shade of dance hall red. We are watching from around one of the tiny round tables. Doc led out on stage by Merle. And then, as he played, a wave of amazed learning washes over me. Because I didn’t know there was anybody who could play the guitar like that. Much as I didn’t know, as she and I drove west from Wisconsin over the Rockies that summer, that there were snow tipped mountains that high.


And finally, not that many years ago. Home. At the Old Town School of Folk Music on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. Doc and his grandson now. Doc’s friendly warm baritone voice. The way he talked to a crowd of 5,000, 50,000 or 5 in exactly the same way. This second time, as I sat there, not so young anymore,  wrapped up in the holy golden glow of music that tells the stories of our common heartbeat. Flowing rivers of simple sounds put together by one of Music’s pillars. One of the greats. One who will never be forgotten.


Never forgotten. Because back there on God’s front porch, that friendly looking man with the warm smile and the workingman’s hands, that man sitting in that rocking chair, starts to play. Smiles as he sings. Sees the crowd.


And everyone listens while Doc Watson plays. 


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A fine, fine tribute to this great American. I first heard Doc at Newport, maybe 1964 or '65. Summer of '75 I and a couple of pals made a pilgrimage to Deep Gap, brought a pint of peach ice cream (Doc's favorite) to his house, consumed it with him on his front porch. I'll sure miss Doc. You're correct: Doc saw the beauty of America with a clarity of the highest order.
It broke my heart to hear of his passing this morning. He was a gift to all and an immense inspiration. I was fortunate enough to see him and his son Merle play once,. Someday after having one of those six string contraptions in my hand for 50 years now I'm going to figure out how he did it. Well...maybe I'll figure it out.
See you on the porch Doc..............
Thanks for remembering a good man.
"There it stands by the fire with its back to the wall
That old wooden rocker, so stately and tall
With naught to disturb it but dusting of broom
And no one to use it in that parlor room ..."

~Doc Watson
The Old Wooden Rocker

~He was a major influence in my musical journey ... he will be missed and always remembered~
~ me
Saw him about 40 years ago at the ballroom at Navy Pier. Amazing.
Meat Camp!

I paid a guy good money to teach me how to play Doc's "Deep River Blues." Other than the first few bars I've now forgotten it, but that's what happens when you have only the loose grip of mortal hands.
Your writing here lately has been finer even than it was before. You've hit a hidden spring in your soul, or something, C.G. It really impresses me so much. Just keep writing, my friend. Just keep on sharing that gift....just like Doc shared his.
Beautiful, first rate work.
whoooee, Chicago, you've hit all the notes here! Truly, you've plucked my heartstrings with one, and Doc is glad to have you on the porch, I'm sure. You just get better every time. Keep it up.
Bad Scot---Peach ice cream on the porch WITH him. That is beautiful.

Also--If you figure that out, please let me know!


Chuck---Ever since he got sick, I've had this image of a rocker on his front porch. No idea where it came from. I don't remember ever hearing the song. But I must have. Thanks for that. And seeing the phrase "dust my broom" I bet Robert Johnson was standing on that porch and that he brought a few friends.

Dolly---Navy Pier 40 years ago. That even predates "Chicago Fest" Those were different times. And yet the music is still here.

Con--Had to include that one. It's from the bio. And if you got past the the first few bars, you did better than me. "Mortal hands" is exactly right.

PW-- Doc has inspired so many. And I'm sure still will!
Thanks for writing this. My day has been filled with reading of Doc and listening. A friend and I saw him just last summer at an outdoor theatre near here, off the Blue Ridge Parkway. He wasn't as "sharp" as he might have been but the spirit was sure there and we all held our collective breath and listened.
Beautifully written. I can hear the music.
Well Roger, I just found out he passed from reading this post.
Geez. An old favorite of my parents radio show singing gospel music on the Grand Old Opry Radio Hour...

Such a talented man. Loved this guy and his music. he will be missed.
Gorgeous tribute, Chicago Guy. I knew very little about him, now I know more. Rated.
A true American original. Loved your epic tribute. ... What an amazing voice and talent. R.
Never heard him play except on recordings, but it was pretty ... well, electrifying.

Nice tribute, CG.
"Elvis stood quietly, paying attention." I like that. It's only been a couple of months since I went into the local music store to buy some fingerpicks. I was trying to recall "Deep River Blues" from the memory banks. You know it wasn't but moments after arriving at the front porch that someone offered Doc some sweet tea.
Me too, sad. He had a remarkable life....long, creative, doing what he loved, married to the same woman his whole life, highly awarded, personal loss like everybody, but he turned it into a festival, a relatively fast exit from the stage, no lengthy painful lingering. If everybody lived so wisely and with such grace, and made so many people happy, the world would be vastly improved, would sound better too.
Yeah, Doc was a real down home aw schucks kind of guy at first glance. But there was a deeper Doc in there too. A fierce guitar playing machine throwing off harmonics, cross-rhythms and arpeggios as easily as tossing crackers from a basket. There was a certain arrogance of purpose about him. All the great ones have it. I shall miss him.
What a brilliant tribute to a brilliant musician. Thanks Roger
What full, alive tribute this really is. Thanks for sharing it.
What full, alive tribute this really is. Thanks for sharing it.
Touching and creative tribute to a great musician. R
Rob--I've had him on for a good part of the day too. It is that spirit. It makes writing about him come fast and clear.

Mission--I first heard him from amy aunt's records. On it goes through the generations!

Erica--Check out "Classic" or "Elementary" if you are curious. It's music that will just soothe your soul.

Deborah---Exactly. An American original.

B---I just saw him those two times. But those recordings, since the Vanguard stuff in the 60's---they are electrifying.

Stacey--That WAS sweet tea! You're right!

whirlwind--A factoid that speaks to your point--- 44 generations back, Doc was descended from Charlemagne. (Source: The bio mentioned above.) It's an interesting point, do the great one's know they are great? I can only wish I knew for sure!

Frank---I got good inspiration!

Trilogy---and the best part is that anybody can still hear him!

Sheila---And for those of us on the far reaches of that front porch (like me) all I have to do to bring him alive again is to put on what those of us of a certain age used to call "a record"!
I never got to see him in person but have listened to his music forever. This was perfectly wonderfully written and it made me smile, for him and that he is home now...
So beautifully written...portrayed. You do this so well!
Like many of my generation, I first became acquainted with Doc's music from the Will the Circle be Unbroken album where he was featured on The Tennessee Stud and Way Downtown. They were two of my favorites and I went on to others like Froggy Went a-Courting, Shady Grove and I Went Down to the Valley to Pray, the latter featuring in my last blog. Thanks for putting up the tribute Chicago. He was a remarkable talent.
LL--Yes. He is home now.

Cathy--Thanks. And whoever it was that decided to feature this---thank you too! This guy was important.

Abra---I had a college radio show when Circle first came out. Probably played that more than any other album. So I hear you.
Well done, Maestro! I had the great good fortune to see Doc at the Florida Folk Festival some time back. Enjoyed the music immensely, but a lesson was forced upon me, too. For all the hypersonic speed-freaking Satrianing, and the Jimian pyro-technics and the digital wizardry now available to even ordinary guitarists, nothing can move you quite like a simple acoustic guitar in the hands of someone who owns the instrument. Doc owned his instrument.
TC---Excellent point. He sure did.
Pandora and Gerald--I was just reading through this and saw that I had only thanked you both for coming by in my head and not on the screen! I have got to get out more!
You should send this to Michelle Obama.

Music doesn't come in any particular color.

You help me (inspire) appreciate `Blues.
Jazz . . .

We sometime get the Blues from head to shoes.
We all get sad/gloom Times. We sense Glory too.
Hey CM---Thanks!

Art--If I had her email---I would! And yes we do. Thanks Art!
Congrats on yet another well deserved Ep, my friend!
Just an unbelievably spectacular tribute to a legendary musician and humanist.
Sally and PW---Welcome to Doc's front porch. Isn't he amazing?
What a lovely tribute. I will hear his flat-picking style in my head as long as I live. He is one of the reasons I love acoustic guitar. He was a gem, a man of rare and gentle spirit.
thank you for a stunningly beauty-filled tribute to a remarkable man.
Before this, all I knew was the name, so thanks for educating me. Musicians like that don't come along very often.

I did see an interview they did on the PBS NewsHour after his death, with a woman named Katy Daley, who hosts a radio show called "Bluegrass Country" on radio station WAMU-FM. The NewsHour always gets really knowledgeable people to interview for stories like this, and she was great. She was asked at the end of the interview how Doc Watson would be remembered, and she said, simply (and tearing up), "With love." That was very moving.
Hi Steve! Yes---a gem.

Mimetalker--They don't come any more remarkable.

Jeanette---I saw that piece and the moment you recalled. It took my breath away. Katy Daley and Jeff Brown did Doc proud. I was also reminded why I regularly watch that show. If that segment is on line, it is really worth finding. Thanks for mentioning that.
Roger, you can find it here.
Cool! Thanks Jeanette! I hope anybody who stops by takes a look. It is a terriffic piece.
I think I would love the piece if I was familiar with the musicians.
Teherefore: I love the piece
Your fine tribute will certainly add to his immortality.
Thank you for this that taught me more than what I knew.

Eljekar and Fusun---With your comments, Doc once again has touched folks across the world. Thanks for that!
the holy golden glow of the porch ~

you are some DJ, Chicago Guy, thanks!
Thanks for this, informative and enjoyable.
Hey Catch and Rita! Thanks for coming by the front porch!