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Dock Boggs circa 1964

Notes by Mike Seeger

Located on Dock Boggs, Legendary Singer and Banjo Player (FA 2351, 1964)
© 1964 Folkways Records
Note: I transcribed these notes exactly as presented, attempting to keep it as accurate as possible. However, don't be surprised if I accidently include more typographical errors in my transcription.


The majority of the information on Dock Boggs is being issued on a Folkways LP FH 5458 which contains excerpts from interviews with him.

Therefore, this "introduction" is more in the category of - "miscellaneous", filling in some areas not covered in the interviews, and regarding dates and background.

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Dock Boggs has been a legendary figure in recorded American folk music since the early 1930's when such people as folklorist Alan Lomax, musicologist Charles Seeger, and artist Tom Benton first heard his old 1927 Brunswick record of Pretty Polly.

It is his absolutely unique style which has brought him so much attention especially just recently from banjo players. His singing style, also, 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 effects a duet with the voice rather than an accompaniment. In many songs, especially those in the "D" tunings Dock Boggs introduces more dissonances while playing the tune on the banjo, than usually exist due to the drone string. For instance in the "D" tunings he is basically playing in minor mode but occasionally thumbs the fifth string which is tuned major (F#). Also on several songs such as Rowan County Crew and Wild Bill Jones, he plays in a different key than that to which the banjo is tuned. He does not use a capo, but tunes his banjo to suit his voice.

Dock Boggs' picking style is as unorthodox as his use of vocal and instrumental melody. Basically he uses thumb for the third, fourth, and fifth strings, the first finger for the second string and the second finger for the first string. He does not play frail, or as he calls it "knock-down" style. When he breaks into what sounds like frailing or "up-picking" style, for instance on Coal Creek March, the second finger still picks the first string while the first finger provides the brush stroke. This is the reverse of the usual "up-pick" style where the index finger picks the melody and the second finger brushes. And on the songs in D (also Bright Sunny South, Wild Bill Jones, etc,) the melody is picked mainly on the third and fourth strings by the thumb interspersed with notes on the off beat picked on the first (and sometimes along the second) string, as a kind of accompaniment.


Moran Lee (or as he prefers,) "Dock" Boggs was born February 7, 1898 in West Norton Virginia, the youngest of ten children. His father (born 1849) and mother and their parents were born in the same area of Irish-German parentage.

His father was a gunsmith, carpenter, blacksmith, and wagon-maker in other words, he had a trade rather than working the land as most of the people in the area did, until the railroad came in and the mines opened about 1900. He had had a fram in Kentucky but had sold cheap to coal operators. Shortly after the L & N RR came in to Norton he was offered a job with the railroad in the north but prefered to stay in the hills. He also was an almost entirely self educated man but could read music and was a good singer.

Dock Boggs started "trapping" in the mines at about 12 at 7 cents an hour for a 10 hour shift. Trapping consisted of being "traffic director", that is keeping drivers, mules, and cars from getting in each others way at intersections of rail branches within the mine.

After awhile he began driving mules, running electric pumps, and when he got big enough, graduated to coal-loading. Since then he has done most of the different jobs to be done in the mines from working with cutting and loading machines to timber man or shop foreman. He joined the union in the early twenties but did not survive until the UMW organized in the early 1930's. he has worked in mines through eastern Kentucky, Southwestern Virginia, and for a short time in southern West Virginia.

In 1944 doctors recommended that he leave the mines and he drove a laundry truck for awhile. But the customer contact was aggravating so he went back to work in a company store from which he was discharged after signing up with the union. He was laying track and timbering in 1954 when the mines at Hayman, Ky. worked out and he returned to Norton to live almost without income until he would be eligible for UMW and Social Security pensions.

In the thirties he joined a churchand, as times were hard, he gave his banjo to a friend for security in a loan. During the time he was without a banjo he occasionally played friends' instruments and managed to keep in playing shape. About three years ago, when he had retired, he had time on his hands and wanted to play and got the banjo back from his friend. He still plays occasionally at his church and on their radio program, as well as for his friends in the area.

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Norton Virginia is a coal mining and coke producing town in mountainous southwestern Virginia, about 1/2 hour from Kentucky. The train yards and old fashioned stone coke ovens (pouring forth smoke and fire 24 hours a day) are located right in town. The ovens, mines and railroads transformed this into a primarily industrial town in about 1890. A large Negro settlement lived in nearby Dorchester in the early 1900's employed in the mines and at the ovens there. The mines in Dorchester having worked out, it is literally a ghost town now.

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Lee Hunsucker from whom Dock Boggs learned many songs did not play instruments but was highly thought of as a good singer. He was continually learning new songs and when he'd be out with friends they would get him singing. He was considerably older than Dock Boggs, and was his brother in law.

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The years of contact with banjopicker and singer Homer Crawford were from about 1914-1918. Dock Boggs most formative years style-wise then, were probably from the time he started playing (about 1910) to about 1920. Shortly thereafter (about 1923) recorded blues probably influenced him also.

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For his first banjo he swapped a watch for a pistol which he gave for the banjo. About 1920 he ordered a good Sears Roebuck Supertone banjo ($18) which is pictured on the cover of this album and is the one with which he recorded in 1927 he bought a Gibson Mastertone, the same one he uses today.

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Dock Boggs saw Blind Lemon Jefferson and Nick Lucas (quite a pair) in the Brunswick offices in New York City.

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Byrd Moore, who recorded with Tom Ashley, Earl Johnson, and by himself played guitar and roomed with Dock Boggs on and off from 1921 to about 1931. He died at the Wise County (Virginia) poor Farm in the 1950's.

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Steve Ledford Bakersville, North Carolina fiddler and singer, knew Dock Boggs from his days in Kentucky.

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Clintwood (Dogwood, Hotfoot) Johnson guitar player, singer and dancer and source for Harvey Logan, was collected from by Paul Clayton in the 1950's.

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Dock Boggs played a program at a high school near Gate City Virginia with (John) Dyke's Magic City Trio in 1927, after they had both been to New York to record. Gate City is about ten miles from A P Carter's home in Maces Springs. As far as we know, they never met.

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The Stanley Brothers made their radio debut on WNVA, Norton in 1946 and their bass player, Jack Cook (who also played awhile with the Greenbriar Boys) knew Dock Boggs.

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Shortly after the Brunswick recording trip, P.C. Brockman (pioneer Okeh A & R man, responsible for Fiddling John Carson's starting to record) visited Dock Boggs home in Virginia, but didn't meet him until Dock Boggs made a trip to Atlanta Georgia. Dock Boggs played on WSB and also saw Jimmie Rodgers while there in Atlanta. He had been in contact with several companies to make more records (Okeh, Gennett, and Brunswick) but for one reason or another did not record for them.

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W E Myers, a part-time songwriter, ran a music store in Richlands Virginia and handled Brunswick records. He contacted, among others, Dock Boggs, Emry Arthur, and Mississippi John Hurt all of whose music he apparently liked and who he wanted to sing the songs that he had written. He suggested familiar tunes for his songs, suggestions that were rarely taken. He formed a record company (one of the first of its kind) around 1929 and called it The Lonesome Ace. Below this title was written "without a yodel". This was just after Jimmie Rodgers (#1) had begun his recording career and Myers, who despised yodelling, wrote a "no yodel" clause into the recording contract. He issued only three records and judging by label, recorded sound and (lack of) quality in pressing they were processed by Paramount.

Dock Boggs travelled to Chicago in 1929 to record for Myers and practised for several days with Emry Arthur who was to accompany him and record the only other Lonesome Ace record. Arthur was working in a Port Washington Wisconsin chair factory at the time. When the records were released Dock Boggs himself sold about 100 records to his friends in Eastern Kentucky. But Myers failed, due to the depression and to lack of distribution.

On his two Lonesome Ace records Dock Boggs sounds more as he does today than on the records of two years before, smoother, with less drive and more emphasis on vocal style.

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Brian Rust's "Jazz Records 1897-1931" lists the following two records which are possibly the ones that Dock Boggs learned from:

	MISTREATED MAMA-Sara Martin, vocal; acc.
	by Clarence Williams, piano.  Okeh 8086
	(71701 B).  Recorded July 27(?), 1923.

	DOWN SOUTH BLUES-Alberta Hunter, acc. By
	Joe Smith, cornet.  Paramount 12036
	(1426-1,4).  Recorded May, 1923.

		OR (from Archie Green)

	DOWN SOUTH BLUES- Solo by Rosa Henderson,
        piano accompaniment by Fletcher Henderson.
        Vocalion 14635 (11689) Recorded Aug. 7,
        1923, probably in New York City.

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Although Dock Boggs has lived in an area which has been well covered by many folk song collectors no one had any idea of his where abouts or of how to go about locating him. Before 1963 the only person that we knew of who had seen him was Roscoe Holcomb who had seen him around 1930 and had no idea of his more recent whereabouts. All attempts by collectors at locating him by asking other oldtime country musicians such as Tom Ashley, E.V. Stoneman, Dock Walsh and others met with no success.

After a concert by the New Lost City Ramblers at Antioch College in February 1963 we were talking with Guthrie Meade, a folklorist especially interested in folk songs that appeared on old time commercial records. He had met a relative of Dock Boggs who placed his whereabouts around the Mayking Kentucky area. Unfortunately this person vanished shortly afterwards and any further tracing by Guthrie Meade had been unsuccessful. We all considered the faint possibilities that the information was correct or that Dock Boggs was still living.

On our way back from California on June 12, 1963, with our three young children, my wife Marj and I decided to try to find Dock Boggs around Mayking and we set off over into Kentucky from Kingsport Tennessee on a numbered highway which soon became a rutted mountain dirt road. Just over the mountain was Eolia Kentucky, a beautiful green country town where we stopped at the post office and asked about Dock Boggs. We were mildly shocked to be told at the first place we stopped that he was to be found around Hemphill. (Eolia was near his wife's original home.) On our way to Hemphill (we didn't stop in Mayking) we stopped in Neon and asked directions from some men standing at the main intersection. They all knew Dock Boggs (or knew of him) and we discussed his style of music about which they were very complimentary. (They liked his playing the tune rather than seconding (chording) or playing breakdown style as most people do.) They gave us directions which took us to Pound, Virginia and eventually on to Norton where we easily found his name in the phone book. After a call, we went up to visit him and his wife at their home, a small meticulously clean and bright four room house over-looking Norton. Our meeting was one of mutual disbelief: we couldn't believe that this was the Dock Boggs and he, though he was pleased that someone remembered his records was not certain what I was up to. We talked awhile and he warmed quickly to the kids and later that evening after getting the family settled in a motel I returned. That evening he recorded about eight songs, largely unrecorded by him heretofore and an interview in which he related a good deal of his history, talked about his early years, learning to play, his first recording and so on. He also expressed the desire to play and record again.

Two weeks later he was on the American Folk Festival in Asheville, N.C. where some of the songs on this album were recorded. Since that time he has appeared on the Newport Folk Festival, at the University of Massachusetts, Club 47 in Cambridge, for the Friends of Oldtime Music in New York City, in Princeton New Jersey, in Philadelphia, on the folk music series by Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, at the University of Chicago Folk Festival, and at Shimer College.

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A couple of quotes:

"Lonesome songs always appealed to me"

When discussing with members of his band what songs they might play and Dock Boggs suggested a song such as 'Oh Death' one of the musicians replied:

"Aw get out of the graveyard, Dock."

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A couple of personal notes

The place of the musical artist, from Dock Boggs through Roscoe Holcomb, to Bill Monroe, is poorly defined and can be, most of all, confusing to the artist himself. In fact the problems of status and recognition are ones for individualistic artists in almost every society.

It had been Dock's ambition to play again after having given it up for twenty five years. He feels that his life would have been incomplete without recording and playing his songs once again and realizing the appreciation that so many people have for him and his music. He is pleased to be able to pass on to the younger generation his own style of music which he feels is so much a part of him.

Although my original interest in Dock Boggs was musical, sparked by his old Brunswick recordings, the time spent with him since has been a special pleasure for me (and I know for others who have met him). His warmth and articulateness coupled with his intelligence and insight, make him a very unusual person.

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