Oh, How Sweetly They Ring

The late Doc Watson inspired a wish that would be fulfilled.

Chris Gall

Doc Watson

It was a balmy, starry night, the kind where dreams are writ large across the sky and all is right with the world. My wife, Jessica, and I had brought our four young daughters (all under the age of 10) from Richmond to Lexington for a special concert at the Lime Kiln, an enchanting outdoor theater built among the stone ruins of an old lime quarry.

The singer and musician on stage, a family favorite, was Arthel “Doc” Watson, whose songs—whether folk, gospel, blues or bluegrass—we could all sing together and appreciate on our own levels.

Over the years, Doc’s music had intertwined with my life in memorable ways. Not that I liked it when I first heard it blaring from a frat house window in Chapel Hill. Doc’s husky Appalachian tenor, seemingly from another point in time, made this Piedmont boy feel out of place and blue. I wasn’t into blue. (It wasn’t until the Violent Femmes came along that I realized that art often hurts before it heals.)

A few years later, I had a change of heart. Having moved to New York City to work as a freelance editor for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, I was homesick for Virginia. When I saw a flier for a free outdoor show at Lincoln Center, I thought it might be a good way to kill a few hours. Instead, it was transformative.

It was only when an usher led Doc up the aisle with an arm linked through his, that I realized he was blind. Doc, who had lost his sight from an eye infection as an infant, started playing the harmonica by the age of six, the banjo soon thereafter and the guitar—the instrument he would come to renown on—by the age of 12.

He played that hot summer day for three hours, telling stories and jokes in his resonant voice, chuckling and smiling. His fingers and pick flew across the strings, and when he tired, he’d look over to his sidekick and say, “Deliver the mail, Brother Jack,” and off Jack would go.

The year before, Doc’s son, Merle, a singer and a guitar and banjo maestro, who traveled and played with Doc for 20 years, had been killed in a tractor accident. Doc nearly stopped playing then, but he said Merle came to him in a dream and told him to keep at it. When Doc sang “Keep on the Sunny Side,” it really meant something.

I was swept off my feet. The next Valentine’s Day, Jessica, then my girlfriend, received “Down South,” personally signed to her by Doc (well, the “X” was his anyway). She got the bug, too. We caught Doc concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Bottom Line. At one show, we introduced two friends who went on to get married. I took a guitar-playing editor from Henry Holt to another to convince him I should write a biography of Doc. By the end of the show, he said, “If you can get him to do it, I’ll buy it.”

I never could get Doc interested. He said he didn’t want a biography of his life written. Too much pain? I don’t know.

On this night at the Lime Kiln, at intermission, I ran into Doc’s grandson, Merle’s son Richard, a finger-pickin chip off the old blocks. In most circumstances, I wouldn’t approach a performer. I don’t want to bother him or to come across as just another fan. The combination tongue-ties me.

But suddenly I was just a dad who didn’t want to disappoint his kids. I told Richard that my four daughters really loved the song “Prayer Bells of Heaven.” I asked him if they could play it. Of all the Doc songs we listened to, this was the most requested. It’s a melodic, simple, happy song and always set us off in a chorus. “Doc doesn’t usually take requests,” Richard said, “but I’ll ask him.” I thanked him and sheepishly walked away.

Partway into the second set, Doc paused and said, “We don’t usually play this song, but we’ve had a request. We’re gonna see if we can do it.” Sure enough, the band started playing “Prayer Bells of Heaven.” Goose bumps rose on my arms.  

As Doc launched into the lyrics, “While we are living in this world of care,” I looked around to the girls to see their thrill and bask in the moment. “There’s a prayer bell at the Lord’s right hand,” came the familiar words, “Give it a ring and he will understand.”

It was late, and the girls were intertwined like exhausted puppies—and sound asleep. A gentle nudge produced no response.  

So Jessica and I simply enjoyed one more grand moment with Doc Watson (1923-2012), a blind man with incredible vision, an otherworldly talent with a radiant smile. Doc—who always delivered the mail—lives on for us not only in his recordings, but in his “X” signed CDs and in a family story about the night all four girls slept through a wish fulfilled.

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