Acoustic Music, Bluegrass Music, Saturday Soundtrack
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Saturday Soundtrack: Doc Watson’s Deep River Blues

Heading into the week of Thanksgiving, I began considering music focused on thankfulness. Livingston Taylor’s short and lovely Thank You Song came to mind, but then I shifted my gaze and thought about musicians I am thankful to have had in my life. After a short mental inventory, I quickly came to the conclusion that one individual captured my ear in high school, and — fifty years later — remains there today to still give me pleasure.

Because a part of Thanksgiving is paying tribute to those who came before, I present this as my thank you for the life and music of the inimitable Doc Watson.

Doc passed away at age 89 in 2012 just a month after I saw him at his signature MerleFest music festival. That long life was filled with milestones. This blind singer and guitarist from Deep Gap, North Carolina became well known in what he laughingly called the early 1960s ‘folk scare.” Doc saw his career take off again in the early 1970s when he was featured on the landmark Will the Circle Be Unbroken album, leading to another generation — including me — discovering, and loving, his music. In 1988 he founded the Merle Watson Memorial Festival (MerleFest) to honor the legacy of his late son and musical partner Merle Watson. It now attracts more than 80,000 music lovers and musicians to North Carolina, usually in the last weekend in April but moved to September for 2021 due to the coronavirus.

Doc played with a wide range of musicians through the years and won eight Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2004. In 1997 President Bill Clinton said, when giving Doc the National Medal of Arts award, that every baby boomer who picked up an acoustic guitar tried, at some point, to emulate Doc’s playing. I certainly did.

And that’s the point of this post. Doc was my first guitar hero, but I wasn’t alone. I’ve written about my serendipitous conversation with guitar great Muriel Anderson where she mentioned that Doc was her first guitar hero. The line leading out from Doc is long and full of everything from prestigious musicians to basement buskers.

Doc made a wide variety of music his own, and he was famous for flatpicking fiddle tunes on the acoustic guitar. However, the Doc Watson tune that so many have worked to learn through the years is his famous fingerstyle version of the old Delmore Brothers song Deep River Blues. The Delmores were a 1930s brother duo from Elkmont, Alabama, and their version of the song was called Big River Blues. Doc took that simple country blues, which he probably heard on the radio as a young boy, and made it his own by using the Travis picking style made famous by country music star Merle Travis.

In one introduction to a live version of the tune, Doc modestly says that he figured out the bass line and then — after about 10 years — he was able to add the melody. You can see and hear the results in this video of an early Doc from the 1960s.

That simple sounding, yet complex pattern has captured the imagination of guitarists now for fifty years.

One of my favorite versions is also one of the most recent. The amazing Tommy Emmanuel recorded this duet of Deep River Blues with Jason Isbell for his 2018 album Accomplice One. As you would expect with Tommy, the guitar playing is outstanding and Isbell’s soulful singing is icing on the cake.

The next two versions are also from two top-flight masters of the guitar. The first, Leo Kottke, is known internationally for his work on the 12-string guitar. While not as famous, Jim Hurst is an accomplished musician who has toured solo, in a duo with Missy Raines, and as the guitarist in the Claire Lynch Band. Both Kottke and Hurst pay tribute to Doc’s influence on their music and careers with heartfelt versions of Deep River Blues. Hurst has some of the more inventive lead lines in this sampling, and I especially enjoy the fact the Hurst is using a Gallagher Guitar, the guitar that Doc made famous and played for years. If you click on the link, you’ll find that I have a 1977 G-50 Gallagher, purchased after I fell in love with Doc’s music.

I featured singer and guitarist Brooks Williams in a May 2020 Saturday Soundtrack. In the video below, Williams — who is from Statesboro, Georgia but now lives in the United Kingdom — gives the proper songwriting credit to The Delmore Brothers, but his energetic version is pure Doc Watson.

Now for something completely different, let’s turn to the Indian (as in India) bluegrass and folk band No Strings Attached. They play a spirited version of Deep River Blues, with a tasty mandolin break and one of the most unique, bluesy vocal stylings I’ve ever heard on this song.

I’ll end this tribute with another tribute, from singer/songwriter Tim O’Brien. In this 13 minute Talking Doc Watson Deep River Blues, O’Brien expands on a blog post he wrote for his website all the while playing Deep River Blues. O’Brien — a wonderful songwriter — packs whimsy and wisdom into this story of stopping by Doc’s house a few months before Doc died. It is another take on Doc’s amazing legacy.

So listen to one or listen to them all. One of my goals for my gap year was to learn to play a decent version of Deep River Blues after messing around with it for almost 50 years. (I can be a slow and stubborn learner.) But that was one gap year goal I met, and I play my own tribute to Doc and Deep River Blues at least 3-4 times each week. If you could be transported to my house, you could hear the following coming up from my busking spot in our music room:

Let it rain, let it pour, let it rain a whole lot more
‘Cause I got them deep river blues
Let the rain drive right on, let the waves sweep along
‘Cause I got them deep river blues

My old gal’s a good old pal, and she looks like a water fowl
When I get them deep river blues
Ain’t no one to cry for me, and the fish all go out on a spree
When I get them deep river blues

Give me back my old boat, I’m gonna sail if she’ll float
‘Cause I got them deep river blues
I’m goin’ back to Muscle Shoals, times are better there I’m told
‘Cause I got them deep river blues…

Let’s all head back to Muscle Shoals, where I hear that times are getting better. Thanks, Doc Watson.

Enjoy, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

More to come…

DJB

Image by DJB of Doc Watson at the 2012 — and his last — Merlefest.

2 Comments

  1. We have a few things in common DJB …music, politics, and helping others.
    However, I’m not computer savvy and sometimes even spellcheck
    does’t know what word I’m trying to spell.
    I found you’re site while looking for Gallaghers on ebay and somehow
    “More To Come” popped up. I have a few stories about Don G.sr, Doc
    and Merle at Denver Folklore Center on 11/21/69, Anthony Lee at Auburn U.
    1964? etc.
    Keep MTC coming DJB, I like people with talent!!!

    • Many thanks for the kind words. I grew up near Wartrace, and so would see J.W. and Don when I went by the shop back in the days. The Gallaghers sold the business to a man from my hometown in Murfreesboro, and he’s now building Gallagher Guitars there. Thanks for reading.

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