Keeping on the Sunny Side (RIP Doc Watson)

This fuzzy photograph sort of captures 86-year-old Doc Watson playing at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2009.

I suppose this piece is largely superfluous. If it serves any purpose at all it’s only to make my life appear a bit less insignificant.
Doc Watson had that kind of effect on folks.
(By the way, it sure has been a tough spring out there. The American roots universe has lost three giants in two months, as the death of Arthel Lane Watson comes hard on the heels of the passing of first Earl Scruggs and then Levon Helm. Gather ye concert tickets, and check some shit out, yo.)
Yeah, I saw Doc Watson live a handful of times in the past quarter century. Not that that makes me special. Just lucky, I guess.
Think I first saw Doc in the late 1980s at the International House in Philadelphia on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. At least that’s what my buddy Peter tells me. I have only the vaguest recollection going to that show. Frightening, it is.
I saw him occasionally in the intervening years, including several times at Merlefest, the gathering he founded as a musical memorial to his son and playing partner, Merle Watson. I also saw him in Tacoma and for the last time at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2009.
Yet I have only one outstanding Doc Watson memory. I had cajoled three friends – Terry Mosher, Steve Zugschwerdt and, of course, Charles Starkley, to accompany me to the show in Tacoma. I don’t remember the year, though it was at least a decade ago. I don’t even remember the venue.
What do I remember?
Doc played with longtime traveling partner Jack Lawrence. He sang “Nights in White Satin,” the old Moody Blues standard which was long part of his repertoire.
At some point he took a moment between songs to tell a damn funny story which involved some poor Appalachian housewife and mother who got unsolicited visits from three different preachers on the same day. I think the first preacher asked for one of her fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies. The second wanted a drink of whiskey. The third, well, he wanted something a bit more personal.
I wish I remembered it better. But it’s similar to this story, which is recorded for posterity on Doc’s “On Stage” album, which he recorded with Merle:

There’s a couple of preachers, a Baptist and a Methodist, livin’ in either end of a little community, and it was back in the days when people didn’t have many cars — they rode bicycles to church.
And one Sunday mornin’, when the Methodist feller comes a-whistlin’ along down the road on his bicycle, he meets that Baptist boy walkin’.
And he asked him where his bike was, and he says, “You know, I don’t know where that thing’s at — if someone didn’t steal it,” he said, “I’ve left it somewhere’s and forgot what I’d done with it.”
“Well,” he said, “I’ll tell you,” the Methodist feller says, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’ll go down to the churches this mornin’ and preach a good sermon on the Ten Commandments — and when we get down to where it says ‘Thou shall not steal’, we’ll dwell long and loud, and chances are one of our sermons will pay off.”
Next Sunday mornin’, they come ridin’ along down the road, he met the Baptist feller, he had his bicycle, he says, “Well, one of our sermons paid off!”
And the Baptist boy dropped his head, he says, “Yeah, mine did, but not like you think,” he says, “When I got down there to where it says ‘Covet not thy neighbor’s wife’, I remembered where I’d left my bicycle!”

Great stuff. Doc was a fine raconteur, a talent only enhanced by his gentle Carolina drawl. And he was always good for at least one tale that popped the balloons of the self-righteous and pompous.
But mostly I recall the finale, an uplifting rendition of the old-time classic “Keep on the Sunny Side.”
When I say “uplifting,” I’m not just employing a worn-out adjective for effect.
No shit. We walked out of that theater, or more to the point, glided out of the theater and onto the streets of Tacoma.
It was as if we’d been granted supernatural buoyancy, however temporary. We floated down the street, tapping our toes and keeping on the sunny side all the way to our car. We were, for a moment, high on life. And we had Doc Watson to thank.
That about says it all.
Doc Watson had the power to make you feel good about life. He enabled you to transcend the pettiness and pretense of this dirty, covetous old world.

So when you read that Doc Watson was a “Grammy-winning folk musician,” or even a “blind guitar wizard,” it only scrapes the surface.
The greatest thing about Doc Watson wasn’t his flatpicking legerdemain, dazzling and soul-stirring though it was.
The greatest thing about Doc Watson was the human decency, wry humility and bedrock country soul that seemed to ooze from his pores.
It was right there, in your face, and you couldn’t deny it.
“He wants to be remembered as a pretty good old boy,” Jack Lawrence was quoted as saying in the New York Times obituary. “He doesn’t put the fact that he plays the guitar as more than a skill.”
I am pretty sure he realized that goal.
And the world’s a bit poorer today, shy as it is one pretty good old boy.

PS. On the guitar-playing side of things, lost in all the understandable hosannas for his flatpicking prowess is this: Doc Watson could do some pretty sweet fingerpicking, too. Here he is in a great video from 1967, sounding a little like Blind Blake:

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