By Wayne Erbsen
Standing tall among the early pioneers of the roots of bluegrass music was Dock Walsh. Born and raised on a farm in Wilkes County, North Carolina, on July 23, 1901, Dock was one of eight children who all played music from an early age. His first banjo was presented to him by an older brother, who made it out of an axle grease can. Dock eventually outgrew this first instrument in favor of a fancy “store bought” Bruno banjo.
In 1924, 23-year-old Dock heard Henry Whitter’s recording of Lonesome Road Blues and Wreck on the Southern Old 97 on Okeh records. Wanting to quit his job as a school teacher, Dock saw music as his ticket to freedom. He contacted Okeh records, but received no response. He next tried getting in touch with Columbia records, but again he came up empty-handed. Not easily discouraged, he traveled unannounced to Atlanta, Georgia, where, after six months, he managed to be auditioned by Columbia’s William Brown.
On October 3, 1925, he recorded four songs under the supervision of Frank Walker, who put pillows under his feet to “stop the racket.” These recordings make Dock one of the earliest musicians to record three-finger banjo picking. After his triumphant initial recording session, Dock actually walked home from Atlanta to Wilkes County, North Carolina, a distance of some three hundred miles!
On February 19,1927, Dock, along with harmonica wizard Gwen Foster, traveled back to Atlanta and recorded “Going to Georgia” for RCA Victor. During this same session, Dock and Gwen also waxed There Ain’t No Use Working So Hard, Her Name Was Hula Lou, and Bring Me a Leaf From the Sea.
In particular, Going to Georgia, is a perfect example of how the basic sound of bluegrass music was already in place some twenty years before it was even a gleam in Bill Monroe’s eyes. The song featured Dock’s solid three-finger banjo picking, which was common in North Carolina during this period. Dock’s lead vocals were seconded on the chorus by Gwen’s high harmony vocals in much the way a modern bluegrass vocalist would approach the song.
In some ways, the most interesting aspect of the Carolina Tar Heels’ recording of Going to Georgia is the harmonica playing of Gwen Foster, who can be called one of the greatest harmonica players who ever lived. His playing on this recording combines blues, slides, and wild improvising that smacks both of swing and early jazz. While the harmonica is not an instrument that is normally associated with bluegrass, Foster’s choice of notes would make many a bluegrass fiddler drool.
Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really, about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written more than 30 songbooks and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin. Portions of this article are excerpted from Wayne’s book, The Rural Roots of Bluegrass.