Living Out Loud

I Have Heard Doc Watson


I love history. In my imagination, I’ve watched Alexander lead armies. I’ve stared at Hemingway standing at his office desk over the garage at his Key West home. I can stand in front of the Lincoln Memorial and hear Dr. King’s voice. I love history.

The Blind Flat Picker

Only once in my life have I witnessed history. I’ve seen one of America’s musical wonders in concert. His name is Doc Watson. One day I’ll tell my grandchildren that I saw him play. I’ll tell them how out of the mountains of Western North Carolina came a blind guitar picker who could stop a riot by playing a couple of choruses of Black Mountain Rag.

Before Doc became a living legend, he was just a blind man trying to support his family as a full-time piano tuner and occasional musician. For twenty years he played with local N.C. bands. Playing country, rock-a-billy, and a variety of other popular songs, He played what the people of Morganton, Lenoir, Hickory and Asheville wanted to hear. He didn’t play traditional music in public until, encouraged by music historian Ralph Rinzler, he accepted an engagement in a Greenwich Village folk club in 1961. Watson gained national attention at the legendary Newport Folk Festivals of 1963 and 64. The lasting record that we have of those concerts is The Essential Doc Watson, available as one CD since 1986. It was originally released as two separate vinyl LPs.

Supporting Cast

Of the 26 songs in this collection, Watson performs as an unaccompanied flat-picking guitarist on 17 of them. On the remaining tunes members of his family accompany him. His then teenage son Merle (named after Merle Travis) plays second guitar on The Train That Carried my Girl From Town and Blackberry Blossom.

Watson’s father-in-law, legendary fiddle player Gaither Carlton appears on Blueridge Mountain Blues, Handsome Molly, and the Woodie Guthrie composition Going Down this Road Feeling Bad.

Doc’s brother, Arnold, plays banjo on three tunes, including Whitehouse Blues. And, Doc’s mother even joins in on the vocals on the traditional spiritual I Want to Love Him More.

Song Writing Credits

Only eight of the songs on the album are credited to other artists. The traditional songs arranged and adapted by Doc Watson are:

There are two songs by the Singing Brakeman, Little Jimmy Rodgers:

Other credits not already mentioned are:

The Music

Most of these songs are short, many of the coming in at under two minutes. Only Froggie Went A-Courtin’, Rising Sun Blues and Little Omie Wise are longer than four minutes.

The themes of these folk and bluegrass tunes are those of the mountains from whence Doc Watson came. Murderous lovers are found in Tom Dooley and Little Omie Wise. At least three tunes contain references to trains. There are traditional blues and flat-picking marvels like the Beaumont Rag and the Black Mountain Rag. There are spirituals and children’s songs.

I play this album compulsively over and over again. I know every chorus. When I hear a version of one of these songs by another artist it somehow seems profane, like looking at a paint-by-number version of a Van Gogh.

This is a historical collection of music and I love history.