Life, Work and Music of the American Folk Artist Doc Watson

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Arthel “Doc” Watson, an 82-year-old musician from North Carolina, is one of the two or three most important acoustic guitarists in American musical history. The story of Watson’s music is a rich and complex narrative which involves the listener in an exploration of the music of the Scottish settlers in the Appalachian Mountains and the changes in that music as the mountaineers were influenced by the African American music of itinerant laborers in the nineteenth century and by sounds from records and radio early in the twentieth century. Despite Watson’s importance to American acoustic music and despite the richness of the story of his music, a full study of his music has not been realized until now. This book explores the musical culture of Watson’s immediate family (the hymns of Watson’s church, the ballads and fiddle tunes of his immediate family, and the music of his mountain home) as well as the extended aural world that came to the mountains through records and radio when Watson was a young boy. Finally this study explores Watson’s important contributions to the folk revival of the 1960s when he helped change the role of the acoustic guitar in American music. This work will be important to students of American music and folk culture.


“In this important study by Dr. Fred Metting, we are treated to a nuanced and carefully drawn argument about the active role innovations in media technology – particularly recorded music and radio – played in extending and enriching the life, work and music of the incomparable American folk artist Doc Watson. Along the way, we also arrive at a fuller understanding of how new media technologies became part of a fluid, lively and increasingly complex arrangement of tradition and innovation, authenticity and commercialism ... There is much to admire in this informative, thoughtful and highly readable work. Readers from any number of different backgrounds and with diverse musical, historical and cultural interests will find this work well worth their time – and of course I have not even begun to tell you about the wonderful insights into the life, work and music of Doc Watson that await you in this book. That part of the story is best left to the author and to the words of Doc himself.” – (from the Preface) Professor Jeffrey Klenotic, University of New Hampshire-Manchester

“President Jimmy Carter once called to him as ‘a national treasure.’ President Clinton conferred upon him the National Medal of Arts. But “Doc” Watson, one of the nation’s most distinctive musicians, would perhaps best like to be known simply as a good ole boy. Playing traditional music or modern classics, Doc Watson was sure to leave that ‘good old time flavor’ in his music, according to Dr. Fred Metting, author of this first rate study. In this book, the author examines the complex influences — a rich musical environment in childhood, a technological revolution in communications, nurturing and flexible management as a professional, and an inborn love of music in its many forms — that informed Doc Watson’s exceptional contribution to the American musical landscape ... People interested in American history, its music, its culture and traditions, will find ample fare in this study. Musicologists, ethnographers, scholars of memory and mass culture will be dining on Dr. Metting’s insightful analysis for some time to come. This book is imaginative, accessible, well written, and above all, certain to make a lasting contribution to the study of America’s musical roots.” – Professor Robert Macieski, University of New Hampshire-Manchester

“Arthel “Doc” Watson is recognized as one of the most important musicians in American history, not only for his prowess on acoustic guitar, but also, and more significantly, as a primary link between America’s traditional repertoire and the folk revival of the 1960s. His influence continues today on the music scene through his recordings and performances, and scholars like Dr. Fred Metting probe the sources and meanings of his work in American culture and social history. This book will be the first scholarly study of Watson’s music and tells a new and important story by considering fully the family of influences in Watson’s music. Here we see the full picture of the influences on Watson as well as the context in which those influences exfoliated in American music of the twentieth century. This is the fullest treatment of the music of Watson’s immediate family, and we see his American genius in the combinations of sacred music, fiddle tunes, traditional ballads, and African American music. Watson’s connections to other artists, such as the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Bill Monroe are examined not just as mutual influences but to show the transformative power of Watson’s music in this context ...” – Professor David Watters, University of New Hampshire-Durham

Table of Contents

Family, Friends, and Neighborhood
1. Fiddle Tunes
2. Ballads
3. Gaither Carlton
4. Clarence Ashley
5. Mountain Image
6. Merle Watson
7. Rockabilly
8. The Opry
9. The Bristol Sessions
10. Carter Family
11. Jimmie Rodgers
12. Riley Puckett
13. Merle Travis
14. Delmore Brothers
15. Bill Monroe
16. Guitar
17. The Circle Home
Selected Bibliography

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