Doc Watson died on Tuesday. Yesterday I listened to some of the recordings he made over his long career and, while I have little musical knowledge and less talent, as Justice Stewart famously said of pornography, I know beauty when I see it . . . or in this case, hear it. Years ago I used to ask myself: who has made a greater difference to the world, Mozart or Napoleon? Winston Churchill or Paul Cezanne? This was not an idle question because I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, and one of my aspirations was to leave behind some small legacy. I thought bigger in those days, but the question was really: who has a more lasting influence on the world – those who seek to create something beautiful, often by withdrawing into a private world, or those who are driven to immerse themselves in public affairs?
I was brought up firmly in the latter camp, taught that leadership meant service to others and being fully engaged in public life, not in the self-absorbed worlds of artists and dreamers. My history books told of the lives of “doers” – generals, statesmen, titans of industry, even, in the modern versions, rebels and labor leaders. Artists were relegated to sidebars in catchall chapters on culture.
But art endures, as empires don’t. And artists have borne witness in ways history texts don’t capture. And beauty seems a greater legacy than conquest.
And Doc Watson, blind since infancy, sure could play.