“I’d think learning to play the guitar would be very confusing for sighted people.” – RIP Doc
A mountain-born treasure of American folk music, Doc Watson, died Tuesday in North Carolina at age 89.
His manager said in a statement that Watson died at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem after abdominal surgery last week.
Watson was born in Deep Gap, N.C., in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in a three-room house he shared with eight brothers and sisters. He revolutionized not just how people play guitar, but how people around the world think about mountain music.
Doc Watson went blind when he was only about a year old, from an untreated eye infection. He told WHYY’s Fresh Air that he was only 11 when his dad made him a banjo using the skin of an old dead cat.
“He brought it to me and put it in my hands, and said, ‘Son, I want you to learn to play this thing real well. One of these days we’ll get you a better one,’ he said. ‘Might help you get through the world,'” Watson recalled.
His parents made sure young Arthel Lane Watson had the tools he needed to face life without sight or money. His dad traded a week’s worth of pay at the sawmill for a hand-cranked phonograph that came with 50 records, including country, blues and jazz. Watson incorporated those sounds into the Appalachian music surrounding him.
He worked on his father’s farm cutting trees and saved up enough to buy a mail-order guitar. He played on streetcorners and on the radio. In the 1950s, he started touring with a square dance band that lacked a fiddler. So Watson figured out how to play the fiddle parts on his guitar.
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