Doc Watson: He was a pilgrim

When you’re talking about Doc Watson, the place to start is here: He was a superstar in old-time folk music, which is the rare art form in which the word “tradition” is not a curse.

Watson was a living incarnation of folk-music tradition. He knew the basics and he wasn’t scared to let his grasp of the tradition bleed into the present. It’s almost impossible to overstate his influence in the close-knit worlds of folk, country, acoustic blues and bluegrass music. “Americana” music? That’s Doc.

Only, you have to throw gospel music in there, too, if you are writing about the real Doc Watson. What was a Doc Watson show without hymns and gospel music?

Now, the mainstream press articles about his death are doing a great job of capturing his musical and cultural importance. They are, as a rule, failing to capture the Bible Belt side of his art and his personality. No surprise, right? There was more to this man than music that was loved by college professors and hip folks sipping foreign beers in folk clubs in Greenwich Village.

This section of The Los Angeles Times obituary is a solid attempt at expressing the whole NPR-PBS side of Doc’s impact:

With his natural ease as a storyteller, his heartfelt baritone singing, his repository of material and his facility on guitar, Watson was a rare combination of authenticity and artistry.

His example inspired a generation of musicians to explore obscure musical pockets, as well as to upgrade their instrumental technique toward the remarkably high standards he established. He is one of the prime sources of the hybrid, roots-conscious Americana genre, and a key influence on such noted players as Norman Blake, Tony Rice, Buddy Miller and Dan Crary.

“Doc Watson sort of defined in many ways what Americana has become,” Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Assn., told The Times. “He played different styles of American roots music. He played traditional country, he played what would be traditional folk, he played what was traditional bluegrass, he played gospel. All those elements sort of interwoven, that’s what Buddy Miller does today.… Nothing is more definitive than Doc Watson’s appreciation for a broad spectrum of music in the Americana world.”

Watson received a National Medal of Arts in 1997 and a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy in 2004.

OK, at this point it will help to watch the video at the top of this post.

Unless I am mistaken, what we have here is the last song in Doc’s last set at what has turned out to be his last Merlefest — the annual bluegrass and folk festival in Wilkesboro, N.C., that Watson created in honor of his guitar virtuoso son Merle, who died way too young in a farm accident. (Can you imagine the folks who are going to turn out to perform at Merlefest this summer, as a tribute to Doc?)

This gospel classic is one of those traditional folk standards that Watson carried into the modern world. This is literally the kind of song that helps define him.

Like most traditional folk songs, it’s easy to find variations on the basic lyrics. Folk music is like that. It’s alive. Here’s the top of the song the way Doc sang it the most:

I am a pilgrim and a stranger
Traveling through this wearisome land
And I’ve got a home in that yonder city, good Lord
And it’s not (good Lordy it’s not) not made by hand

I am a pilgrim and a stranger
Travelling through this wearsome land
I’ve got a home in that yonder city, good Lord
And it’s not not made by hand

I’ve got a father, a son, a mother, and a brother
The’ve gone gone home to the other shore
I am determined to go and see them up there
And live with them forever more

When I go down to old chilly Jordan
Just to bathe my weary soul
If I can but touch the hem of his garment, good Lord
Then I know he’ll take me home

When I watched this video for the first time, I wondered if Watson was thinking that this was his last time at this festival that meant so much for him. He’s going one extra song (watch the stage crew moving behind him, setting up for the next act) and it’s a song he often sang as a tribute to Merle.

This time he ends the song with a verse that he added to the traditional hymn. It’s is own farewell.

Now when you’ve laid me down for the last time
With my tired hands resting on my breast
I don’t want none of that ‘ole weeping and crying over me
because you know this old boy is gone to rest

That’s Doc Watson. It’s his own farewell. His hands are getting weak and his memory is not what it used to be, when it comes to remembering all the lyrics. But he knows what he wants to say.

Has anyone seen coverage of his death that includes this side of this American master?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • SouthCoast

    Eerily enough,last week, the folksie program on the City College jazz station had a discussion of Doc Watson. I remember thinking at the time, is Doc still among us? Sorry he’s gone, but there’s a better world a-waitin, in the sky, Lord, in the sky.

  • Rich

    Thank you for this article. Doc now has his sight and is reunited with Merle picking in Heaven. Saved by grace through faith in Jesus.

  • Julia

    That video really pulls at the heart strings.
    What a simple and moving farewell. Thanks for that.

    Being from Belleville, when I hear about roots music I naturally think of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco. They owe a lot to this guy, as well as Guthrie and the guy who learned to play the guitar down at the crossroads.

  • tmatt

    No comments on other coverage?

    An readers out there from Charlotte, Nashville, places like that?

  • Bill

    I have a good friend who says he celebrates three high holy seasons: Christmas, Easter and Merlefest.

    There’s lots of Gospel at Merelefest and in traditional folk and bluegrass music. And unlike much of the media, Doc got religion.

  • Bill
  • Jeff

    Doc Watson can’t be *both* a great American artist *and* an eevil, eevil Christianist from North Carolina, where there isn’t any same-sex marriage.

    That’s too much cognitive dissonance for the MSM.