On this day in WNC history: On May 27, 1973, “Doc” Watson became Dr. Watson, awarded an honorary doctorate in folk arts from Appalachian State University before the audience of graduating students. He delivered the commencement address and played hymns and a version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” alongside Merle, his son. Doc, who attended school for just six years, received the honorary title for “[bringing] a nation and a world an insight into a way of life.”
Watson was born in nearby Deep Gap in 1923. He lost his eyesight before age two, but learned guitar in his childhood—and became quite good. His given name, Arthel, was replaced by his nickname “Doc” as he graduated from playing street corners, to a country band in 1953. Watson, with his fast flatpicking style, soon played in Greenwich Village and then at the Newport Folk Festival. He recorded his first solo album in 1964 and began playing in a trio with his son throughout the 1970s. By 1973, he had recorded eight albums and won his first of seven Grammy’s earlier that year.
Doc played stages all over the world and helped popularize old time and bluegrass music during the folk-revival period of the 1960s. He recorded thirty-eight albums, and left us lasting covers of traditional songs such as “Shady Grove,” “Sitting on Top of the World,” and “Tom Dooley.” Watson, who went on to win the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, shared with the 1973 graduates the sage advice given to him by his own father: “Son, the best policy’s honesty, and always treat the other fellow just like you’d like to be treated.” He received a standing ovation from the crowd of 9,000, and is still beloved by App State alumni and Boone residents today.