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
1951 Anthology of American Folk
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
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
transistioned from a susbsistence 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
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
" 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
") from a local African-American musician named Jim
White. Dock probably began playing at parties around 1918.
Initial 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
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
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, Sara, 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
Southern Appalachian region particularly hard, and few people had
spare change to pay musicians to play at gatherings or buy
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.
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.
Dock Boggs is buried with his wife,
In June of 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.
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.
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
In the early 1970s, Dock's health began to deteriorate, and he died
on his 73rd birthday. In 1968, a musician and protege 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
- 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,
- Mike Seeger, "Some Personal Notes." In Dock Boggs: His
Folkways Years, 1963-1968 (pp. 19-32) [CD liner notes].
Smithsonian Folkways, 1998.