With Tommy Emmanuel's new release of the track "Deep River Blues" on his Accomplice One album, it's time to take a fresh look at where this song originates. There's no doubt that the song is best known as performed by Doc Watson, under the title "Deep River Blues."
Doc Watson certainly made this song into one of the classic fingerpicking tunes for guitar players, but few could muster the chops necessary to tackle the song successfully. That's because Doc's fingers were doing the work of two guitarists at once, in the style popularly known as Travis Picking (after the style of Merle Travis), with the thumb picking out the bass notes and the fingers flying along playing a bit of melody and harmony as well.
As Doc told the story, in his 1971 songbook, The Songs of Doc Watson (Oak Publications), “This blues was introduced to me in the late thirties by a Delmore Brothers recording. When I first began to hear the tune, I was fascinated by the sounds 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.”
Alton and Rabon Delmore were stars of the Grand Ol' Opry in the 1930s. Writing more than 1,000 songs throughout their career, the Delmore Brothers recorded "I've Got the Big River Blues" for the Bluebird label.
Whether called "Deep River Blues" or "Big River Blues" there can be no doubt that this is one of the classic country blues songs in the standard repetoire of many players today.