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Fresh Air Remembers Traditional Music Legend Doc Watson

Doc Watson, who was called "a living national treasure" for his virtuoso flat-picking and his repertoire of traditional folk and bluegrass tunes, has died. He was 89. Fresh Air remembers the blind guitar and banjo player with excerpts from a 1988 interview.


Other segments from the episode on May 30, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 30, 2012: Obituary for Doc Watson; Commentary on the word "hopefully."


May 30, 2012

Guest: Doc Watson

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our show today is dedicated to Doc Watson. He died yesterday at the age of 89. He was one of America's most revered folk musicians. In his prime, he was considered the finest flat-picker in the U.S.

Folklorist Ralph Rinzler was quoted in the New York Times today in Watson's obit as saying, quote, Watson is single-handedly responsible for the extraordinary increase in acoustic flat-picking and finger-picking guitar performance. His flat-picking style has no precedent in earlier country music, unquote.

Watson was born in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. When he was about one year old, an eye infection left him blind. For about 15 years, he toured and performed with his son Merle. In 1985, Merle was killed in a tractor accident. Watson organized an annual musical festival in his honor in North Carolina, known as Merlefest.

We're going to hear the interview I recorded with Doc Watson in 1988, but we're going to start with a couple of songs from the concert he recorded on our show in 1989. He brought with him guitarist Jack Lawrence, who was his longtime music partner.

I want to welcome both of you to FRESH AIR, and Doc Watson, can I ask you to introduce the first song?

DOC WATSON: Thank you, Terry. I think we'll do one that Merle and I - my son Merle and I - learned from John Hurt, a good old tune called "Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor."


WATSON: (Singing) Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, won't you make it down, make it soft and low, and then maybe my good gal, she won't know.

(Singing) I'm goin' up the country through that sleet and snow, goin' up the country through that sleet and snow. Yes, I'm goin' up the country through that sleet and snow, ain't no telling just how far I'll go.

(Singing) I get my breakfast here and my dinner in Tennessee, get breakfast here and dinner in Tennessee. Gonna get my breakfast here, my dinner in Tennessee, told you I's a-comin', so you'd better look for me.

(Singing) Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, won't you make it down, make it soft and low, and then maybe my good gal, she won't know.

What do you think about it, Jack? Hey, I like that notion right there.

(Singing) Well, you know that I can't lay down on your bed. Now, honey, I can't lay down on your bed. No, baby, I can't lay down 'cross your pretty bed 'cause my good woman, she might kill me dead.

(Singing) And don't you let my good gal catch you here. Hey, don't you let my good gal catch you here. If you do, she may shoot you, she might cut and stuff you too, ain't no tellin' what that gal might do.

(Singing) Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, won't you make it down, make it soft and low. And then maybe my good gal, she won't know.

(Singing) The way I've been sleepin', my back and shoulder's tired. The way I've been sleepin', my back and shoulder's tired. Yeah, the way I've been a-sleepin', my back and shoulder's tired. I think I'll turn, try sleepin' on my side.

(Singing) Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, won't you make it down, make it soft and low. And then maybe my good gal, she won't know.

Let's play some country counterpoint, son.

(Singing) Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, make it over, close behind that door. Make it where your good man will never go.


WATSON: Alright. Guitar straps will squeak, Jerry. That's the way it works. Here's a little tune about an old boy that, excuse me, that decided he's going to leave home and learn to travel. And he found a pretty little girl and got married and got two for the price of one. And I'll let the song tell you the rest of the tale. It's called "Give Me Back My 15 Cents."


WATSON: (Singing) I left my home in Tennessee, and I thought I'd learn to travel, but then I met with a pretty little gal, and soon we played the devil. I loved that gal, and she loved me, and I thought we'd live together, but then we tied that fatal knot, and now I'm gone forever.

(Singing) Gimme back my fifteen cents, gimme back my money; gimme back my fifteen cents, and I'll go home to Mammy. Yeah, let me hear your opinion.

Suey! (Makes oink sound) (Singing) 'Twas 15 cents for the preacher man and a dollar for the paper. Then dear old mother-in-law moved in, and, lordy, what a caper. I fiddled a tune for her one day, and she called me a joker. Then that old sow got mad at me and hit me with the poker.

(Singing) Gimme back my fifteen cents, gimme back my money; gimme back my fifteen cents, and I'll go home to Mammy.

(Singing) I worked in town, and I worked on the farm, but there was no way to suit 'em, they're both so dad-burn mean to me, somebody ought to shoot 'em. I'm tired of looking at my mother-in-law, I'd like to see my Granny, gonna leave the state of Arkansas and go back home to Mammy.

(Singing) Gimme back my fifteen cents, gimme back my money; gimme back my fifteen cents, and I'll go home to Mammy.

GROSS: Doc Watson, singing and playing guitar, along with guitarist Jack Lawrence, recorded in our studio in 1989. Watson died yesterday at the age of 89. We'll hear more of his FRESH AIR concert later.

The year before that concert, Doc Watson joined us for an interview. We talked first about how being blind affected his life.

I've read you say that if you weren't blind, you don't think you would have ever gone on the road. And I wasn't sure how to interpret that.

WATSON: I wouldn't have, because - exactly I was talking about: I would rather have a job where I could go home at night. I'd have played music of course, there's no doubt about that because I think you're born with music or whatever talent that comes out front in your blood, as the old-timers used to say, and you just couldn't help but pick the first time a guitar came along, you'd learn it.

But it would've been a hobby. I'd have liked to have been a carpenter or an electrician or something, kind of work like that, a mechanic if I could see. I can do rough carpentry work anyway.

GROSS: And didn't your father make the first banjo that you played?

WATSON: Yeah, he did. That was the summer of 1934. He made my first little stringed instrument. I had a harmonica before that. But dad showed me a few of the old-time frailing or clawhammer banjo style tunes and one day he brought it to me and put it in my hands and said, son, I want you to learn to play this thing real well. And some of these days we'll get you a better one. He said it might help you get through the world.

GROSS: And what was it like for you the first time you got the banjo into your hands? What did you do with it?

WATSON: I don't - you know, I really don't remember. I remember how I felt, but I don't remember hardly what it was like learning the first tunes. It was kind of hard for dad to show me because I couldn't see his hands. And it was a little tough.

But he finally got across to me how to do the licks on the banjo and how to note the thing. And I could figure out where the notes were because it was fretless. And you could slide along with your fingers, and finally you'd come to the right one, you know, and I found out how to get there without missing them.


GROSS: So you were really pretty self-taught.

WATSON: For the most part yes I was. The guitar, absolutely I was self-taught.

GROSS: How did you get your (technical difficulties)

WATSON: pulling the cross-cut saw. One spring, my dad told my youngest brother and I: Boys, if you'll cut all those dead chestnut - small dead chestnuts down along the road and along the edge of the field there, you can sell it for pulpwood to the tannery, and we went at it.

And we cut a couple of big truckloads. And it didn't make us a mint of money, but it made me enough to buy me a good little guitar from - well, I thought it was good at the time - from Sears Roebuck. And my younger brother ordered him a suit of clothes.


GROSS: Now considering that your early instruments were homemade banjos and a mail-order guitar, did you ever get really obsessed with the quality of instruments that you were playing? Some musicians just play what they have, and others get really obsessed with having instruments that are just right for them or custom made for them.

WATSON: I was fairly contented with what I had. I never had had my hands on a good guitar back in those days, and didn't for years. The first good guitar that I got hold of, that I would've considered much better than my mail-order box was a Martin guitar that Richard Green(ph) used to have a little music store under his - he had a boarding house or an inn there in Boone.

And I went in there one day with that little mail-order thing and he said: Why don't you let me help you get your good guitar? And I said, gosh, it cost too much. And he said: I'll tell you what I can do. I can get you a good Martin D-18 that will be a price that you can afford, and I'll take the payments down to five dollars a month.

And I couldn't beat that - I paid it off quicker than that - but I couldn't beat that with a stick. And at that time I was playing at the little fruit stand and a couple of - a little bean market they had in Boone and making me a few shekels on a Saturday, having a good time a-pickin', and I paid for the guitar that summer.

He got me that thing at his cost, and it cost 90 bucks, and I paid for it. Oh lord, I was proud of that guitar. But in all truth, compared to my guitar now, it was like fretting a fence.


WATSON: It was really hard to play

GROSS: I guess it's almost good, in a way, to get used to something like that because it makes it seem so much easier when you get a good guitar.

WATSON: Oh, it really does, and when I got into the folk revival in the '60s, I ran into people who could set a guitar action up to where you could play it, and I came onto another Martin along about that time, played a Gibson first on the road - borrowed. Then I came into another Martin, and the action was brought down to where you could play it.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview that Doc Watson recorded on our show in 1988. We'll continue our remembrance of Doc Watson after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: The revered folk guitarist and singer Doc Watson died yesterday at the age of 89. Let's get back to the 1988 interview I recorded with him.


WATSON: It was really during the folk revival that you started to become nationally known. I think you'd been playing dances and, you know, playing in your area...

I played rockabilly music through the '50s, and I played an electric guitar, a Les Paul.

GROSS: Well, see, this really interests me. You were playing rockabilly on an electric guitar.

WATSON: Rockabilly and old pop standards with an old boy named Jack Williams. Jack had a little group together, and when he heard me pick, he said, buddy, I want you to pick with me.


GROSS: Now, the way I understand it, Ralph Rinzler, who was working at the Smithsonian Institute, came down looking for traditional Southern musicians, came down your way and heard about you.

WATSON: He was looking for Clarence Ashley and found him, Clarence Tom Ashley. And I had played music with Tom on a few land sales and a few little shows here and there. And Ralph came over, and when he heard me, he persuaded me over my better judgment at the time that I had something to offer in the way of entertainment in the folk revival.

So I jumped in there with both hands, I reckon, thinking, well, if I fail, it won't mean I didn't try. So I'm here, and Ralph was a member of the Greenbrier Boys at the time.

GROSS: Now, you had been playing, you know, electric guitar. Did you have to switch over to acoustic in order to make it in the folk revival?

WATSON: Yeah, I switched back to the acoustic, oh yeah. Oh lord, if you'd have took an electric guitar on the stage on some of those festivals, they would have booed you off the stage if you were supposed to be - they used to call me ethnic, until they found out I knew a few other tunes other than the old hand-me-downs, you know, the ballads and the good old tunes that I cut my teeth on.

I think I really shocked some people in some of the clubs when I got my foot in the door. Ralph says now, when you get your foot in the door, you can expand out and play a little of the other music that you've played over the years, but stick strictly to traditional music and the good old ethnic stuff until you get started.

So that's what I did. I kind of deceived people a little, you know...

GROSS: Well, I want to play something that was recorded by Ralph Rinzler. I mean, Ralph Rinzler recorded it, you were performing.

WATSON: In my living room. In my living room, yeah.


GROSS: And this is a recording, it was from the early 1960s, and this is "Every Day Dirt." Tell us a little bit about the song before we hear this.

WATSON: A fellow, David McCurren(ph), was living in a mill town, Gastonia, North Carolina, and he heard about some recording sessions going on down, I think it was Knoxville, Tennessee. And he probably slung his guitar over his back, knowing how those poor old boys fared. He and a fellow Howard(ph), I've forgotten his given name, went over to Knoxville and recorded a bunch of things.

And "Every Day Dirt" was one of the songs that happened into our little record collection when I was a little boy, and those words are just - you know, they're automatic. I didn't even have to think about the lyrics on that. I did have to work at picking it. I learned off the old '78 record that McCurren recorded.

GROSS: OK, so from the early 1960s, this is my guest Doc Watson.


WATSON: (Singing) Now, John come home all in a wonder, rattled at the door just like thunder. Who is that, Mr. Hendley cried? 'Tis my husband, you must hide. Then John sat out by the fireside weeping, and up that chimney he got to peepin'. There he saw that poor old soul, settin' up a-straddle of pot-rack pole.

(Singing) Then John built on a rousing fire just to suit his own desire. His wife called out with a free good will: Don't do that, for the man you'll kill. Then John reached up and down he fetched him like a racoon dog he catched him. He blacked his eyes and then he did better: He kicked him out upon his setter.

(Singing) Then his wife, she crawled in under the bed, and he pulled her out by the hair of the head. And when I'm gone, remember then: He kicked her where the chinches had been.

GROSS: Recorded in the early 1960s, that's my guest Doc Watson. How did you learn how to pick that way? We found out that you were self-taught, but it seems like it would be really hard to teach yourself an intricate style like that.

WATSON: Well, by listening to the old records, you could hear, if you got familiarized with the instrument, you could hear what strings they were hitting on and what chord they were playing in just by the sound. After all, music is sound. And I think if anybody learns the guitar properly, they shouldn't - as soon as they can get to where they can stop looking at the neck and play without doing that, unless it's something really hard that you're first getting into.

You know, you need to memorize the distances and the jumps on the neck. Well, as I said, music is sound, and I could tell what the guy was doing, the little slide licks on there, where he goes down to a certain note, and then it jumps back up there.

All the chords are sound to me. It's like you reading something, once I was familiar with the guitar.

GROSS: Once you put down the electric guitar for the acoustic guitar, how often did you pick up the electric guitar again?

WATSON: Very seldom after I got into folk music and into the revival and began to play little jobs at coffee houses. I don't - I seldom, if ever, picked up the electric guitar.

GROSS: Do you miss it at all?

WATSON: No. I love a good electric guitar. That one wasn't all that good. It was a second, actually. It was a Les Paul, Gibson, but it really was a second, and the neck on it wasn't all that good. I thought it was a great thing when I first got hold of it. It had a beautiful sound.

But there's some that are so much better now than it was, sound-wise, you know, and as to play, that I occasionally - I picked up a Chet Atkins model, electric Gibson the other day, beautiful hollow-body. Oh, lord, now I was interested in that thing.


GROSS: Doc Watson recorded in 1988. We'll hear more of his interview and his 1989 FRESH AIR concert in the second half of the show. And we'll close this half of the show with a song from that performance. Watson died yesterday at the age of 89. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

WATSON: We'd like to do a little tune here, that I used to hear Brownie and Sonny do. It's a blues that everybody's had at one time or another. It's called "Stranger Blues." Two - three - four.


WATSON: (Singing) Well I'm a stranger here, I just blowed in to town. Yes I'm a stranger here, I just blowed in your town. And just because I'm a stranger, you don't have to dog me 'round. Well, sometimes I wonder why some people treat a stranger so. Sometimes I wonder why some people treat a stranger so. Can't find a place to stay, I just go from door to door. Well I'm a stranger here, I just blowed in your town. Yes I'm a stranger here, I just blowed in your town. And just because I'm a stranger, you don't have to dog me 'round.

Get them blues, boy.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our show today is dedicated to Doc Watson, the revered folk guitarist and singer. He died yesterday at the age of 89.

Watson grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and in his prime was considered the greatest guitar flatpicker in that U.S. Let's get back to the concert he recorded in our studio in 1989, along with guitarist Jack Lawrence.


WATSON: When the late Jimmie Rogers did his last sessions in the early '30s, he did some music that sat right in the age of the big band music of that day.


WATSON: Well, here's a pretty little tune ole Jim recorded called "Blue-eyed Jane."


WATSON: (Singing) The sweetest girl in the world lives in my hometown. We fell in love like turtle doves while the moon was shining down. I asked her then, I asked her when the wedding bells would ring. And she said, oh dear, it seems so strange that this could happen here. She is my sugar pie, oh to me, she is the sweetest gal. I love her so my blue-eyed Jane. And when the sun goes down and the shadow's creeping over town, she meets me in the lane, my blue-eyed Jane.

Play it, Pretty Jack.

(Singing) Listen here, Janie dear, I've come to say farewell. Sweetheart, you know I love you so much more than there's words to tell. But I must go away today. Honey, won't you come with me? 'Cause I'm gonna be blue, missing you, longing every day for you. I blue-eyed Jane, oh to me you are the sweetest thing. I love you so, my blue-eyed Jane. And when the sun goes down and the shadow's creeping over town, please meet me in the lane, my blue-eyed Jane.

(Singing) And the shadow's creeping over town, then I'll come home to you, My blue-eyed Jane.

GROSS: That's guitarist and singer Doc Watson with guitarist Jack Lawrence, recorded in our studio in 1989. Watson died yesterday at the age of 89. Let's get back to our 1988 interview with Doc Watson.

Once you went on the road during the folk revival, now you weren't use to traveling. There must have been a lot you learned - how to learn how to do. Did you have a business manager to help you out with bookings and...

WATSON: Ralph Rinzler did the bookings between he and Manny Greenhill at Folklore Productions. But Ralph traveled a lot with me and if he didn't when I would go to New York to work in the city, I came by Trailways Bus, someone would always meet me at the Port Authority and take me over to Ralph's apartment. I worked, lots of times I'd work at Gerde's Folk City a week or two weeks at a time doing either opening act just playing the job straight there. It was scary. I was as green as a green apple as far as the city. Country boy. Really a...

GROSS: Oh, yeah. Sure.

WATSON: As the old-timers used to say, a hayseed for sure. But the scary part finally and the adventure finally got over with and the road well, it became a job.


GROSS: Yeah, I could see what you mean.

WATSON: The music, the music, the good music. The good audience I love.

GROSS: You know, I think there's always clubs or maybe not many, but there's always some clubs willing to take advantage of a performer. And I would guess that someone who was blind was a more likely target if they didn't have people who were watching out for them. Did you ever have any problems with that?

WATSON: I sure was glad when my son Merle started on the road with me because if we went to a place and they didn't treat me too good, Dad, we won't come back here no more and that was the end of it. I'd tell Manny, I'd tell Mr. Greenhill, don't book that anymore. That was the end of it. We, you know, we didn't get too many places that they weren't really decent to us but once in a great while they are, of course, I won't call any names because we're on nationwide radio.


WATSON: But we were in a few places where they treated you like pieces of used equipment and that was the end of playing there. We just didn't do it, didn't do it again. That's the best thing you can do, you know, is not tolerate that. Just move away.

GROSS: You mentioned your son, Merle. Did you teach him how to play guitar?

WATSON: No. The Merle didn't show any interest in the guitar until he was 15. I was on my first concert tour, solo concert tour that spring, and about midways of it, Ralph called me and said Doc, I've got some good news. And I said well, lay it on me. And he said Merle has started playing the guitar. His mother Rosa Lee started him on the guitar. She taught him his first chords and show them how to play them and a little bit about timing and he just took it and went with it. And we met John Hurt for the first time, that same summer we went to the Berkeley Folk Festival and Merle played backup guitar for me. He'd only been playing about three months and he played backup guitar on the stage. And we met - when we met John Hurt, Merle was enthralled by John's finger style on the guitar and he took that and added a few little notions of his own and that's where Merle's picking style, finger style came from.

GROSS: So he never felt that he had to work hard to differentiate his style from your style?

WATSON: Merle, he once in a while he asked me for some pointers on a melody to a song or something but Merle played his very own thing on the guitar. I don't think he even ever asked me how to hold a pick. He probably looked at the way I held it. But I never really sat down and taught him how you get this note or that note. I just played a song and sang it and he jumped in there and learned the lead to it.

Like "Summertime," for instance, I had heard a version of that and I said Merle, what do you think about learning this? And I played the thing, about halfway through and he said gosh, I don't know. It sounds like it would be hard. And so help me, in five minutes he could play the lead to it.


WATSON: And when we did the recording, I'll say this about it then we'll move on. When we did the recording the producer, Jack Clement, came running through and said boys, don't touch it. It was the first take. He says that one's the way it should be. And Merle said well, it was spontaneous. I think he said Dad, I'll have to go back and memorize what I did. Those things happen in the studio a lot of times. You know, after you learned song you'll hear notes that you just reach for and they're there and you play things that you hadn't played before.

GROSS: I've noticed that a lot of musicians that they meet all these people who've memorized their licks and they have no idea what they played.


GROSS: They were just being spontaneous and everybody else goes and memorizes it. When your son Merle died was it hard for you to go back on the road afterwards?

WATSON: If you'll pardon a little intimacy here, I'll tell you something that happened or I wouldn't have. Between the time he was killed and his funeral, I dreamed I was in a dark desert and it was so hot you couldn't breathe and the sand was pulling me down like if you were in quicksand and a big strong hand reach back and said come on Dad, you can make it. And he brought me, lead me out to where it was cool but there was a cool - sunny but there was a cool breeze. And I waked up and I thought well, I'll try and I took up the last job on that particular tour that we'd cancelled. And my friend Jack Lawrence had been working some while Merle was off the road with us for quite a while and Jack stayed on as the other guitarist.

And I'm kind of glad I did. If I had stayed off the road a month I never would have come back. It was so hard, you know, well, no, you couldn't know Terry, but it was really hard to go back out there without him.

GROSS: I guess that dream kind of gave you permission in a way to do it.

WATSON: It was - I believe it was godsend, I think the dream was.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

We're listening back to a 1988 interview with Doc Watson. We'll hear more of this interview and FRESH AIR concert after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: We're dedicating today's show to the revered folk guitarist and singer Doc Watson. He died yesterday at the age of 89. Let's get back to our 1988 interview with him.

You know, we've been - I've been using the word virtuoso today. And I would guess that one of the problems of being a virtuoso is that people want to hear you play fast all the time - to hear you really, you know, do the most difficult stuff that you can do.

WATSON: Well, yeah, a lot of people do get into that. But usually if you have a big audience you can't really take requests from the - when you're on stage so you just program your set and you season it with enough of that to keep the people who love the flashy things satisfied...


WATSON: ...and kind of do a sensible set. I don't mind it if people like to hear the flatpicking and it does give you a boost to get a lot of yells and whistles and screams from the audience, you know, but I love the good solid music too and most of the audience do. Really they - when it comes right down to it they like to hear you, the whole scope of the thing. Being accused of being a virtuoso doesn't bother me as bad as people trying to put me on a pedestal, especially when they're my own age.

GROSS: What do you mean by putting you on a pedestal?

WATSON: Well, they act like you're a god or something, you know? Lord, I'm just people like everybody else. I do play the guitar but I had to work awful hard at it to learn what I know.

GROSS: Can I ask you a question that I hope you don't mind me asking? And if you do, don't answer it.


GROSS: A lot of performers who are blind wear dark glasses when they perform, and that's something you've never done.

WATSON: I don't know why I always hated - used to have a good bit of light perception, doesn't bother me now because most of its gone. But the reflection off sunglasses, you know how they come in on the sides? I guess they make them now that won't do it, but boy, they used to try to get me to wear them. I reckon they didn't like the way my eyes looked. A lot of people say you ought to wear sunglasses. I hated them.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WATSON: And I wouldn't do it. And I just never have worn them. I don't know if the blind that wear them their eyes look really abnormal or what. I don't know. I've never did care Terry, to wear them, just didn't do it.

GROSS: Right.

WATSON: No particular reason except what I told you.

GROSS: One last thing, you know, there's a really nice recording from the early '60s of you and your wife singing together. Does she still sing? Do you ever sing together?

WATSON: She doesn't sing any more or play any more. The tragedy of losing Merle, Terry, has just about undone her. She does the office work there at home but she's not Rosa Lee anymore. Bless her little heart, she - I don't know, sometimes I just want to cry. And, you know, especially when I'm away from her I do when I think about it. I try not to and try to encourage and what I can. It's a tough - it's been tough on her and she can't seem to get over the loss. The grief really has her yet.

GROSS: Yeah, I can understand. But, I regret we're out of time. I want to thank you so much for coming, for talking with us about music. And thank you very much. And I hope you have a good continuing year on the road.


WATSON: I'll guarantee, it's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Doc Watson, recorded on FRESH AIR in 1988. We'll conclude our remembrance of him with two more songs from the concert he recorded on our show with guitarist Jack Lawrence in 1989.

WATSON: Jack, I think a good ole train song might be in order right here. Son, I remember that song over there that Brother Jimmy Jet wrote. And I'm going to plug an album right here. I ain't supposed to do this, but it's on an album I did for Sugar Hill called "Riding the Midnight Train." A bluegrass album. My first endeavor on pure bluegrass. "Greenville Trestle" is a song for the train buffs that love the good ole steam engine sounds and all that good - I remember when I went to school at Raleigh. The train went by every 20 minutes on average. And this song makes me think of those days.


WATSON: (Singing) I remember as a boy how in wonderment and joy I'd watch the trains as they'd go by. And the whistle's lonesome sound you could hear for miles around as it rolled across that Greenville Trestle High. But the whistles don't sound like they used to. Lately not many trains go by. Hard times across this land mean no work for a railroad man and the Greenville Trestle now don't seem so high. Pick it, son.

(Singing) On the riverbank I'd stand with my cane pole in my hand and watch the freight trains up against the sky. And that black smoke trailing back as they moved along the track that runs across that Greenville Trestle High. But the whistles don't sound like they used to. Lately not many trains go by. Hard times across this land mean no work for a railroad man and the Greenville Trestle now don't seem so high.

(Singing) When the lonesome whistles whine I get rambling on my mind. Lord, I wish they still sounded that way. As I turn to head for home, Lord, she'd rumble low and long toward the sunset at the close of day. But the whistles don't sound like they used to. Lately not many trains go by. Hard times across this land mean no work for a railroad man and the Greenville Trestle now don't seem so high. No, the Greenville Trestle now don't seem so high.

GROSS: We're featuring a live concert today with Doc Watson and Jack Lawrence and it looks like we'll have time for one more song.

WATSON: Jack, while we're at it there, that instrumental sounded pretty good. Let's do 'em a little bit of something that ain't quite country here to kind of wind it down with. Something called "Bye Bye Blues." When we play anything it's country, though.


WATSON: Get in there, Mr. Lawrence.

GROSS: Guitarist and singer Doc Watson, along with guitarist Jack Lawrence, recorded in our studio in 1989. Doc Watson died yesterday at the age of 89. We're grateful for all the music he left behind. You can download the full FRESH AIR Doc Watson concert and the interview on our website Coming up, vindication for those of us who use the word hopefully. This is FRESH AIR.


TERRY GROSS, HOST: Hopefully, you enjoy listening to FRESH AIR. And if you're about to criticize me for using that word "hopefully," think again. The Associated Press is no longer condemning the use of the adverb "hopefully" in their style guide. The announcement was a warning to those who have made the adverb the biggest bugaboo of English usage over the last 50 years. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg thinks it's the end of an era and that's a good thing.

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: There was something anticlimactic to the news that the AP Style Guide will no longer be objecting to the use of "hopefully" as a floating sentence adverb, as in "Hopefully, the Giants will win the division." But these usage fixations have a tenacious hold. William Safire once described the hopefully rule as the litmus test that separated the language snobs from the language slobs. And the rule still has plenty of fans, to judge from the 700 or so comments on The Washington Post's story about the AP's decision.

That floating "hopefully" had been around for more than 30 years when a clutch of usage critics like Theodore Bernstein and E. B. White came down on it hard in the 1960s. Writers who had been using it up to then said their mea culpas and pledged to forswear it. Its detractors were operatic in their vilifications.

The poet Phyllis McGinley called it an abomination and said its adherents should be lynched. And the historian T. Harry Williams went so far as to pronounce it the most horrible usage of our times. That was a singular distinction in an age that gave us expressions like "final solution" and "ethnic cleansing," not to mention "I'm Ken and I'll be your waitperson for tonight."

But you wouldn't want to take that usage hysteria at face value. A usage can be really, really irritating, but that's as far as it goes. You hear people saying that a misused "hopefully" or "literally" makes them want to put their shoe through the television screen, but nobody ever actually does that. What it really makes them want to do is tell you how they wanted to put a shoe through the television screen.

It's all for display, like rhesus monkeys baring their teeth and pounding the ground with their palms. Of course, even if you find the tone of those complaints histrionic, you can still sympathize with their substance. I feel a crepuscular wistfulness when I hear people confusing "enormity" with "enormousness" or "disinterested" with "uninterested." It doesn't herald the decline of the West, but it does signal another little unraveling of the threads of literary memory.

But the fixation with "hopefully" is different from those others. For one thing, the word itself is so utterly inconsequential - is that the best you've got? More to the point, there's no rational justification for condemning it. Some critics object that it's a free-floating modifier that isn't attached to the verb of the sentence but rather describes the speaker's attitude.

But floating modifiers are mother's milk to English grammar. Nobody objects to using sadly, mercifully, thankfully or frankly in exactly the same way. Or people complain that "hopefully" doesn't specifically indicate who's doing the hoping. But neither does "it is to be hoped that," which is the phrase that a lot of critics propose as a substitute. That's what these usage fetishes can drive you to; you cross out an adverb and replace it with a six-word impersonal passive construction, and you tell yourself you've improved your writing.

But the real problem with these objections is their tone-deafness. People get so worked up about the word that they can't hear what it's really saying. The fact is that "I hope that" doesn't mean the same thing that "hopefully" does. The first just expresses a desire; the second makes a hopeful prediction.

I'm comfortable saying "I hope I survive to 105." I mean, it isn't likely, but who knows. But it would be pushing my luck to say "Hopefully, I'll survive to 105," since that suggests it might actually be in the cards. So why would critics decide to turn this useful little adverb into the era's biggest bugaboo?

Well, the very unreasonableness of the objections helps make the rule an efficient badge of belonging. You could never guess the rule. Somebody who came to "hopefully" armed only with a keen ear for English grammar and style would have no way of knowing that anybody had a problem with it. You can only know about it if you're the sort of person who actually reads usage guides or who has tea with others who do. It's not enough just to be literate; you have to have pretensions to being one of the literati.

That helps to explain the curious persistence of the fetish. Since 1969, the American Heritage Dictionary has been sending surveys about usage questions to a panel of well-known writers and editors. For some years I worked with them preparing those surveys. Over time, the panelists generally become less sticklerish about traditional bugaboos like using "aggravated" for "irritated" or "nauseous" for "nauseated." The only exception is that floating "hopefully." When they started sending out the surveys, only about half the panelists objected to it; by 1999 it was unacceptable to 80 percent.

The prejudice against "hopefully" will no doubt survive for a while among the scribbling classes zombie-style. But it's the last of its breed. People will always have their crotchets, those scraps of grammatical lore they learned at the end of Sister Petra's ruler. But there's no one around now who could anoint a brand-new litmus test for grammatical purity.

Safire was the last guru who was invested with that kind of authority. But he wound up accepting the stigmatized use of "hopefully" early on. So should all the rest of us. We'll encounter some grousing from the defiant one-percenters. But hopefully, my dear, we won't give a damn.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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