I Guess It Had a Kind of Primitive Sound
Doc Watson, 1923-2012
"I attached a piece of steel wire to a door post... and fastened the other end to the door. I could put tension on the wire thus tuning it to a bass tone, the same key as my harmonica. I sure had a lot of fun pickin' on the wire and playing the harmonica along with it, but I guess it had a kind of primitive sound."
~ Doc Watson, Southbound liner notes, 1966
Doc Watson, probably more than any other American musician, gave us a bridge to that "primitive sound." Not to say his music wasn't artful or contemporary -- it was both, in abundance. But Doc Watson played the music of a time the rest of us passed by. Fiddle tunes from Scotland, banjo rags from the turn of the century, all became "Doc Watson" music in the hands of the master.
And make no mistake, Doc was a master. I first encountered him as a teenager, in an interview in Guitar Player magazine. I was more into Jimmy Page or Richie Blackmore at the time, but the article intrigued me enough that I bought Doc Watson In Nashville. By the time it got to his splendid rendition of Jimmy Rogers' "Peach Picking Time in Georgia" I was hooked. Naively, I thought that I could learn to play it myself.
Forty years on, I've pretty much given that idea up. Nobody can play like Doc Watson. He was a champion fingerstyle guitarist as well as one of the greats of "flatpick" guitar, a driving form of bluegrass that wears you out just listening to it. He also played banjo and harmonica, and he sounded like Doc on it all. Listening to his records you got the impression that it was just you and him, sitting around playing and swapping stories. He just sang his tales.
I was fortunate enough to see him play at his last time in Atlanta in 2006. He was recovering from a cold, and was over 80 years old. But when he played "Deep River Blues," complete with his tale of it taking him ten years to learn (doubtful!), well, for a music lover, there wasn't anywhere you'd rather be than sitting at the feet of a master, listening to that "primitive sound." It's a sad day with Doc Watson gone. But even sadder perhaps are those who haven't been introduced to his music. Watson's life work was making people feel happy while he played a song. I can't think of a finer life to live.