Traditional musician and songwriter Rosa Lee Carlton Watson died on November 22 in Boone, North Carolina. The Watauga County native was born in 1931 to Lucy Robbins Carlton and fiddler Gaither Carlton. As a girl she was courted by a near neighbor and distant cousin, Arthel “Doc” Watson, who once said of the effect that meeting her had on him, “You might as well have hit me over the head with a bludgeon . . . every breath of every day was her name.” In 1947, at the age of 15, she married Doc Watson, who was then 23.
Though Rosa Lee Watson was herself a person of significant talent, she was best known to fans of traditional music in the context of her talented family. For more than sixty years she was Doc Watson’s wife and partner, and he spoke of her with affection and admiration during countless performances and interviews. She taught their son Eddy Merle his first guitar chords. Watson recorded several vocal duets with her husband, most famously the 1963 recording of “Your Long Journey” that appeared on the Folkways album The Watson Family. The song, which Rosa Lee and Doc co-wrote, has become a classic of the old-time song canon in the generations since they first sang it.
Watson had been a patient at a rehabilitation center for the last year and a half of her life, following a series of strokes. She died nearly six months to the day after her husband, and is buried with him at the Doc and Merle Watson Family Cemetery in Deep Gap, North Carolina. The Watsons are survived by their daughter Nancy of Deep Gap, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and Rosa Lee’s siblings, nieces, and nephews.