Goodbye Doc Watson: Feeling the “Deep River Blues”

It is a short list of voices and sounds really—the ones who have stuck with me, the ones I can trace back to my teens. John Prine, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, John Starling, John Duffey, and Doc Watson. Today Doc passed. It was a better world with him in it.

I first saw him in Richmond around 1985 at The Mosque, but I had already been listening to him for some time. That show was not that long after his son and playing partner, Merle, passed tragically. The opening acts were Mike Cross (his version of “Panama Limited” is amazing!) and John Hartford (marking the rhythm of his fiddle tunes with his feet dancing atop a ply board set across two by fours). As Doc was guided on stage and to his chair, he looked uncertain right until he spoke and began to play, and then he was suddenly and completely in command—earnest, sure, humble, assertive, driving, funny, and perfectly at ease. His guitar was forever the right partner for his voice, and for his presence.

There are only a few players I can hear and know immediately by the sound their guitars make—perhaps only three really—Norman Blake, Tony Rice, and Doc Watson.

Tonight when I go to sleep I will hear “Deep River Blues”, and I will feel them and “let the big waves make a wall” for the moment right before I imagine that today is the day he can see again. Godspeed.

9 thoughts on “Goodbye Doc Watson: Feeling the “Deep River Blues”

  1. admiral17 May 30, 2012 / 6:36 am

    In 1973 I arrived in Nashville and discovered too late that Doc Watson was playing at a local club. In the presence of a history professor I remarked that “I would give anything” to hear Doc live. The professor responded that “anything is a great deal.” I never got to hear Doc live; I am poorer for it, Sometimes “nothing” is a “great deal.”

  2. bllbrwn423 May 30, 2012 / 9:05 am

    I first heard Doc live in the Philadelphia area, in 1974. My date and I went to hear him at a local coffee house that seated maybe sixty people or so. He and Merle were the headliners. The warm-up group had just driven over from Wildwood, New Jersey with their leader, Bruce Springsteen. He was wild. Doc, on the other hand, was mister control at the guitar. He made that guitar sing, just as in the video you posted. Thanks for sharing that video. I love watching his fingers work, while remembering that he did not watch those fingers; he just let them do their dance.

    • J Ross Peters May 30, 2012 / 9:31 am

      Wow, Bill! What a show that night! I never saw Doc and Merle together though I played their music often on a college radio show I had when I was at Sewanee.

  3. scootd May 30, 2012 / 2:34 pm

    I never got to see the legend, but he did come to Atlanta quite often, playing at the Variety Playhouse in Little Five Points. I was always amazed that his fan base seemed to stretch from from 18 to 80!

    • J Ross Peters May 30, 2012 / 7:46 pm

      Scoot–someday we’ll have to go to Merlefest…18 to 80+ is the story there as well. The wide ranging crowd is definitely part of his legacy.

  4. Keng May 30, 2012 / 7:15 pm

    Hit me hard, too, last night. He was a regular at Swarthmore College in the 70’s and I just heard him one last time at my 35th reunion last summer. Distinctive voice and precision flat picking like no other.

    • J Ross Peters May 30, 2012 / 7:48 pm

      Wonderful that he was able to make it back up there to play for your reunion! I was amazed the last time I saw him a couple of years ago at how his playing was still so strong.

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