Arthel “Doc” Watson was a singer and guitarist from Deep Gap, a remote valley in northwestern North Carolina. Though an accomplished singer and guitar player as a young adult, it took Watson many years to achieve national recognition.
“Doc” Watson with his son Merle
Arthel “Doc” Watson (1923-2012), guitar, singer
Two key developments worth noting in Watson’s career. Around 1953, while working for a country and western swing band in Johnson City, Tennessee, Watson taught himself to play fiddle tunes on his electric guitar, a skill he later translated to acoustic guitar. Also, around this time, Watson was inspired by Merle Travis to learn how to play two separate parts on the guitar simultaneously.
In the early sixties, a renewed interest in American folk music emerged, and Watson developed a devoted following as an authentic artist. He focused his talents on two instruments, acoustic guitar and banjo. He recorded an album with Clarence Ashley, whose songs “The Coo Coo Bird” and “The House Carpenter” (recorded in 1929 and 1930) are featured in Smithsonian/Folkways influential folk music compilation, Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by Harry Smith (1923-1991). Watson began touring outside his home region, and after a breakthrough performance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, he recorded his first album as a solo artist in 1964.
The Coo Coo Bird
Doc Watson, who died earlier this year, was one of the last conduits to a past, before recorded music, when songs were passed down orally, from one generation to the next. The recommended list includes many Appalachian songs with their roots in Great Britain. Though recorded music was available, he surely learned songs like “The Coo Coo Bird” from friends and family. I first heard “Coo Coo” twenty years ago, and it remains a favorite.
In the expanded liner notes for the Anthology of American Folk Music, author Griel Marcus discusses the difference between a song and a ballad, followed by a discussion of the cryptic “Coo Coo”:
“Like many of the numbers on the third volume of the Anthology, “The Coo Coo Bird” was a “folk-lyric” song. That meant it was made up of verbal fragments that had no direct or logical relationships to each other, but were drawn from a floating pool of thousands of disconnected verses, couplets, one-liners, pieces of eight. Harry Smith guessed the folk-lyric form came together some time between 1850 and 1875. Whenever it happened, it wasn’t until enough fragments were abroad in the land to reach a kind of critical mass — until there were enough fragments, passing back and forth between Blacks and Whites as common coin, to generate more fragments, to sustain within the matrix of a single musical language an almost infinite repertory of performances, to sustain the sense that out of the anonymity of the tradition a singer is singing his or her own life, as an event, taking place as you listen, its outcome uncertain — separates the song, from which the singer emerges, from the ballad, into which the singer disappears.
In this mood, in this weather, the most apparently commonplace fragment in Ashley’s “Coo Coo Bird” — the verse seemingly most unburdened by any shred of meaning — cannot be meaningless.”
Gonna build me,
A log cabin,
On a mountain,
So I can,
When he goes,
“It sounds like a children’s ditty only until you begin to realize the verse is made to refuse any of the questions it makes you ask. Who is Willie? Why does the singer want to watch him? Why must he put aside life and embark on a grand endeavor just to accomplish this ordinary act? The verse can only communicate a secret everybody already knows, or as an allusion to a body of knowledge the singer knows can never be recovered, and Ashley only makes things worse by singing as if whatever he’s singing about is the most obvious thing in the world. The performance doesn’t seem like a jumble of fragments. Rather there is a theme: displacement, restlessness, homelessness, the comic worry of “a people”, as Constance Rourke wrote of Americans as they were before the Civil War began, “unacquainted with themselves, strange to the land, unshaped as a nation.” ‘We Americans are all cuckoos,’ Oliver Wendell Holmes said in 1872. ‘We make our homes in the nests of other birds.’ This is the starting point.”
I am impressed by Marcus’ ability to derive so much from the simple lyric, something I lack the creativity to do. I listen to the first verse of “Coo Coo” and hear jealousy, an insatiable desire to follow, to stalk, and to imagine the worst possible outcome.
Another favorite from the Anthology of American Folk Music is Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spike Driver Blues”. Doc Watson covered this song on his album Doc Watson On Stage. Mississippi John Hurt was a beneficiary of the folk music revival. After decades of living in anonymity, Hurt became a popular figure in folk music during his final years.
My Friend Jeff Ward
I learned about Doc Watson from my good friend Jeff Ward. I moved to Oregon twenty years ago, and joined a local golf club. At the time, Jeff worked in the men’s locker room, tending bar and waiting tables. Over the years he was promoted to clubhouse manager, before leaving the club to take a job in a private housing organization. We’ve been good friends since, through our mutual love of music.
In his spare time, Jeff is a fine singer and guitar player, and Jeff’s favorite musician is Doc Watson. Jeff began playing guitar during his third year in college, during a time when he was pestering an old girl friend to go out with him again. She refused him, but gave Jeff an old guitar she owned, something resembling a consolation prize, as a potential hobby to pursue. It didn’t take long for Jeff to lose interest in the girl, but he never put the guitar down. After finishing college, Jeff’s post-graduate roommate owned a few Doc Watson records (including Southbound and The Essential Doc Watson), which Jeff discovered and subsequently devoured.
Jeff now knows dozens of Doc Watson songs, employing both the finger picking and flat picking styles as required. Even Jeff’s plaintive singing style is reminiscent of the great North Carolinian. Over the years, Jeff has expanded his repertoire with many other songs, playing solo and with his folk trio for parties and special occasions.
I learned about Doc Watson in much the same way. Jeff and I began to talk about music, and I took an interest in his favorite musician. I purchased several Doc Watson albums which covered the mid-sixties and early seventies, his most famous work. These songs became an integral part of my collection.
Before meeting Jeff, I had heard of Doc Watson, but never heard his music, except for this one time.
My senior year in college was a disaster. I was set to graduate, but I screwed up my final basketball season, and was using drugs heavily. I had a lovely girlfriend throughout my five years in college, but entering the last few weeks of school, was questioning the wisdom of not spending time with other women. Although still deeply attached to my sweetheart, I had a few attempted encounters during my final month in school, some which I regret, others that left me wondering and longing. But this experience was just fun and harmless.
I was on my own that evening, and was neither too drunk nor high to keep me at home. I went out looking for action, and found a party of twenty to thirty people in an apartment on the north side of Davis. I walked in and made myself comfortable and made conversation and nobody seemed to mind. Things were going great. People were dancing in the living room, and I distinctly remember dancing with a nice young lady to the “Tennessee Stud”, one of Doc’s most famous and endearing songs. Shortly afterwards, I asked her if she would like to join me in my car for a sniff of cocaine, and she agreed. We enjoyed a small line of late seventies vintage, lactose laden, low grade coke, and while in the car, without ever touching her, asked politely if she would like to fool around with me, you know, make love. She politely responded that she was a virgin, saving herself for a special moment, and though I was sweet, she thought it best to wait. I said thanks anyway, that’s just fine. We returned to the party and enjoyed ourselves for a little while longer, and then I went home. I can’t remember her name.
During my first couple years in Portland, I attended business school. A fellow student was involved in setting up a radio station for the university. I decided I’d like to try being a disk jockey, so I took a class and got certified and spent about three years playing records on Sunday afternoons for an hour or two each weekend. It was an AM station with a weak signal, and very few people tuned in, but it was a fun experience, something I might try again, if I can get a gig with an FM station.
In late summer 1996, my father made one of his periodic trips to Oregon, to visit and play golf for a few days. He knew Jeff from previous visits; we were all friendly by then. One afternoon we had finished golfing, and were sitting around with Jeff in the men’s grill when my father says, “Oh, did you hear the news? Doc Watson died.”
A prolonged silence followed. “Really? Oh no.” Jeff is in shock, and not saying much at all. This is his man, his hero. I quickly concoct the idea that Jeff should come down to the radio station with me next Sunday, and we should have a Doc Watson Memorial program to celebrate his music.
Jeff and I talk on the phone several times that week, and gather up all our records and CDs. I purchased the 4-CD compilation The Vanguard Years, ensuring we have the most beautiful songs for the show. The following Sunday afternoon, I pick Jeff up at home and we drive into town. Thirty minutes before showtime, he and I are listening to a newfound live version of “Southbound”, and Jeff is openly weeping tears of sadness for this great loss. He composes himself, we walk into the studio, and the show goes off beautifully, without a hitch.
Unfortunately, I didn’t verify that Watson had actually died. My father was notoriously smart, a fount of knowledge, so much so that nobody ever questioned his facts. When we were kids, one friend referred to him as Phineas J. Whoopee, for those familiar with the Tennessee Tuxedo cartoon. However, as he got older, we noticed that he started to lose his ability to remember proper names. He would begin talking about some subject or another, and then ask, “What’s the name of the guy who…yeah, yeah, that’s it.”
A few days afterwards, I checked online, and quickly determined it was another bluegrass great, Bill Monroe, who had died. An honest mistake and much ado about nothing; instead we have this story forever.
An Admirable Man
Doc Watson lived his whole life in Deep Gap, North Carolina. He married Rosa Lee Watson in 1947 and remained married until his death sixty five years later. His whole family played music, and he often performed with them. In particular, Doc’s son Merle was an excellent guitar player, and his traveling companion for many years. Merle died tragically in a tractor accident on the family farm in 1985. Some say Doc was never the same after Merle died.
Both Jeff and I moved out to the country about fifteen years ago. I live among the trees, Jeff lives in a narrow valley where he and his wife tends a large menagerie of domesticated animals, where “the sun comes up about nine every morning, and goes down about three every day.*” He named his mule Tucker after “Tucker’s Barn”, a Doc Watson song.
My parents instilled in their children a love of nature. I live on top of a gentle rise, a southern facing slope, above the trees, in a hybrid neighborhood of longtime residents, a few high tech workers, and those who grow things for a living. The sun and moon cross the sky in full view each day. The deer visit most days, and stay close during fall hunting season. Coyotes and other predators keep the little critters from overrunning the yard. There’s not a lot of interaction with neighbors; we leave each other alone for the most part, and some roads it’s best not to travel down. But I’m a poseur, who never worked the land to live, rather moving to the country for the peaceful existence.
Doc Watson is beloved for his authenticity, as a man and a musician. He led an exemplary life, and his music of simple songs executed with great dexterity. He was among the best practitioners of finger style and flat picking guitar, with a warm, inviting singing voice, that inspired a generation of modern bluegrass, folk and country musicians.
Doc Watson Song Notes:
1. “Tennessee Stud (Live)” and “Shady Grove (Live)” are found on the album Legacy, by Doc Watson and David Holt.
2. The best versions of the other songs should be easy to find. If you have questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Doc Watson Songs:
Spike Driver Blues (Live), Doc Watson ✭✭✭✭
Brown’s Ferry Blues (Live), Doc Watson ✭✭✭✭
The Cuckoo, Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Southbound, Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Southbound (Live), Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Roll On Buddy (Live), Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Talk About Suffering, Doc Watson ✭✭✭
St. James Hospital, Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Alberta, Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Banks Of The Ohio (Live), Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Sittin’ On Top Of The World, Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Tom Dooley, Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Lonesome Moonlight Waltz (Live), Bill Monroe & Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Tennessee Stud, Doc Watson ✭✭
Country Blues, Doc Watson ✭✭
Deep River Blues, Doc Watson ✭✭
Windy And Warm, Doc Watson ✭✭
Black Mountain Rag, Doc Watson ✭✭
Black Mountain Rag (Live), Doc Watson ✭✭
Down In The Valley To Pray, Doc Watson ✭✭
Blue Railroad Train, Doc Watson ✭✭
I Was A Stranger (Live), Doc Watson ✭✭
Shady Grove, Doc Watson ✭✭
Walk On Boy, Doc Watson ✭✭
Omie Wise, Doc Watson ✭✭
Doc’s Guitar, Doc Watson ✭✭
Alabama Bound, Doc Watson ✭✭
Nashville Pickin’, Doc Watson ✭✭
Shady Grove (Live), Doc Watson & David Holt ✭✭
Train That Carried My Girl From Town (Live), Doc Watson ✭✭
Nothing To It, Doc Watson ✭
Intoxicated Rat, Doc Watson ✭
Rambling Hobo, Doc Watson ✭
Blackberry Blossom (Live), Doc Watson ✭
Rising Sun Blues (Live), Doc Watson ✭
Beaumont Rag, Doc Watson ✭
Beaumont Rag (Live), Doc Watson ✭
Tennessee Stud (Live), Doc Watson & David Holt ✭
Bonaparte’s Retreat, Doc Watson ✭
Dill Pickle Rag, Doc Watson ✭
East Tennessee Blues, Bill Monroe & Doc Watson ✭
Way Downtown, Doc Watson ✭
Spike Driver Blues, Mississippi John Hurt ✭✭✭✭
Brown’s Ferry Blues, The Delmore Brothers ✭✭
The Coo Coo Bird, Clarence “Tom” Ashley ✭✭
Black Mountain Rag (Live), The Byrds ✭
Country Blues, Dock Boggs ✭✭
Tennessee Stud, Johnny Cash ✭✭
Roll On Buddy, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott ✭✭
Nine Pound Hammer, The Kentucky Colonels ✭✭✭✭
Nine Pound Hammer, The Monroe Brothers ✭
Take This Hammer, Big Bill Broonzy ✭
Talk About Suffering, Ricky Skaggs & Tony Rice ✭✭
St. James Hospital, Tony Rice ✭✭✭
St. James Infirmary, Jack Teagarden ✭✭✭✭
St. James Infirmary, Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭✭
St. James Infirmary, Van Morrison ✭✭
St. James Infirmary (Alt), Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭✭
Shady Grove, David Grisman & Jerry Garcia ✭✭✭✭
Pretty Little Miss, Patty Loveless ✭✭✭
Blackberry Blossom, Mark O’Connor ✭✭
House Of The Rising Sun, The Animals ✭✭✭✭
House Of The Rising Sun, Josh White ✭✭
House Of The Rising Sun, Bob Dylan ✭
House Of The Rising Sun, Joan Baez ✭✭
White House Blues, Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers ✭✭
White House Blues, Merle Travis & Joe Maphis ✭✭
Not Fade Away/Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad (Live), Grateful Dead ✭✭✭✭
Ground Hog, Frank Proffitt ✭
Tom Dooley, Frank Proffitt ✭
Tom Dooley, The Kingston Trio ✭✭
* Lyric from a modern country standard, Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”