Bristol, Virginia-Tenne Article

Norton's Dock Boggs Has Style All His Own

By Curwood Garrett
Norton, Va.-- Moran L. (Dock) Boggs, 66, whose picking style on the banjo is said to be as unorthodox as his use of vocal and instrumental melody, is making a comeback in the field of recorded American folk music -- on the same banjo he pawned 25 years ago.

In the 1920's, he joined the church and, as times were hard, he gave his banjo to a friend for security on a loan. During the time he was without a banjo, he occasionally played friends' instruments and managed to keep in "playing shape."

The youngest of 10 children, Boggs said he worked 41 years in the mines starting when "little boys could go into the mines and help their fathers load coal."

"I was working on a coal cutting machine at Pardee, Va., with a fellow named Emmitt Fletcher for Blackwood Coal and Coke Co., when I got my first chance to record music," Boggs said.

"I had never heard any man play any kind of blues on a banjo. About all the banjo players played the knock-down way, or whatever you want to call it.

"But I had seen two colored men who picked the banjo with one finger and a thumb, or with two fingers. I said to myself, never telling anyone, that was the way I was going to learn. I started to learn when I was 12 or 13.

"I just took up my own style. I never tried to copy anyone and I still have a style by myself. There are a few who have copied me. But I think most everybody wants to learn the Scruggs way, the bluegrass way.

"At the first music festival I attended [after] Mike Seeger discovered me, or found me, I met Alan Lomax of New York and he knows old time music. He asked me where I'd been. He said he thought I was dead, and I told him I had been in Kentucky and Virginia.

"I worked 20 years for the Elk Horn Coal Corp., and retired on a miner's pension and social security. Mr. Lomax said, 'Dock, did you know you were the only man in the United States who plays like you do? -- then he changed it and said 'the only one in the world.'

"I was sitting around not able to work, I should have been out of the mines before the mines worked out on account of my health. So I had been idle for nine years. Mike Seeger asked me if I would like to play again.

"I told him that it had been my heart's desire to put my old songs on records so the younger generation could learn them if they wanted to. And I could make a little extra cash as my pension and social security isn't too much. So I now have an LP album made by the Folkways Recording Company in New York.

"When I quit before, I had two contracts to make 24 songs for Brunswick Balk Colender Co., of New York. My wife thought it more honorable to work in the mines at hard manual labor than to play music. So I let a friend of mine have my banjo. He was a single man then, and when I retired from the mines and went to get my banjo back 25 years later, he was a grandfather."

Boggs, plucking away on his banjo and singing one of the old songs he so clearly loves, says that "some of the church people think I am committing a sin because I play folk music -- something I've been 50 or 53 years learning, and plenty of the younger generation wants to learn.

"I feel," Boggs smiled, "that I am doing something worth while for my country, so as long as the Lord gives me strength and health and people want to hear me and I can make a little money, I intend to give it to them."

Today, Boggs owns a new car -- the first new car he ever owned. When he goes to town, he loads his record player and some of his records into the car and takes off.

He usually sells a few records every time he goes to town. Profits from the records help with the family budget.

Boggs' latest release contains 15 songs, including such numbers as "Down South Blues," "Country Blues," "Pretty Polly," "Coal Creek March," "My Old Horse Died," "Wild Bill Jones," "New Prisoner's Song," "Oh Death," "Prodigal Son," and others.

Mike Seeger has this to say of Boggs who has attended several folk festivals around the country.

"His (Boggs) singing style is a highly individualistic synthesis of old mountain and blues styles, usually accompanied by the outline of the melody played on the banjo which often practically affects a duet with the voice rather than as an accompaniment."

Dock Boggs' picking style is as unorthodox as his use of vocal and instrumental melody.

But unorthodox or not, Boggs is a happy man these days as he plays on his old banjo singing the old songs -- and picks up quite a few bucks in the bargain.

My photocopy of this article was quite difficult to read, so please forgive any typos that might exist. Also, if anyone can provide me with more information on this article or has any corrections or comments, please email me.

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