In his song Dublin Blues, Guy Clark sang: “I have seen the David, I’ve seen the Mona Lisa too, and I have heard Doc Watson play Columbus Stockade Blues.”
I personally haven’t seen the David, or the Mona Lisa, but I HAVE seen Doc Watson play Columbus Stockade Blues. Which seems all the more valuable now, since we can all still go see the David. And the Mona Lisa. But what none of us can now do is to go see Doc Watson play.
Not only have we lost Doc’s performances, which were impeccable to the end, but we also lose a library of Appalachian music. Some of which may not have existed anywhere else at this point but within the extraordinary mind of the man himself. To go see Doc Watson play was to hear bits and pieces of a very old oral tradition. Doc would often explain how a particular song had come to him. He would explain how it had been shaped and changed over time, and often he would explain how he himself had changed it. It was not unusual for Doc to demonstrate a song’s original, or older form before breaking into his own take on the thing. Often, a scaldingly fast and breathtaking version of what used to be a waltz or slow ballad.
The first time I can remember hearing Doc Watson play was probably not the first time I had actually heard him. Doc Watson records were present and often played in my house before I was even born into it. Perhaps this explains why Doc’s voice always sounded familiar to me. And why the first time I saw him play live felt like seeing an old friend. Even though I was just a little kid.
When I first started playing music in front of other people, the person I was listening too most was Doc Watson. I even copped some of his best stage banter. Which probably sounded really odd coming from a little kid. He was a huge influence on the type of music I started playing then, which has directly effected the type of music I write now. I don’t have any of his technical facility, and when I first started playing I didn’t play the guitar. But the songs he introduced me too, and the incredible amount of soul and charisma that he squeezed into every single one of his performances is something that helped shape the way I approach what I do. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about writing this, is the feeling that for those of you who don’t already know, there is nothing I can say to make you understand how deeply cool Doc Watson was. Only Doc could have done that.
I’ve seen a lot of Facebook posts and news reports which suggest that we should stay positive and celebrate the life of this amazing man and musician instead of just mourning this one sad moment. I get it. But I don’t think I can do it. I’m just too selfish to see this as anything other than an enormous loss. For me, and the world generally. The first time I saw Doc live, he was already in his seventies, so I’ve thought about and feared this moment for well over a decade. I’ve tried to brace myself, and when I heard the reports of his hospitalization, I redoubled the effort. Ultimately though this is a sad moment. And, at least for right now, that seems to be all I can focus on. Today, though I never got to meet him, I miss Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson.
For those of you who never got the chance to hear Doc play Columbus Stockade Blues, here is the best I can do for you:
And for those of you unfamiliar with the Guy Clark quote above, it comes from this song right here: