His memories in a trunk

Reflections on literature, language(s), and music

Requiescat in pace Doc Watson

A fragment of an evening is hardly enough time to commemorate well the life — the musical part of it, at least (all most of us know) — of Doc Watson, who died today at age 89, but thankfully there’s no compulsion to do so in just one evening: we can continue to as long as we hear him hereafter. A towering figure by any estimation in both folk and bluegrass, he was known especially for his guitar-work, but I’ll be the first to affirm we’d be poorer had he only been an instrumentalist. From the early 1960s he can be seen in video from the Newport Folk Festival (which, of course, Dylan, rather younger, also took part in), where he also played with Appalachian dulcimer notable Jean Ritchie (the recording is available). Others will make other selections, but the two albums I would most recommend — thanks to nostalgia, I heartily confess — are The Essential Doc Watson and, with his son Merle (d. 1985), Down South. The shouts of approbation and jubilation you’ll hear in his live performance of “Black Mountain Rag” on the former will, assuming you’re not a heartless knave, find echoes in your own enjoyment. The latter album I distinctly recall listening to multitudinous times with my father, “Solid Gone” and “Give me Back my Fifteen Cents” being among my favorites every time (but back then we were listening to audio cassettes and so it wasn’t quite so easy to skip right to your favorite tune).

Jerome (and others) referred to the scholar known as Didymus the Blind with the name Didymus videns (Didymus the seeing), because, although he lacked physical sight, with his memory and genius he saw clearly how to use the mind and direct his soul more than many of those who do have sight as regularly considered. Doc Watson was blind, but if you listen to him handle his dear guitars and dole out his perfectly accompanying voice, you’ll find your own vision more open than it was before. Requiescat in pace Doc videns.


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