Born Moran Lee Boggs, February 7, 1898, West Norton, VA; (died February 7, 1971); married: wife Sara.
Dock Boggs played a weird hybrid of hillbilly music and blues. He played "old time" music, the original folk music that so many other musicians in the Cumberland Mountains in the late 1920s and early 1930s played, but his was something different. It was "put together out of junk," wrote Greil Marcus in his liner notes to Dock Boggs: Country Blues, Complete Early Recordings, 1927-1929, "hand-me-down melodies, folk-lyric fragments, pieces of Child ballads, mail-order instruments, and the new women's blues records they were making in the northern cities in the early years of the twenties." What's more, Boggs adapted the techniques of black blues guitarists to the banjo-a step most other white players never dreamed of taking. Doing so, he created a style of playing completely unlike the strumming "clawhammer" style used by his white contemporaries. Unfortunately Dock's music never really caught on with the public. He quit performing through most of the thirties, forties and fifties. Only the interest of record collectors and the persistence of folklorists in tracking him down kept Boggs's music alive for future generations.
Moran Lee "Dock" Boggs was born on February 7, 1898 in West Norton, Virginia in the middle of Appalachian coal country. He was the youngest of ten children, his father was a farmer who sold off his land piece by piece to the coal companies and ended his life as a blacksmith and gunsmith in Norton. Dock attended school three months a year-Norton couldn't afford to pay a teacher any more than that-and went into the coal mines at the age of twelve, working ten hour days at seven cents an hour. When his formal education ended, Dock became his own teacher, a Bible, a dictionary, and a speller were his textbooks.
Dock, like his brothers and sisters, took an interest in music at an early age. He learned to play clawhammer banjo, the mountain style in which a player simply frailed, that is strummed, the strings. Listening to the string bands that played in the black community of Dorchester, Dock first heard a banjo played finger-style. "I heard this fellow play the banjo," he relates in Nothing But The Blues, "and I said to myself ... I want to learn how to play the banjo kinda like that fellow does. I don't want to play like my sister and brother. I am going to learn to pick with my fingers."
He started following a black guitarist named Go Lightning, who often played the ballad "John Henry" at Dock's request. A black banjo player named Jim White gave him the idea that he could play banjo like a blues guitarist would, picking out melodies while he sang. He was learning songs constantly: ballads from his sisters, gospel songs from his brother-in-law, some blues here and there, from folks passing through Norton, and the radio. He particularly liked the female blues singers that he heard in his brother-in-law's record collection, and adapted their songs to his new banjo style.
In early 1927, Dock was working a coal-cutting machine in Pardee, Virginia, when he heard that the Brunswick Record Company was coming to Norton to hold try-outs for record contracts. Dock wasn't sure it was worth the trouble-the mountains, he reasoned, were full of musicians, professional musicians, who stood a much better chance than he at the contract. A friend convinced him to give it a shot, however, and Dock went to the Norton Hotel's ballroom for the audition, fortified with moonshine, and carrying a borrowed banjo under his arm. When he saw the crowd there he nearly turned around and left. Boggs was one of the last to audition. He played "Country Blues" and "Down South Blues"-songs he later recorded-but only the first couple bars of each song as the agents were in a hurry. By the time the day had ended, 75 musicians had auditioned. Boggs was one of the three who got contracts. Among the musicians who were rejected rejected was A.P. Carter of the Carter Family.
In March of 1927, Boggs bought a new suit and got on the train bound for New York City and his first Brunswick recording session. It was the first time he had ever ventured out of the Virginia mountains. He recorded eight songs, including "Sugar Baby," "Country Blues," and "New Prisoner's Song" Dock took "Down South Blues" from a 1923 record by Rosa Henderson. "Boggs turned the regular, rather predictable rhythm of a mediocre city blues singer into a complex redaction of raw urgent force, mountain blues at its best," wrote Charles Wolfe in "A Lighter Shade of Blue," included in Nothing But The Blues. Brunswick wanted Boggs to cut more tunes but he refused, perhaps afraid of being taken advantage of by Yankee businessmen.
His first records changed the way Boggs saw his music. It became more than just a hobby to entertain himself, family and friends, it was suddenly a possible source of livelihood. "I thought ... that I might ... happen to put out a record that would make a hit," Dock is quoted by Greil Marcus, "to where I have an opportunity, that I might ... maybe never have to work in the mines no more." He formed a band called the Cumberland Mountain Entertainers-with whom he never recorded-and hired booking agent. Unfortunately, things didn't turn out the way Boggs hoped. He froze up and could not perform at an OKeh Records audition held live on Atlanta radio. Another time he set up a session in Louisville with the Victor record company but couldn't raise the cash to make the trip. He recorded only more before his rediscovery in the 1960s, with a West Virginia label, Lonesome Ace, in 1929. Lonesome Ace was a vanity label, owned and operated by W.E. Myer, who signed his favorite musicians to contracts to set his own poems to music and record them. Boggs cut four pieces of Myers poems.
Myer went broke early in the Great Depression; Dock's first musical career ended at the same time. His wife Sara, a deeply religious woman, wanted him to give up music too, seeing it as the devil's work. Mrs. Boggs finally refused to sleep with Dock, Marcus relates, unless he gave up the banjo. In the end, Dock gave in and returned to the mines where he worked until the mid-1950s. For a while he played now and then for family and friends, for neighborhood socials and dances but eventually gave that up too and pawned his banjo.
Sara Boggs was wrong if she thought abandoning music would save her husband from the snares of the devil. Boggs became deeply involved in running moonshine in the mountains, a business every bit as violent and deadly as the drug trade of the 1990s. In 1942, he underwent a religious conversion, joined his wife's church, and devoted his life to it completely, helping the poor and needy in his mountain community. When mechanization came to the coal mines in 1954, Dock found himself without work and five years short of qualifying for his miner's pension. Destitute, Dock and Sara were forced to survive on the produce of her vegetable garden.
In 1952, Folkways released Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, a set that included two of Dock's 1927 recordings. The Anthology became the audio bible of the 1950s folk revival and reawakened interest in the music of a number of obscure artists who had recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, including Dock's. In the mid-1950s young folkies set out to find any of the old artists who might still be alive. Mike Seeger, a musician and folklorist, tracked Dock Boggs down in Norton Virginia in 1963, at the height of the folk revival. A few weeks later he made his first public appearance in more than thirty years at the American Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina. For the next eight years Dock Boggs had his second career as a musician. He performed regularly at folk festivals across the United States and recorded three albums for Folkways. Dock Boggs died in 1971 on February 7, on his seventy-third birthday.
by Gerald Brennan
Dock Boggs's Career
Learned banjo as a boy, developed his unique "blues-style" banjo listening to local black musicians, records and the radio; awarded recording contract by for Brunswick Record Company, 1927; "Country Blues" and "Sugar Baby" included in Harry Smith's Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music; found living in Norton VA in 1963 by Mike Seeger; first public appearance after rediscovery American Folk Festival in Asheville, NC; recorded three albums for Folkway Records.
- Selected discography
- Anthology of American Folk Music , Folkways, 1952
- Dock Boggs , Folkways, 1963
- Dock Boggs, Volume 2 , Folkways, 1965
- Dock Boggs: His Twelve Original Recordings (1927 & 1929) , Folkways, 1983
- Dock Boggs: Country Blues, Complete Early Recordings, 1927-1929 , Revenant, 1998
- Kingsbury, Paul, ed., The Encyclopedia of Country Music , Oxford University Press: New York, 1998