|Birth name||Moran Lee Boggs|
February 7, 1898|
Norton, Virginia, United States
|Died||February 7, 1971
Needmore, Virginia, United States
|Years active||c. 1927–1929, 1963–1971|
Moran Lee "Dock" Boggs (February 7, 1898 – February 7, 1971) was an influential old-time singer, songwriter and banjo player. His style of banjo playing, as well as his singing, is considered a unique combination of Appalachian folk music and African-American blues. Contemporary folk musicians and performers consider him a seminal figure, at least in part because of the appearance of two of his recordings from the 1920s, "Sugar Baby" and "Country Blues", on Harry Smith's 1951 Anthology of American Folk Music collection. Boggs was initially recorded in 1927 and again in 1929, although he worked primarily as a coal miner for most of his life. He was "rediscovered" during the folk music revival of the 1960s, and spent much of his later life playing at various folk music festivals and recording for Folkways Records.
Boggs was born in West Norton, Virginia in 1898, the youngest of ten children. In the late 1890s, the arrival of railroads in Central Appalachia brought large-scale coal mining to the region, and by the time Dock was born, the Boggs family had made the transition from a subsistence farming family to a wage-earning family living in mining towns. Dock's father, who worked as a carpenter and blacksmith, loved singing and could read sheet music. He taught his children to sing, and several of Dock's siblings had learned to play banjo.
In an interview with folk musician Mike Seeger in the 1960s, Dock recalled how, as a young child, he would follow an African-American guitarist named "Go Lightning" up and down the railroad tracks between Norton and Dorchester, hoping the guitarist would stop at street corners to play for change. Dock's version of the ballad "John Henry" was based in part on the version he learned from Go Lightning during this period. Dock also recalled sneaking over to the African-American camps in Dorchester at night, where he first observed string bands playing at dances and parties. Dock was enamoured with the bands' banjo players' preference for picking, having previously been exposed only to the "frailing" style of his siblings.
Around the time he began working in coal mines, Dock began playing music more often and more seriously. He learned much of his technique during this period from his brother Roscoe and an itinerant musician named Homer Crawford, both of whom shared Dock's preference for picking. Crawford taught Dock "Hustlin' Gambler," which was the basis for Dock's "Country Blues." Dock also picked up several songs (such as "Turkey in the Straw") from a local African-American musician named Jim White. Dock probably began playing at parties around 1918.
Early career, 1927-1931
In the mid-1920s, various record companies sent representatives to Southern Appalachia to hold auditions in hopes of finding new sources of talent. Around late 1926 or early 1927, Dock tried out at one such audition held by Brunswick Records at the Norton Hotel. Although he played on a banjo borrowed from a local music store and needed whiskey to calm his nerves, he played well enough to gain a contract to record several sides in New York later that year. He recorded only eight sides for Brunswick, however, as he deemed their payment sufficient for only that number.
Dock's records sold moderately well, and Dock returned to the mining areas of Southwestern Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, where he began to play at parties, gatherings, and mining camps. Around this time, Dock's brother-in-law, Lee Hansucker, who was a Holiness preacher and singer, began teaching Dock religious songs from the Holiness and Baptist traditions. Dock also learned a large number of songs from listening to Hansucker's vast record collection. By 1928, Dock was making enough money to quit working in coal mines and focus exclusively on music. He bought a new banjo and formed a band known as "Dock Boggs and His Cumberland Mountain Entertainers". At one point, he was earning three to four hundred dollars a week.
While Dock was experiencing a moderate amount of success, the life of a travelling musician often left him at odds with his religious neighbors, who considered such a life sinful. His wife, Sarah, whom he had married in 1918, despised secular music and was opposed to Dock earning a living by playing music. The constantly moving mining camps were wrought with excess and violence, and Dock was consistently engaging in drunken brawls that often left him or an opponent badly injured. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression hit the Southern Appalachian region particularly hard, and few people had spare change to pay musicians to play at gatherings or buy records.
In 1929, Dock travelled to Chicago to record four sides for Lonesome Ace Records. However, with the onset of the Great Depression, he was unable to profit from these recordings. In 1930, Dock travelled to Atlanta, where OKeh Records had set up a live audition on radio station WSB. Due to stage fright, however, Dock performed poorly. Dock was offered several other recording auditions over the next three years, but he could not raise enough money to cover the necessary travel expenses. He eventually pawned his banjo, and gave up hopes of making a living playing music.
In June 1963, at the height of the folk music revival in the United States, folk music scholar Mike Seeger sought out and found Dock at his home near Needmore, Virginia. Seeger was delighted to learn that Dock had recently repurchased a banjo and had been practicing the instrument for several months before his arrival. He convinced Dock to play at The American Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina later that year, and with Seeger's help, Dock began recording again, eventually recording three albums for Folkways Records. Throughout the 1960s, Dock toured the U.S., playing at various clubs and folk music festivals, including a performance before an audience of 10,000 at the Newport Folk Festival.
In the early 1970s, Dock's health began to deteriorate, and he died on his 73rd birthday. In 1968, a musician and protégé of Dock named Jack Wright started the Dock Boggs Festival, which is still held annually in Dock's hometown of Norton.
Technique and repertoire
While Dock Boggs was familiar with the clawhammer, or "frailing" style, he typically played in a style known as "up-picking," which involves picking upwards on the first two strings and playing one of the other three strings with the thumb. He played several songs in a lower D-modal tuning. Dock's technique, which Seeger considered "a style possessed by no other recorded player," was adapted to fit previously unaccompanied mountain ballads.
Dock learned a number of traditional mountain songs from his siblings, namely "Sugar Baby," which he learned from his brother John, "Danville Girl," which he learned from his brother Roscoe, and "Little Omie Wise," which he learned from his sisters. Lee Hansucker, Dock's brother-in-law, taught him various religious songs, including "Oh, Death," "Little Black Train," "Prodigal Son," and "Calvary." Along with "Turkey in the Straw" and "John Henry", Dock learned songs such as "Banjo Clog" and "Down South Blues" from African-American blues musicians. The song "Wise County Jail"— written by Dock in 1928— was inspired by an incident in which Dock had to flee to Kentucky after attacking a lawman who tried to break up a party at which Dock was playing.
- Greil Marcus, "Dock Boggs." The Encyclopedia of Country Music: The Ultimate Guide to the Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 42-3.
- Barry O'Connell, "Down a Lonesome Road: Dock Boggs' Life in Music." Extended version of essay in Dock Boggs: His Folkways Recordings, 1963-1968 [CD liner notes], 1998.
- Colin Larkin (ed.), "Dock Boggs." The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 726.
- Mike Seeger, "Some Personal Notes." In Dock Boggs: His Folkways Years, 1963-1968 (pp. 19-32) [CD liner notes]. Smithsonian Folkways, 1998.