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Doc Watson’s Appalachian Swing

Doc Watson, the guitarist and singer who died this week at 89, seemed the embodiment of traditional American rural values. He was a handsome mountain man, solid in body and temperament, and he comported himself on stage with courtly grace and gentle humor. Born in the hills of North Carolina, he lost his sight as young child (though he would always have limited perception of light), and found early that he had a knack for playing the mountain music he heard growing up—first on a banjo his father made with the skin of the family’s recently deceased pet cat, then on the harmonica and guitar. He was a master of American vernacular music, a virtuoso interpreter of traditional songs (and other music), and a major influence on folk and bluegrass musicians since he first found a national audience at the Newport Folk Festival in the Sixties. Watsons influence is so great, in fact, that its easy to ignore the importance of multiple influences on his music.

As a musician, Watson was a product of more than one tradition. Though he was reared on the rural music of North Carolina, he began playing professionally, at age 30 in 1953, in a band playing Western Swing, the hybrid of jazz and country, black and white music, popular in the first decade after the Second World War. Watson played dance music on the electric guitar (a solid-body Les Paul, for guitar fetishists reading this), and found important inspiration in the innovations of two other Western Swing guitarists: Grady Martin and Hank Garland. For nine years, Watson played electric under the dance-band leader Jack Williams. Emulating Martin and Garland, Watson devised a technique for soloing in the style of swing fiddle players, and he made showpieces of tunes rooted in ragtime, the black music of the turn of the 20th century, such as “Sugarfoot Rag” and “Black Mountain Rag.”  

When the folklorists Ralph Rinzler and Eugene Earle first encountered Watson in a song-scouting trip to North Carolina in 1960, they told Watson they wanted to record him, and Watson got out his Les Paul. Watson didnt even own an acoustic guitar. Rinzler, however, thought an electric guitar was not sufficiently authentic for the purpose, and persuaded Watson to borrow an acoustic instrument. From that point on, Watson played only acoustic guitars, but in an adaptation of the style he developed in his formative nine years in a Western Swing band.  

If, in appearance, Watson seemed the very image of the Appalachians, his music had traveled the whole country. In memoriam, Doc Watson playing two of his signature pieces: “Black Mountain Rag” and “Summertime,” by George Gershwin, from his opera, Porgy and Bess