It was a heavy blow to receive the first e-mail from my old friend David Holt, informing me that Doc Watson had been hospitalized after falling at home. I’m well aware that at age 89, a bad fall can be catastrophic. I first saw Doc perform on the National Mall in Washington at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival; I hope it’s not too trite to say the experience changed my life.
Who knows how many guitar players Doc inspired? While I played a little, I knew I could never achieve anything close to his level of skill. Doc was as much a virtuoso as any great musician you can name. All I wanted to do from that point onward was to create similar opportunities for people to discover such amazing artists who seemed so utterly modest and matter-of-fact about their genius.
I had the fortune to come back to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1973 as a paid summer intern after my junior year at Duke University. So enthralled was I that I took a leave of absence from school to work for the festival through the fall. The following year, the university gave me funding to organize the first North Carolina Folklife Festival on the Duke campus. I wasn’t able to present Doc then, but we featured a number of his talented relatives from Deep Gap.
In 1976 I was invited to direct the festival on a grander scale at Durham’s West Point on the Eno Park as part of the bicentennial celebration. Afterward the Department of Cultural Resources hired me (with help from NCMA Director Larry Wheeler, who was deputy secretary of DCR at the time) to document and promote North Carolina’s folk arts and culture full time. It was a dream come true, but I didn’t feel I’d fully succeeded until I finally had the chance to present the great Doc Watson at the second North Carolina Folklife Festival in 1978. It was especially meaningful to me that my mentor Ralph Rinzler, the director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the man who brought Doc into the wider world, came down from Washington to introduce him.
Since then I’ve had the honor of presenting Doc in various festival and concert settings, and he appeared at the NCMA three or four times. He was 87 on his last visit, but you wouldn’t have known it. He was strong in voice and playing as impressively as ever. But after that the years began to exact their toll, and the man I thought to be possibly immortal grew frail. We were set to present what we knew (though we couldn’t say it) would be Doc’s public finale on June 30.
The event was never meant to be just another Doc Watson concert, but rather a Doc Watson celebration, a chance for all of us to express our appreciation for the wonderful music and example he provided over five decades. We planned to surround Doc with his closest friends and picking partners and take a day to reflect on his remarkable life and career and contribution to our national culture.
When I spoke with David Holt within a few hours of Doc’s passing we knew we needed to carry on with our plans, now more than ever. We hope you will join us Saturday for this day of stories and song and celebration of a North Carolina treasure.
—George Holt is the NCMA’s director of performing arts and film programs.