Deep River Blues

It took a while to work Deep River Blues into the Community Guitar repertoire because Doc Watson's fingerstyle version of it is not only a signature piece of his, but a challenge that nearly every Country Blues fingerstyle player tackles at some point. But the song itself predates Doc's version and it is a joy to jam on, so we approach it in a way that's a little more conducive to group pickin'.

Doing so is reminiscent of how the song was originally done by the great early country brother duo, the Delmore Brothers, (shown here). They wrote and performed it as I've Got the Big River Blues. Doc himself credits them with inspiring him to learn the song, and then to develop his fingerstyle technique in the style of Merle Travis:

When I first began to hear the tune, I was fascinated by the sound they got out of the little tenor guitar -- the four-string -- and the regular flattop box. I never could figure a way to get even a resemblance of the sound that they got until I began to hear Merle Travis pick the guitar. When Merle plays the guitar, he gets a rhythmic beat going by bouncing his thumb back and forth on the bass strings, which he mutes with the edge of the palm of his hand.

In our version of the tune, the second rhythm part we play mimics the fingerstyle technique Doc is referring to by using the pick to go back and forth on the muted bass strings rather than the thumb. (This frees you up to launch into your blazing solo when your turn comes round!) If it takes you a little while to get the feel for this "alternating bass" technique, you're in good company. Doc concludes the comments above with this humble (and humbling) note:

I worked out that little back-up part first, but it took me about ten years before I got the whole thing sounding the way I wanted it.

Here's a clip from the Delmore Brothers recording that likely inspired Doc. The lead is played on the 4 string tenor Doc mentioned. (Shouldn't be too hard to pick that up by ear!)

Audio Clip: The Delmore Brothers on I've Got The Big River Blues

When all is said and done, though, it's Doc's version that made the song a standard, and rightly so. In case you haven't heard it, here's a clip from the must-have Vanguard recording, Doc Watson.

Audio Clip: Doc Watson on Deep River Blues

And just in case your Hall and Oates repertoire only goes as deep as Rich Girl and Sara Smile:

Audio Clip: Hall and Oates (yes, that Hall and Oates) on Deep River Blues


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