Dock Boggs was one of the most distinctive and compelling of the old-time banjo pickers and singers in traditional southern traditional music. His singing was powerful and intensely expressive. His way of playing the melody in his unique banjo style fit his songs and singing perfectly. His repertoire consisted mostly of serious songs either previously sung unaccompanied or not usually associated with the banjo: ballads, religious or lyric songs, and blues. He is probably best known for his 1927 recordings of "Country Blues" and "Sugar Baby," which appeared on Harry Smith's 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, and for his performance of "Oh Death," which was on his first Folkways LP in 1963 as well as on a Vanguard recording from the Newport Folk Festival.
Dock was well known in his home territory in the coalfields of southwestern Virginia and southeastern Kentucky in the teens and twenties. In 1927, almost by chance, he auditioned and recorded commercially a few songs that attracted even more regional attention. Somehow the Missouri artist Tom Benton got a copy of one of those 78 rpm records and played it for some of his fellow artist and musician friends (including my mother and father) at a party in New York scarcely five years later. Hearing Dock's "Pretty Polly" became a major event in my musicologist-composer parents' "discovery" of truly American folk music, and has been a favorite of mine ever since I first heard it at about age seven. Alan Lomax and Harry Smith both liked it well enough to include it in their LP compilations in the 1940s and 50s. His music was strong and gritty enough to reach out of those early phonograph speakers and grab lovers of traditional music in southeastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia, New Yorkers from everywhere, Californians, and now through digital recordings just about anyone anywhere.
Dock was born in West Norton, Virginia, in 1898 as it was changing from a remote mountain region to a rural/industrial small-town area crisscrossed by the railroads built to bring out the coal and timber. His father had been a farmer and became a blacksmith; he was also a singer, especially of religious songs. Some of Dock's brothers and sisters were singers, fiddlers and banjoists, and Dock, the youngest, picked up the banjo in his teens. At the age of 12 he began his work as a trapper, a kind of underground traffic director in the mines. He spent about 40 years of his working life in the coal mines of southeastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia.
Dock lived life to the fullest. He loved music. In addition to picking up songs from his family, he was strongly attracted to many kinds of African-American music which included nearby coal camp string bands and banjoists and also some of the very earliest recordings of urban blues singers. Another of his strongest influences was Homer Crawford, an itinerant Tennessee photographer, singer, fiddler, and banjo picker. Crawford was his source for "Hustling Gamblers" (which Dock re-named "Country Blues") and possibly the source of the tuning and style. Dock also picked up a lot of his songs from his brother-in-law, Lee Hunsucker, who sang in the old unaccompanied style. He learned songs and tunes from other friends and acquaintances, phonograph records, and even a music box. Sometimes fans of his music would give him songs, old or new, to sing. Whatever the song or instrumental, he always made it his own; there was no doubt that it was Dock Boggs.
By all accounts he was also a first rate dancer. Whether he was entertaining a few friends, busking, or putting on a show in the late 1920s, his dancing was a real drawing card. His repertoire included what his nephew Johnny Hunsucker called a "coke oven rigmarole," a routine that imitated the motions of coke oven workers. Other routines included impressions of a girl lifting her skirt to cross a puddle and of a country boy pulling burrs from his pants. People liked to watch good dancing as much as hearing the music.
Work in the mines was rarely steady in those rough-and-tumble, gun-toting, whiskey-drinking, Prohibition-time coalfields. Dock, in those days, loved to take a drink on or off the job, test his will or strength just for fun, and play music. Mining was boom and bust. For a while when mine work was down he made bootleg whiskey. (Apparently this was a time when Dock's wild times really increased.) For about a year after he made his 1927 recordings, he quit the mines, bought a Gibson Mastertone banjo, and organized a string band that put on shows in the nearby area. They had a booking agent, announcer, and portable stage; but due to the usual band dynamics, general carousing of band members, and changing economics, it didn't last. Often Dock and a friend or two played, and in the time-honored way, took up a collection.
In 1918 he had married Sara Stidham from just over the mountain in Kentucky. From all accounts they were firmly committed to one another, but had a very stormy relationship into the 1930s and even separated a few times. She had to put up with the carousing of Dock and his friends in addition to the always difficult coal-town life in the Depression. Her refuge was the church. She probably thought it would be the solution for Dock's rambling ways, but it never was. It just made his struggle more complicated.
Sara's steady ways and devotion to Dock, not to mention her knowledge of vegetable gardening, certainly made their life possible. Sara also occasionally took in boarders to help ends meet. In the early 1930s economic desperation and Sara's insistence forced Dock to pawn his banjo to a friend and give up his music dreams. I'm sure he borrowed banjos and played from time to time, but it seems that music took a back seat to what little mining work there was in the 1930s. For a while, on the advice of a doctor, he got out of the mines and drove a laundry truck, but he went back to the mines and stayed until he was laid off in 1954.
This was probably the most difficult time for him and Sara. They lived in a tiny house near Norton and relied on a small United Mine Workers pension and on Sara's garden for food for several years until Dock could draw social security benefits. In the early 1960s he evidently began thinking of his music again, because he went back to the friend that he'd pawned his banjo to 25 years before (see OTH last issue), retrieved his old Gibson Mastertone and began playing again. Soon after, with some help from Gus Meade, I located him and began helping him find places to play. He recorded three LPs of his music, now released on a two-CD set. His second music career was deeply satisfying to him as he met and talked with young people, which he absolutely loved. He was thoughtful, engaging, articulate, and wanted to be up-to-date. And he made enough money to buy his first new car, a sure measure of success for a retired miner. He continued to perform on festivals and concerts, mostly in the South, but sometimes as far from home as New York, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis, until shortly before his death on February 7, 1971, his 73rd birthday.
Like so many people, Dock's humble place in the social and economic order was no measure of his wit, ambition, or talent. He yearned for knowledge and wanted respect for the kind of person he was. He was an earnest and engaging personality, though I expect in his prime he could have been overwhelming at times to deal with, both in wit and physical strength. He could dress and look like a banker but carry on like a denizen of Norton's skid row. He loved drink but I never saw him drunk, just once very jolly. His mood could at times be dark and searching, and he sang a lot about sadness and death. And he worried a lot about his own soul. Some local preachers and deacons were certainly disparaging of his music-playing, some from religious feeling and others no doubt from jealousy. He had a lot in common with a lot of the working-class people of the area but seemed to me bigger, probably because he had the strength of personality to be different. He was well equipped for just about anything in life, but mine work sure didn't make the best of it. I'm sure that's true of a lot of people now.
In this, the hundredth year of Dock's birth, all of his recordings are back in print. Revenant 205 includes all of his 1920s recordings along with four rare recordings by Hayes and Bill Shepherd, acquaintances of his from eastern Kentucky. As I mentioned above, all three of his music LPs from the 1960s are back in print. Writers such as Greil Marcus, Barry O'Connell, Jon Pankake, and Bill Hoagland have written articles about Dock, and many of us younger (than Dock) musicians have been moved enough by his music to play his songs, usually including some elements of his style: Kaleidoscope, Horseflies, New Lost City Ramblers, myself, the Rhythm Rats, and others. I suspect his influence will continue to be felt as long as his recordings exist.
All the words in the world can't convey the feeling of his music. Here is a list of the recordings, and a biography of Dock Boggs. Listen.
Special thanks to Johnny Hunsucker, Dock's singing and banjo-picking nephew. Johnny is the son of Dock's sister Laura and Lee Hunsucker, source of many of Dock's songs, including "Oh, Death."
Mike Seeger is a co-founder of the New Lost City Ramblers, and a well-known performer and collector of old-time music.
It was my good fortune to be a student at Appalachian State Teachers College (now ASU) in the mid-1960s during the tenure of Dean Cratis Williams. Dr. Williams, a native of Kentucky, was a recognized authority on old-time Appalachian ballads and as such he was always encouraging students to take pride in their mountain heritage. It was my further good fortune to be invited to the home of Dr. Williams one night to meet his friend Moran Lee "Dock" Boggs who had been invited to perform at Appalachian by Dr. Williams. I had gone to the concert by Dock Boggs earlier that evening and it was an experience I shall never forget.
I had become acquainted with Dock Boggs' music through a 1964 recording on the Verve-Folkways label. Almost 35 years later I still recall how chilling his rendition of "Oh Death" was. When I played it a few years ago for a friend who grew up with a strong heritage of Primitive Baptist singing and had thus heard powerful singing before, I remember that he was as moved by it as I had been more than 25 years earlier. There was something so soulful and genuine in both his banjo and vocals. I found it as moving as anything I had ever heard by another favorite, Bessie Smith. It was in this context that I attended the concert by Dock Boggs and I was not disappointed! How I recall him in his crisp white shirt and his necktie with his banjo on his lap. He was accompanied by a woman guitar player who seemed close to his age. His charming and unassuming manner soon had the audience feeling as though they were special guests in his home. There was a mutual flow of affection as he led us through renditions of "Down South Blues," "Sugar Baby," "Big Chief Buffalo Nickel," and "I've Got a Girl in Baltimore." Like any great artist, he left us wanting more. That night at Dr. Williams' home he gave us more-until 3 o'clock in the morning no less! He charmed us not only with his music, but with his stories as well. He talked about the considerable influence black workers in southwest Virginia had on his musical style and repertoire. I still remember his story about how as a small boy he had watched a local black worker pick "Turkey in the Straw" with his fingers and from then on that was the way he wanted to play banjo. He also told great stories about playing for farm land sales with Byrd Moore and others. He made them so vivid for this listener that I almost felt as though I were there. He then forever won me as a fan through his generous and kind offer to let me play a tune on his banjo. I made a rather pitiful attempt to play "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down Blues," but just holding the banjo was what made the experience worthwhile. After quite a long evening it was time to return to the dreary dorm and give the 67-year old man a well-earned rest. I never saw Dock Boggs again after that night, but I still treasure the memory of his warmth, humility and genuine kindness. Back then and even now his music moves my foot and moves my soul.
Kinney Rorrer is a history teacher at Danville Community College in Danville, VA. He plays and collects old-time music, and is the author of Rambling Blues: The Life and Songs of Charlie Poole reviewed in OTH vol. 3 no. 5.
Dock Boggs and the American Landscape
Those of us who remember Dock Boggs are of course pleased with the current renaissance of interest in him and his music, but perhaps somewhat taken aback at the forms assumed by that renaissance. Dock has become something of the "star" of the surprisingly successful CD reissue of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, the one performer most often singled out for comment in reviews and articles about the reissue. Consequently, an Internet search for "Dock Boggs" will turn up some startling hits these days. The Revenant CD reissue of Dock's old 78s has likewise spread his music to some unlikely marketplaces such as the nationally-distributed Collectors' Choice mail-order catalogue, where Dock sits hopefully amid the glitzy Elvis and Sinatra boxed sets and comprehensive doo-wop retrospectives.
In an attempt to sell Dock to an audience unfamiliar with him, the Collectors' Choice copywriter compares Dock's "spooky" recordings to Robert Johnson's: "If Robert Johnson sent chills down your spine, Dock Boggs is likely to add some goosebumps." Now, I believe Dock would have been pleased to be compared with a stellar blues singer-he loved the blues and said that if he had played guitar he would have liked to sound like Mississippi John Hurt. But other than the obvious emotional intensity of both Dock and Johnson, the comparison makes little sense. Johnson died violently and young, apparently never worked a day in his life, developed a startlingly personal and original style from Delta antecedents, and posthumously influenced the development of post-war electric blues-the stuff of which legends are made. Dock, on the other hand, lived a long and productive life as a coal miner, went into eclipse as a musician for a generation until he was rediscovered in his retirement, and created a personal version of a regional musical style which he may have taken with him to the grave. Johnson's landscape of hellhounds, crossroads pacts with the devil, and fatal womanizing is not where we will find Dock Boggs.
Dock has also drawn attention as the major character in Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic, a writer's tour de force that at times resembles a sort of novel about a hallucinatory American landscape and its people-"Smithville"-spun out of Marcus's expansively imaginative reading of Harry Smith's Anthology and of Bob Dylan's basement tapes. Marcus has given us an unforgettable tag-"the old, weird America"-for the times just prior to the advent of recording technology, but as Marcus admits, "Smithville begins to shade into Hawthorneville, Melvilleburg, Poetown," and as riveting as Marcus's prose proves to be, his Dock Boggs, "who sounds as if his bones are coming through his skin every time he opens his mouth," remains a fiction, as impossible to reconcile with the living man many of us knew as would be any of Faulkner's or O'Connor's southern grotesques.
Somewhere in the genealogy of most of us is a man who underwent a wrenching change in his life and culture: he left a familiar life of tending animals or crops and went to work for money, moving from an outdoor life under the sun to working under a roof in artificial light. He may have lived hundreds of years ago or he may have lived recently. In my own case, this man was my grandfather, who left his farm forever to come to town and a new career as a grain dealer-just in time to experience The Depression, which provided an exquisite wrench to his transition. For me, the crucial fact about Dock Boggs is that he experienced the same change in his life as did my grandfather, and in the same very real landscape of violent American economic and social upheaval earlier in this century, and it is to this landscape I turn in order to understand Dock's life and music.
Dock Boggs used music to express himself as a man creating himself anew, from agrarian to industrial wage earner, from 19th-century man to 20th-century man. Consequently, he would forego the fiddle tunes and ballads of his agrarian elders. He turned for inspiration instead to phonograph recordings, to African Americans and their new blues music, to itinerant tradesmen-musicians and to professional musicians bearing new songs-to all the new resources placed in his path by technological and social change. He cast off his skin to reveal a new one, if one insists on the metaphor.
To place Dock's life and work into context and into a landscape, I can recommend no better book than Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area (Little, Brown: 1962). Caudill, a Kentuckian, portrays the transformation of the Cumberland Plateau from its agrarian past to its strip mined post-industrial present, and the consequent social and cultural upheaval and violence wreaked upon Dock Boggs and his people. Dock seems to have stepped from its pages of union wars, moonshine shootouts, and broken bodies and lives. Here, one finds the harrowing King Coal landscape in which the drama of Dock's life and art was played out, and in which his bewitching songs and stories take on an imaginative life beyond the abilities of the greatest fictionist. Caudill's classic book and Mike Seeger's new Smithsonian CD collection of Dock's last recordings should be sold as a set, so complementary are they.
The last time I saw Dock, he told me that if he didn't see me again, we would meet "on that other shore." Fortunately, I haven't had to wait that long. For me, Dock still lives each time I open the pages of Caudill's chilling landscape, as surely as he lives in the new CD reissues of his recordings. Perhaps, just perhaps, the "old, weird America" will seem neither so old nor so weird with Dock's spirit so tangible in these wonderful documents. Now there's real goosebumps for you!
Jon Pankake is a musician (Uncle Willie and the Brandy Snifters), writer, and founder with Paul Nelson of The Little Sandy Review (1960-1964) which championed field recordings and traditionally-oriented performers. He received a Grammy in 1998 for his contribution to the notes for the CD re-release of The Anthology of American Folk Music.
On a rainy summer evening of June 1963 in Cambridge, Massachusetts we toyed with going to Club 47 to hear Dock Boggs-a legendary musician I remembered to be mentioned in Pete Seeger's How to Play the 5-String Banjo. When we got to the Club on Mt. Auburn there were only a couple of seats left. My friend sat on one side of the room and I ended up sitting with a wizened lady from western Virginia-Sara Boggs. We were immediate friends as we shared travel experiences and deplored the food of fast food outlets. She was counting the days until she could return home to her own bed and the ease of country living in Norton, Virginia. At a break in the program "Dock" himself came to the table. We two became fast friends at his wife's introduction and my expression of appreciation of his playing and style. They both encouraged me to visit their mountain home; an invitation I was to accept again and again over the next 10 years. So it was that this year's visit was taken in the spirit of pilgrimage.
For me this has been a year of pilgrimage. First to England and the shrines of Edward at Westminster and Thomas Becket at Canterbury. This was a pilgrimage of religious devotion. A far simpler pilgrimage to western Virginia proved a more spiritual one. On a Sunday afternoon in early February a friend and I drove from Johnson City, Tennessee to a small cemetery a few miles east of Norton. Turning into the cemetery just before a railroad trestle we immediately spotted the unfortunately defaced tombstone of Moran Lee "Dock" Boggs and Sara Boggs. There was a tired bouquet of plastic flowers. The clouds threatened snow and a sudden rush of memory took me back 35 years to a visit in the modest Boggs four-room cottage located just above the coke ovens of Norton.
We had had a busy day touring the countryside around Norton. We had been to Big Stone Gap to attend services at the Pentecostal Holiness church where Sara was particularly active. A visiting preacher regaled us with a sing-song sermon on the 134th Psalm. Dock, because of his recently re-discovered notoriety, had been invited to sing and he offered up his classic "Oh Death" and a gospel tune about "A Little Black Train." We returned home to large breakfast bowls of Piggly Wiggly ice cream slathered in Hershey chocolate while Sara sectioned grapefruit. Dock started to wax nostalgic about the good old days of "makin' music." Sara sat quietly while Dock held forth about the times he traveled the countryside with his band. He spoke with obvious glee of the gallon jugs of moonshine whiskey being passed around and the camaraderie of the musicians. He allowed that sometimes things could get out of hand and that the coke ovens of Norton served as a crematorium for the losers. He suggested with a wink and a wave of a hand that girls attended the musicians' revelries. He complimented several musicians for being particularly skilled. The ashes in the Warm Morning stove gave a heave and Dock excused himself to slip out the back door to dig some coal out of the accumulating snow.
He was no more out the door than Sara sat bolt upright and set her face and jutted her jaw to have her say. From her point of view "makin' music" was hardly the high time that Dock had recalled. Her recollection was of a sea of inebriated men who left chaos in their wake. It fell to her to clean up broken furniture and vomit. All the while she found it necessary to fend off the passes they were making at her. She recalled that the times were hard and that they could ill afford plying friends with booze. Also, she and Dock were raising his daughter and such sessions were not good for her to witness. She went on to say that she was not altogether pleased with his new found fame because it brought back memories of those previous dark days of "makin' music." Much to her chagrin Dock was in fact drinking again. The back door opened and Dock charged in, coal bucket in hand. Sara returned to her stoic silence. She had had her say.
The next morning Sara was up long before anyone else. The house filled with the smell of hand made biscuits. Sara shook down the ashes in the living room stove and soon the smell of fried chicken and pork chops overtook the biscuit aroma. The previously sectioned grapefruit was served in large bowls. Hot coffee was poured in large mugs. Dock and I sat down to this laborer's repast. Sarah busied herself making beds while the men had their meal. She would not be persuaded to join us at the table. It just wasn't "a woman's place."
Now Dock and Sara rest as best they can between a highway and a railroad track. That day years ago as we drove to Big Stone Gap, Sara ventured to give some directions. Dock came back with a rhetorical, "Just who is holding the reins to this wagon, anyway?" It is apparent that Sara often held the reins in difficult times when Dock was distracted by his art. Both had a wonderfully tenacious spirit that saw them through. The pilgrimage had a blessed end. Two wonderful persons were remembered and we benefit from the memory.
Will Poyser is an Episcopal Priest currently serving as an Associate at the Church of the Holy Nativity in Plano, Texas. He also picks the banjo and sings some of Dock's songs.