Doc Watson

Today marks the first anniversary of the death of the blind flat-picking guitar master and folk legend Arthel “Doc” Watson. Kent Gustavson, author of the Watson biography Blind But Now I See, offers a fitting tribute over at bluegrasstoday.com , enumerating five “Doc Watson Principles” which define the man and the musician: honoring tradition, hard work, hospitality, humility, and home.

There is a sublimity surrounding a man who, standing in ocular darkness, lets loose a torrent of flat-picked melodies made sacred by their time spent echoing in the heart of Appalachia. Some might think, and perhaps with good reason, that entire realms of reality were inaccessible to Watson. After all, blindness cuts man off from the great communion of visual perception. He never saw a single human face, and yet, as Gustavson observes, Doc was anything but isolated. He was a man rooted in tradition, a tradition of which he was a great traditor :

He borrowed most of his songs from the hills and valleys of Appalachia, and from records and radio. He made them his own, and then he passed them along. That has enabled all of us, his fans, to make Doc’s music our own; in awe of his picking and singing, we pick up the guitar and we sing and play the tunes Doc gave us.

Last night, down in SoHo, bluegrass musician Michael Daves strummed a remarkable set, with a song or two of Doc’s. As I looked around the New York City venue and Daves belted out a soul-stirring rendition of “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies,” I couldn’t help but marvel that this Gospel hymn, born in the repentant soul of a Mississippi inmate, continues to set before man’s sight the hope of the Kingdom that is to come. Perhaps a bit of bluegrass gospel is just what the doctor ordered, an earthy and melodic salve to cure an eschatological blindness.

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