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On a simple wooden stage in a brand new elementary school auditorium in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Doc Watson, a handsome blue-eyed blind man with a sun-browned and craggy brow, wavy hair and worker’s hands, sat on a stool in front of a crowd filled with a who’s who of Washington Square folkies and musicians, and he sang into the microphone at center stage, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” with a handful of other musicians gathered behind him, humming soft harmony.
Only a few blocks from this 37-year-old bard and his borrowed guitar, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center had not yet been built in Battery Park. And little did anyone in attendance that night know how Doc Watson’s version of “Amazing Grace” would travel around the world to land again in New York City in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001. He could never have guessed that the song he introduced to New York on March 25th, 1961 would be used as salve and as solace for an entire nation forty years later. A simple search of online videos yields countless tributes to fallen 9/11 police and firefighters, nearly all of them set to the moving melody of “Amazing Grace.” And memorial ceremonies each year are not complete without a bagpipe corps tolling the long, somber and majestic notes of “Amazing Grace” with their soothing drone.
Not unlike the bagpipes, Doc’s singing was simple, straight and true. He added no frills, displaying nothing but true piety and emotion as he sang the hymn, his eyes tightly shut, that Saturday night in April of 1961. John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers later spoke about Doc’s performance of “Amazing Grace” that day in New York: “I was in the audience and I remember how moved I was by that moment when a blind man was leading us on those verses in ‘Amazing Grace,’ ‘…was blind, but now I see…’ Then the mythology about ‘Amazing Grace’ grew.”2 Cohen recalled, “I think we all knew ‘Amazing Grace’ before this. But it never had an impact. It never sank in the same way. But with Doc leading it, it was this sweet, accessible tune.”2 Indeed, as a blind man from birth, Doc himself thought the hymn spoke to him directly. In a 1999 interview, Doc said, “When I leave this world, and these are my honest feelings, I’ll be able to see like you can, only maybe a bit more perfect.”3 Doc was able to bring the audience into his inner experience that night. It changed the course of the rest of his life.
Like the hymn “Amazing Grace,” despite his rapid rise to attention in the 1960s, Doc came from humble beginnings. As Doc Watson sat on the elementary school stage in Greenwich Village that Saturday in 1961, he still lived in poverty; Doc, his wife, and two children lived off of welfare and garden vegetables, and he had scarcely ever traveled an hour or two from his home in North Carolina. Little did Doc know that he was starting out on a successful music career that would span half a century.

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