Dock Boggs - A Biography. By Christopher Milne

Many people are not aware of this great old-time banjo player and his many contributions to the progress and development of banjo music. Some who know about him say that since Dock learned so much from black musicians, he is a bridge between the nineteenth century black players and twentieth century southern white banjo players. Others admire him for his unique and interesting playing and singing style, praising him as an innovator. Whatever may be the truth, Dock is well worth a listen, and if you have never heard him play and sing, I encourage you to contact the Smithsonian for a listing of available Folkways recordings.

Boggs' style is a synthesis of old mountain and blues styles. While his contemporaries mostly played clawhammer or "knockdown" as Boggs called it, Dock played an outline of the melody to accompany his vocal. He would use the thumb for the third, fourth and fifth strings, the index for the second, and the middle for the first string. Even when playing "Coal Creek March" with a technique which sounds like frailing, Dock is still using the middle finger to *pick* the melody on the first string while the index finger is providing the brush stroke.

On some songs, Dock would pick the melody mainly on the third and fourth strings while picking an off-beat accompaniment on the first and second strings.

Also, Dock would introduce interesting dissonances by playing in a D minor mode and occasionally thumbing the fifth string tuned to F#. He frequently played in a different key to which the banjo was tuned, and he did not use a capo. Dock used many unusual tunings, tuning the banjo to suit his voice.

"Dock" Boggs was born February 7, 1898 in West Norton, Virginia. His parents named him Moran Lee after the one and only town doctor, Moran Lee Stallard, whom Dock's parents much admired. When he was a toddler, the youngest of ten children (four brothers and five sisters), his father began calling him Dock, and as he grew older Dock began to dislike his given name, thinking it ugly. Although he continued to sign official documents M.L. Lee, when Dock made his first records he used the name Dock Boggs.

Dock began working very young, but did manage to get through the seventh grade. In 1910, at the age of twelve, Dock began working in the coal mines. He worked a ten hour shift, and made seven cents per hour. His first job in the mines was "Trapping." This meant he was a traffic controller, making sure the drivers, mules and cars did not get in each others way at intersections of railways in the tunnels.

It was also around this same time that Dock became interested in playing the banjo. We do not know what kind of banjo he had in 1910. But we do know that he got it by trading his watch for a gun, then trading the gun for the banjo.

The years between 1910 and 1920 are considered to be Dock's musically formative years. During this time he was influenced by contact with numerous players. Banjo picker and singer Homer Crawford, his brother-in-law Lee Hunsucker (a preacher who taught Dock many sacred songs), and his own brothers and sisters, particularly his brother Roscoe, were some influences.

In 1918 Dock married Sara who would remain his wife until his death.

In 1920 Dock traded up to a better banjo, a Sears Roebuck Supertone for which he paid $18. In 1923 Dock began to hear recorded blues music which certainly had a profound effect on him. Particular influences were "Mistreated Mama" - Sara Martin, vocal; piano acc. Clarence Williams. Recorded July 27, 1923. And, "Down South Blues" - Alberta Hunter, acc. by Joe Smith on clarinet. Recorded May, 1923. Both of these songs are available as Dock recorded them in 1927, and again in 1963.

In 1927 Dock's friend Hughie Roland persuaded him to go to the Norton Hotel where two men from New York and another from Ashland, Virginia were visiting to "try out mountain talent" and to give out contracts to come to New York to make phonograph records. Dock borrowed a banjo from the music store and after drinking half a pint of moonshine whiskey "to try to give me the nerve," went to audition.

The men were from "Brunswick" records and after hearing Dock play less than a verse each of two songs offered him a contract to go to New York in three weeks to record. Out of about 50 or 75 other musicians standing around in the ballroom, only three others were selected at that audition. They were John Dykes - fiddle, Hub Mahaffey - guitar, and Miss Vermillion who played the autoharp.

Hub Mahaffey accompanied Dock on his session. He recorded eight sides. Brunswick offered Dock the opportunity to record two or three more records, but Dock reasoned that under his initial contract he should only do those four. His gamble paid off. Brunswick immediately offered him two more contracts. One to record an additional twelve sides with guitar accompaniment, and a second to do twelve more sides with a band of Dock's choosing.

Dock did not do any additional recording for Brunswick though. Why? In his words: "...I had a little domestic trouble, and I decided I'd quit and went back into the coal mines..." It may very well be that Dock succumbed to pressure from Sara, who felt strongly that his music and the kind of life and people surrounding it, was sinful. He may have returned to Norton to try to live the clean life.

We know however that upon completion of the Brunswick sessions, Dock traded up in banjos again. Using some of the funds from his recording session, he purchased a new Gibson Mastertone (model unknown) "the best banjo he could buy."

Dock found that he was a celebrity in Virginia and found that people were willing to pay to hear him play. He formed a band in 1928, called "Dock Boggs and His Cumberland Mountain Entertainers." It featured Scott Boatwright on guitar, Melvin Robinette on fiddle, and Charley Powers also on guitar.

Dock's band did well, playing for parties and dances. Dock's notoriety helped to earn the band three to four hundred dollars a week. Not bad for 1928. Dock hired Steve Blair, a young lawyer from Whitesburg, Kentucky as manager. One time Dock's band played at a party for U.S. Senator Brock from Kentucky, and later for future Kentucky Governor Bert Combs. By the end of 1928 the band broke up due to differences in ambitions.

At the end of 1928, Dock was forced to move to Kentucky due mainly to some trouble with a corrupt local deputy sheriff, by the name of Doc Cox. Dock had from time to time dabbled in moonshine, but this incident was, according to Dock, a setup orchestrated by this dishonest lawman. In any case Dock and Sara resettled to Mayking, Kentucky.

In 1929 a man named W.E. Myers, a sometime-songwriter, who owned a music store in Richlands, Virginia, formed a record company called "The Lonesome Ace." Beneath the company name appeared the promise "Without a Yodel." Myers despised yodeling and had a "no yodel" clause written into each contract. Dock recorded four sides in Chicago, for Myers, accompanied by Emry Arthur on guitar.

With the market crash and the depression, folks didn't have money to splurge on records or concerts and after selling about 100 records himself, to his friends in eastern Kentucky, Dock was forced to return his stock balance to Lonesome Ace Company in June of 1930 for $70, the wholesale value of 140 records.

In 1930, Dock traveled to Atlanta where P.C. Brockman, A&R man for Okeh Records offered Dock a spot on WSB radio. Dock appeared for a half-hour as an audition. For one reason or another, Dock had a sudden attack of Mic fright and was barely able to perform. While in Atlanta, Dock considered applying with the Atlanta police force.

Dock returned to Kentucky and wrote letters to numerous record companies offering to record for them. RCA Victor offered a recording date in June of 1931. Dock was unable to raise the funds for the trip to Louisville.

In 1933 after Doc Cox was killed in a shooting Dock returned to Virginia. Later that year Dock gave his Mastertone to a friend as security for a personal loan, only, he believed, for a short time. But, by 1938 he finally gave up his hopes of playing thebanjo for living, and accepted his fate as a coal miner.

Dock experienced somewhat of a religious conversion in 1942, gave up his drinking and gambling and even became a deacon of his church, teaching Sunday school in Hemphill, Kentucky where they then lived.

For a short time in 1944, Dock left the mines and made a living driving a laundry truck. In 1945 Dock returned to coal mining. In 1954, at the age of 56, Dock Boggs retired from the mines. He was not old enough to receive his pension and Dock and Sara had a few difficult years surviving on their small savings and what Sara could grow in the vegetable garden.

From 1956 until 1963 Dock and Sara lived a quiet, anonymous life in Norton, Virginia. In June of that year, Mike Seeger discovered Dock's whereabouts while driving through Kentucky with his wife Marj and his three children.

The two men struck up an immediate friendship. Dock allowed Mike to record him performing eight songs as well as several hours of interviews. Dock was surprised and pleased to be remembered and expressed an interest in playing and doing more recording.

Within two weeks, Dock performed at the American Folk Festival in Asheville, N.C. Some recordings from this date are available from Folkways. Dock made numerous appearances through the mid-sixties.

"I feel I made a mistake," Dock said, referring to retiring from his music, "I'm pleased to get a chance even to put on all the old songs I've got. I'd love to put them on so that when I'm gone why the young people they can have them in memory of me." Dock was proud of earning enough money from his music to buy his first new car.

In the last few years of his life Dock's health began to fail and he also began to return to a habit of drinking too much, something that had troubled him off and on throughout his life. Dock died on his birthday, February 7, 1971. He was seventy three.

From the Folk Music Sourcebook:
"Boggs is a good example of what makes for greatness in a folk artist. His instrumental technique is limited in the perspective of the total possibilities of the virtuoso banjo tradition, but his style is unique within those limits, and expresses a personal sound. His sense of arrangement and of interplay between vocal and banjo line is unlike that of any other player. His choice of repertory is not indiscriminate, but reflects a consistent and rather melancholy personal vision in which even gospel tunes sound pessimistic.

Interesting quotes:

"Lonesome songs always appealed to me."

When Dock wanted his band to add "Oh Death" to their repertoire, one of the musicians told him: "Aw, get out of the graveyard, Dock."

Once when asked to lay out while a guitar player was going to perform some blues:
"You think them blues ain't here on this banjo neck, the same as they're on that guitar? They're just as much on this banjo neck as they are on that guitar or piano, or anywhere else if you know where to go and get it, and if you learn it and know how to play it."

I used several materials for reference:

"Excerpts From Interviews with Dock Boggs," recorded and edited by Mike Seeger Folkways Records FH 5458

The Introduction to "Dock Boggs," recorded and edited by Mike Seeger Folkways Records FH 2351

Notes accompanying "Dock Boggs, His Original Recordings" produced by Mike Seeger. Notes written by Barry O'Connell. RBF Records RF 54

"The Folk Musician's Sourcebook" Written by Larry Sandberg and Dick Weissman Published 1976 By Knopf

"That Half-Barbaric Twang" Written by Karen Linn Published 1994 by University of Illinois Press