Dock Boggs, legendary old-time banjo player

January 30, 2017

Dock Boggs, old-time musician
Dock Boggs (1898–1971) was an influential old-time singer, songwriter, and banjo player and one of the original, legendary hillbillies to record what is now known as old-time music during the 1920s. He was largely forgotten for decades until the 1960s folk revival breathed new life into his career at the twilight of his life. Boggs’s dozen recordings from 1927 to 1929 are staples of folk music, comprised of Appalachian ballads and blues such as “Pretty Polly,” “Country Blues,” and “Danville Girl.” Born near Norton, VA, in 1898, he was named after the doctor who delivered him. The youngest of ten children, Boggs began working in the mines at the age of 12. He began playing banjo around that time, picking the instrument like a blues guitar instead of using more common clawhammer Banjo technique.

Dock’s style of banjo playing and singing are together considered to be a truly unique combination of African-American blues and Appalachian folk music. Contemporary folk musicians and performers consider him a seminal Dock Boggs, old-time musician
figure, at least in part because of the appearance of two of his recordings from the 1920s, “Sugar Baby” and “Country Blues”, on Harry Smith’s 1951 Anthology of American Folk Music 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 Records.

Dock Boggs, old-time musician
Boggs began picking up songs from family members and the radio. He married in 1918 and began subcontracting on a mine until his wife’s illness forced him to move back to her home. He worked in the dangerous moonshining business and made a little money playing social dances.

His big break finally came in 1927, when executives from the Brunswick label arrived in Norton to audition talent. He passed (beating out none other than A.P. Carter), and recorded eight sides in New York City for the label. Though they didn’t quite flop, the records sold mostly around Boggs’ hometown. He signed a booking agent, and recorded four more sides for W.E. Myer’s local Lonesome Ace label. The coming of the Great Depression in late 1929 put a hold on Boggs’ recording career, as countless labels dried up. He continued to perform around the region until the early ’30s, however, when his wife forced him to give up his music and go back into the mines. Boggs worked until 1954, when mechanical innovations forced him out of a job.

Almost a decade later, in 1963, folklorist Mike Seeger located Boggs in Norton and convinced him to resume his career. Just weeks after their meeting, Boggs played the American Folk Festival in Asheville, NC. He began recording again, and released his first LP, Legendary Singer & Banjo Player, later that year on Smithsonian/Folkways. Two more LPs followed during the ’60s, although, like his original recordings, they too were out of print not long after his death in 1971.

The revival of interest in early folk music occasioned by a digital reissue of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music finally brought Boggs’ music back to the shelves. In 1997, John Fahey’s Revenant label released Complete Early Recordings (1927-1929), and one year later His Folkways Years (1963-1968) appeared.

Resources: Doc Boggs

  1. Dock Boggs – Wikipedia
  2. Oh Death, by Dock Boggs – YouTube
  3. Down South Blues, by Dock Boggs – YouTube
  4. Dock Boggs: Legendary Singer and Banjo Player – Smithsonian Folkways
  5. Dock Boggs Discography – Discogs
  6. Dock Boggs Biography, Albums, Streaming Links – AllMusic
  7. Doc Boggs – Pinterest
  8. Only Remembered For What He Has Done – Dock Boggs
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Dock Boggs performing live

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