Remembering Rosa Lee
On Thanksgiving morning, Nov. 22, Rosa Lee Watson left this
world six months after her long-time husband, Doc Watson, died in May, and 27 years after their son,
Merle, tragically lost his life in 1985.
Rosa Lee, however, was more than just the wife, mother and grandmother of famous musicians, as she co-wrote one of the most beloved songs in American roots music, “Your Long Journey.”
Rosa Lee grew up in a musical family as the daughter of the great Wilkes Country fiddler and banjo player Gaither Carlton. Carlton, Doc and Rosa Lee first became known to the world on the 1963 album, “The Watson Family,” culled from field recordings collected by International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame musicologist Ralph Rinzler and others. On that recording, Doc and Rosa Lee sing a duet of that enduring song that they wrote together.
In a live recording captured not long ago, Doc tells the story of how Rosa Lee came up with “Your Long Journey.”
“Rosa Lee was sweeping the house one Sunday morning when Merle was four and our daughter, Nancy, was two, and all at once she was humming something and she’d stop,” Doc Watson said. “I said, ‘What are you doing, honey?’ She said, ‘I’m a writin’ a song.’ I said, ‘Well, when you hum it next time, I’m going to see if I can figure out a guitar arrangement that goes with it.’”
The rest, they say, is history, as many artists have covered “Your Long Journey” on recordings and on stage (sometimes you’ll see it listed as “Your Lone Journey”). Many folks were introduced to the song when it appeared on the Grammy Award-winning album by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant called “Raising Sand.”
If you do a search of the mountain ballad on YouTube, you will find many versions, including one by the rock band, Heart, playing with Krauss, as well as renditions by a couple of impressive trios, including Tim O’ Brien, Aoife O’ Donovan and Del McCoury and Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
And, in an example of an original composition written in Wilkes County that has traveled the world, there is the surprisingly moving performance of “Your Long Journey” by a band called Stressed Hedgehog on a rainy day at a festival in their native land of Slovakia (tinyurl.com/cowfawx).
Every April, off to the side of the main Watson Stage at MerleFest, there sit two rocking chairs up front that are reserved for Doc and Rosa Lee Watson. They’re both gone now, and only time will tell whether their progeny will sit in their place and represent the Watson Family in the years to come.
For more than a decade, Doc performed on the Watson Stage with long-time musical collaborator David Holt. Their 3-CD duet album, “Legacy,” won a Grammy Award 10 years ago.
“Rosa Lee Watson was always sweet and gentle, and yet she was the backbone of the family,” Holt said in an interview with The Mountain Times. “She was a wonderful mountain singer who wrote one of the great songs of all time, ‘Your Lone Journey.’ It will be sung long into the future.”
Another musician who has performed at MerleFest since the event’s origins is John Cowan, known for his work with the legendary New Grass Revival back in the 1970s and ’80s. He now plays bass for the Doobie Brothers, while fronting his own John Cowan Band. On the afternoon of Rosa Lee’s death, Cowan paid tribute.
“This is a day to give thanks to Doc Watson, his lovely bride, Rosa Lee, and their wonderful son, Merle, as they are all ‘dancin’ with the angels’ now,” Cowan said. “Thank you for sharing your souls with us and shining your light onto us and leading us out of our seeming perpetual darkness.”