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.