Dock Boggs – Only Remembered For What He Has Done

By Jack Wright

Originally published in The Old-Time Herald, Volume 6, Number 5, 1998 


Dock Boggs’ 1927 recordings of raw, powerful singing and distinctive banjo-playing have moved and influenced musicians, fans and scholars ever since their release. His songs that became especially well known include Country Blues, Sugar Baby, Oh Death, Prodigal Son, and Wise County Jail. With the release this year of the CD of Dock’s material, and the planned release on Smithsonian Folkways, his music is crossing new lines and reaching larger audiences.

DocBoggsANDwoman_editedDock was a coal miner in southwestern Virginia and played music informally there except for a brief period when he had a band after his 1927 recordings. After his retirement he took up the banjo again, made some more recordings on Folkways, and played for new urban audiences during the early days of the folksong revival in the 1960s. During this time he made new friends with his music and during this, the 100th year of his birth some of those friends have written remembrances of him which will appear in this and the next issue of OTH. – Mike Seeger

I knew Moran Lee “Dock” Boggs, the renowned banjo player and singer, for only a short time. We became friends late in his life. When asked to contribute to this issue, one of the first people I thought of was Johnny Hunsucker, Dock’s nephew and one of his closest friends. Johnny lives on Guests River near Wise, Virginia, my hometown. They traveled together and the young Johnny adored “Uncle Dock,” his mother’s brother. And Johnny’s late father taught Dock many songs, several of which appeared on vinyl and now CD.

I phoned Johnny and told him I would be driving home that next weekend. I asked if I could borrow a few of his stories about Dock. Pleased to hear from me, he said he would meet me at Hardee’s on Saturday morning at nine. When I arrived Johnny had already eaten his ham biscuit and was sipping coffee and enjoying a cigarette. Johnny is a spry, happy 85-year-old widower and retired sawmill man. His youthful smile and dark hair make him look several years younger. He’s seen lots of hard work and was a good old-time banjo player and singer in his time. He played up until recently when he broke his right wrist and it failed to heal properly. After our greetings, he started right off telling me stories from his treasured adventures with Uncle Dock.

DockI wasn’t even half-growed when Dock got me to go to Pardee (Virginia) with him. I said, “Lord, Dock! How will we get there?” We lived way over on Cram Creek in Letcher County (Kentucky). He said, “You’ve got two legs, ain’t ‘che?”

I had a little .32 Special I carried with me. I’s awful proud of it. You know, my first gun. We commenced to climbin’ over the Cumberland Mountain and then Black Mountain and we come to a place where they’s a-sellin’ moonshine. Well, Dock took that pistol and traded for three gallons of that liquor and we carried it till we got tired and we hid two gallon of it. I bet it’s still out there buried somewhere. We got into Pardee and went into a boarding house where they was shootin’ craps. We sold some of the liquor and old Dock got into rollin’ the dice. He got hot! Hit it pretty lucky. When he finished we had enough money to where we come back on the bus. Yeah, we done pretty good. He was a-singin’ “Cole Younger” on our way back to Kentucky: With knives and revolvers We all set out to play, A-drinking good corn whiskey, boys, To pass the time away.

I was feelin’ like Cole Younger till Dock sold my pistol off.

Now, a few years later, one of the times when him and (his wife) Sarah split up and he lived over at Mayking (Kentucky), he sold all the furniture out of their house. Dock said, “We’re goin’ to Norton.” He decided we’d stop at the hotel in Neon (Kentucky) where there was a card game a-goin.’ He sat down and lost ever’ cent. We never did make it to Norton. Now, he was a rounder. Did you ever see him do the buck and wing?

dockboggs-by-R-CrumbI never got to witness Dock’s buck and wing dancing but I’d heard lots of folks mention it. As we finished our interview and said our goodbyes that morning, Johnny gave me a present. It was his tape, Down South Blues which contains his performances of several of his uncle’s pieces. On my way back home to Ohio the following Sunday I listened closely. Johnny’s picking and singing evoke his uncle’s strong presence and more. It’s a look into Dock’s early world. It’s the black coal camp at Dorchester and the new sounds of a music from some other place in time. It’s that little school house in the night ringing with life, sounding like a radio broadcasting outside to a young boy’s hungry heart.

Dock Boggs’ influence reaches well beyond his circle of family and friends, to a broad swath of the American musical landscape. When I began working in Letcher County, Kentucky, in the early ’70s I ran across musicians who had known him or his music and could play pieces in his style. The best known tune I found was “Country Blues.” Banjo players like Roscoe Holcomb from Daisy, Lee Sexton from Ulvah, and Coy Morton from Whitesburg, all could pick at least one of Dock’s tunes. During one of our recording sessions the late I.D. Stamper told me, “One day I’s sitting outside the courthouse on one of those benches there in the middle of town (Whitesburg) and a car pulled up. Dock Boggs stepped out and he cracked down on this piece.” I.D. then began playing “Down South Blues” almost note for note.

Dock’s influence also touched the more commercial music scene of the ’60s. In 1967, what must now be seen as the first world music rock band-southern California’s Kaleidoscope-recorded “Oh Death” for their album Side Trips. Most of the band had cut their teeth on the vibrant old-time music scene around southern California beginning in the early ’60s. This seminal group included David Lindley, Chris Darrow, Solomon Feldthouse, John Vidican, and the late Fenrus Epp.

In 1969 they performed “Oh Death” to a packed crowd at the Newport Folk Festival. The song became an anti-war mantra for the band in an unexpected way. Feldthouse began a talking “rant” in the middle of the song, totally unrehearsed with the band. The other band members were taken aback. They thought he had “lost it.” But as he spoke and built his case against war to the background of “Oh Death” the crowd gave him a standing ovation even before the song was ended. This met with such success that it became incorporated into the band’s live act from that point on.

Though they chose only “Oh Death” to record, Darrow said that they had included two other Dock Boggs’ songs in their repertoire because his “gothic” style suited the voice of their lead singer, Feldthouse.

The final Jefferson Airplane album of the ’60s, Volunteers, was the last to feature what most fans consider to be the group’s classic lineup. One of the first tracks recorded, “We Can Be Together,” was chosen to lead off the album. About that cut the Airplane’s singer, Paul Kantner, gave credit where credit was due. In an interview with Jeff Tamarkin, he said, “The ‘we can be together’ part, the chorus part, started off with no real lyrics, just a nice pretty little thing, and then (David) Crosby came along and gave me an old banjo lick . . . Dock Boggs . . . . I’d never been able to find it but it’s imbedded in my brain. I know it’s out there somewhere. It’s not stolen, that’s just part of the folk process, where you take stuff and adapt it.”

Of course, the strongest evidence of Dock’s presence can be heard in more recent old-time music. Many groups have done versions of his work. The Horse Flies, the Rhythm Rats, Mac Benford, Nimrod Workman, John Cohen, Ralph Stanley, John Hutchison, and Mary McCaslin and Jim Ringer, to name a few. Rock critic Greil Marcus also claims that Dock Boggs’ influence can be heard throughout Bob Dylan and The Band’s historic “Basement Tapes.”

In Marcus’s latest book, Invisible Republic, an entire chapter is given over to a discussion of the life and exploits of Dock, whose 1920s recordings and musical style played an important role in Dylan’s developing sound. Looking back now, I find it puzzling that Dock became relatively well known to musicians and audiences across the country and yet so little recognized at home. As a teenager I had been striving to be a musician and was an early Dylan fan, still I had no idea that Dock even existed, much less was influencing American culture. But that was to change after a tour in Vietnam and my discharge from the Army.

Upon my return home I enrolled in the local college (thanks to the G.I. Bill). My sociology teacher, Helen Lewis, knew that I picked at the guitar and sang a little bit. I had known her since the eighth grade when she was the college librarian. She had helped me check out my first library book. When she asked for ideas for individual class projects, I proposed a small music festival. She offered a budget of four hundred and fifty dollars left over from an educational grant. Helen was very aware of the local culture and great at pointing people in the right direction. She encouraged me to go down and meet Dock Boggs, the banjo player and singer who lived in nearby Needmore, Virginia. So I looked Dock’s number up in the phone book and called. In his genteel friendly manner, he invited me to come down and visit any time. Some of my rock and roll musician friends had heard of Dock. I remember one of them saying, “Oh yeah, he’s that old man that used to drive a laundry truck down at Norton and he tries to sell people his records of folk music.”

On the sunny October afternoon I arrived at Dock’s house, his wife, Sarah, served an early supper. We sat down to a meal of meatloaf, fresh green beans, skillet-fried corn and homemade rolls. She was kind but never had much to say to me. He told me of his recent musical tours around the country and of playing at the Newport Folk Festival. He spoke of Bobby (who turned out to be one of my heroes-Bob Dylan) going electric at Newport. He asked me if I wanted to hear some tunes. When I said yes, he pulled out his banjo and sang “Oh Death.” As he picked and sang on through other songs, all new to me, in my mind I bathed in the lap of an ancient fountain. New, yet somehow familiar. He gave me his old copies of a magazine called Sing Out and some copies of the Newport Folk Festival publications. He and Sarah fondly spoke of a musician named Mike Seeger. Dock alluded that, thanks to Mike, he now enjoyed a second music career with five LPs. A dream come true. When I got ready to leave, I asked Dock to play at the college music festival. I told him we didn’t have much money and offered him sixty dollars. Dock answered, “I’d be honored to do anything I could around here to help promote old-time music.” It was to be the first time he’d played for the local public in many years and the first time a music festival featuring local talent had been held at Clinch Valley College. The event would bring an audience of over two hundred people onto the college grounds. For many it was their first visit. They got to hear Dock, Mike Seeger, Guy Carawan, Kate Peters Sturgill, Bill Denham-a blind street singer from Norton-and Earl Gilmore, a piano player from the black coal camp at Clinchco, Virginia, who sang blues and gospel. Joe Smiddy, the chancellor of the college, played the lap dulcimer and sang “Cumberland Gap.” It was to be my first solo public performance, and I also acted as emcee.

On Thursday afternoon, December 4, 1969, Dock and Mike kicked off the festival in the college cafeteria with workshops in banjo, guitar and singing. The informal atmosphere allowed anyone coming in to grab a snack and hear some great music. Most of the students had no idea what was going on, but they seemed to enjoy it. Word spread and that night the Jefferson Lounge filled up with a crowd full of anticipation. They paid one dollar admission. Secretly, Dock fortified his performance with the little half-pint liquor bottle stashed in the inside breast pocket of his suit coat. He later told me it calmed his nerves. Many of the people from the county showed up just to hear Dock. When it came his turn to play he didn’t let them down. His original song, “Hard Times in the Wise County Jail” was a real crowd pleaser because it poked fun at the local law. Dock acted hesitant when he introduced the song. As he leaned forward and looked around toward the side door, he said, “I’m an old man, now, and I don’t wanna’ be shot and killed.” Laughter filled the hall. Dock continued, “This song don’t really pertain to nobody now, but it did back then when I wrote it. Of course, he’s dead now.” By the end of the night, the audience had gotten their dollars’ worth. (A tradition was born that continues 30 years later-the Annual Dock Boggs Memorial Music Festival.)

Wise County was proud of Dock. The event proved so popular that I staged another music show that spring in conjunction with the very first Earth Day Celebration. Helen Lewis was an instrumental force behind this new environmental education movement throughout the region. The environment was a growing concern, especially in our region because of all the rampant strip mining.

The Earth Day keynote speaker, Harry Caudill, author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands, addressed a full lecture hall of students and local citizens. Although Dock was scheduled for an evening performance he did not feel well enough to play. He did sing from the audience in Mike Seeger’s afternoon workshop, but only a few phrases from a couple of songs, and without his banjo. He didn’t show up for the concert that night.

In the evening performance Jean Ritchie mesmerized the crowd with her songs “Black Waters” and “Now Is the Cool of the Day.” Ralph Stanley showed up for his first appearance at the college with only his banjo and a sunburnt face. He had come straight from a freshly mowed field he finished cutting earlier in the afternoon. Ralph asked Mike Seeger and Alice Gerrard to back him up. “Little Birdie,” a song passed down from his mother, brought the house down.

The success of one event led to another, and soon I began thinking about putting on an outdoor festival in September that would include traditional music, gospel, and rock and roll. Several of my friends, including Frankie Taylor and Beth Bingman, worked tirelessly in the planning and execution of this first outdoor festival. The effort took on a communal tone as we began preparation in early summer. Our first challenge came when we tried to find a suitable location for our small outdoor dream.

In those days following Woodstock just the mention of rock and roll gave local leaders cold feet. Nationally, friction between the generations seemed to be at a new high. To oppose the war in Vietnam, or to be for equality and a clean environment at home, was considered un-American by many. Student strikes and takeovers at colleges across the nation often erupted into violence. Idealistically, we hoped that the local music might bring people with different viewpoints closer together. Dock quieted some of my fears when he told me that I could count on him to play at the festival.

We approached local leaders about using the expansive county fairgrounds with all the needed facilities and parking. After several weeks of waiting for an answer we were turned down cold with little explanation. I went back to Clinch Valley College to ask about using the picnic area on a wooded section of campus. The chancellor threw up his hand and dismissed me with a quick retort, “We are not gonna’ have any rock festival around here on this campus.” The national forest service offered help, but they had no open space large enough to accommodate us. However, the enthusiasm shown by the head forest ranger gave us hope and we persisted.

Finally, a cousin of Frankie Taylor’s agreed to let us use a piece of property he owned at Chestnut Flats bordering the Jefferson National Forest on High Knob near Norton. It had last been used as a skeet shooting range in the early ’60s. This rolling meadow surrounded by lush forest had no water or electricity. The water and mud-filled ruts in the one-lane access road left it almost impassable. Yet, this spot pleased us immensely. Its quiet beauty and remoteness made our dream intimate and real. And the cousin wanted no rental fee.

After securing the space, we had less than a month to prepare the site. We planned the two-day weekend event for September 12-13, 1970. With no budget to speak of, our task was formidable. A couple of hundred dollars left over from the spring festival would have to get us through. We built the stage from “found” and “borrowed” lumber. The Old Dominion Power Company seemed delighted to bring “juice” to an isolated but ideal spot. Maybe soon it would be developed. Service amounted to an 18 dollar hookup fee. Ma Bell installed a pay phone out on the entrance to the site at the main road.

We hauled “red dog” for the rutted one-lane road from the most visible and largest slag heap in the county, located on the outskirts of Norton. Each trip, the loaded dump truck strained up the narrow blacktop road five miles past Hemlock and Rhododendron, around sharp curves and switchbacks to the top of High Knob, the county’s highest summit. Though the twelve truckloads we unloaded put our road in fair shape, we hardly made a dent in the smoking gob pile it came from.

With the nearest vendor 60 miles away, Portajohn money failed to enter the picture. Our budget allowed us to dig two latrines, his’n and her’n. The latrine design came from one of the Vietnam vets on our volunteer crew. We fitted newly constructed wooden thrones over the holes and surrounded our privies with olive drab canvas strung from poles. Both johns were open air affairs with a late summer night’s view of the star-lit heavens. They served us well for those private necessary moments.

We mowed and raked our grassy eight-acre meadow with a borrowed tractor rig so that we could have festival seating and plenty of parking. And a small gift of cash from F.O.C.I.S., a group of progressive Catholic nuns who had broken away from their order, the Glenmary Sisters, gave new life to our anemic budget. During the final two weeks, we pitched our tents, hung a flag and set up a campsite where we worked night and day to get ready. Often we bathed in the clear, chilly waters of nearby High Knob Lake. At more than four thousand feet above sea level we labored, cooked, laughed, and breathed in the pure mountain air, readying our grounds for the county’s first alternative music festival.

We named the event the Appalachian People’s Old-Timey, Folk-Rock, Camp Meeting Music Fair. This ridiculous mouthful of a title represented our naive sense of a new musical order. We planned for folk, old-time, bluegrass and country rock music acts on Saturday, closing out the late evening with two local rock bands. Sunday was for gospel and spiritual music.

We drove Dock up the mountain to the festival site on that warm Saturday afternoon. He came dressed in his trademark dark suit, necktie, and polished black dress shoes, his silver hair parted and combed perfectly in place. There was a mix of ages in the all-white audience, but most were young folks, many had longer hair, several were shirtless, and some barefooted and wearing shorts. Other folks brought lawn chairs but most spread blankets on the ground. About 120 people out in the sunshine for the afternoon performances saw Dock’s arrival at stageside. He was scheduled to follow a young blues singer accompanying herself on acoustic guitar.

Three handmade crazy quilts hung from the back of the primitive wooden stage. Their bright colored patterns slowly rippled and folded into one another as the bottom edges blew about in the early fall breeze. Behind the audience, across the meadow, a frisbee sailed between two friends. Dock gave his big smile and a small wave to the crowd. He took his banjo out of the case and tuned a little. Then he shuffled over and sat down on a folding chair in the middle of the stage and picked into the microphone.

He was alone, doing a 25-minute set. He worked the two mics easily. He addressed the crowd. Looking out across the different faces. Talking between songs, telling the story behind a song or about himself. The late afternoon sunshine gleamed off of his eyeglasses. He finished with “Oh Death.”

Unaware of who Dock was, a local crew was out in the meadow filming a piece on the young white blues singer from Knoxville, Tennessee. She and a Vietnam veteran turned protest singer from West Virginia. Little did we know that we had just witnessed Dock’s last public performance, September 12, 1970.

Dock Boggs thoroughly enjoyed his second musical career. He told me so the last time I ever saw him. It was at his home in Needmore that next November, a chilly, damp day. Smoke rose from the chimney of the Boggs’ little white frame house across the creek from the main road. I dropped by with a friend to sing a few songs for him. Dock told us during the visit that death was near his door. He said he was not afraid.

On his 73rd birthday, February 7, 1971, Dock passed away. A crowd of friends and relatives filled the funeral home in Norton for his wake and funeral. During the service I do not remember any mention of Dock’s musical career.

One of Dock’s last requests was for the Cook Family duo to sing for his funeral. They did. It was Jeanette and Hubert with their acoustic, flattop guitars and the wonderful harmony of their voices. They sang “A Better Place To Go” and “Where Will I Shelter My Sheep.” What strong, passionate singing. Dock knew what he wanted.

Jack Wright is the founder of June Appal Recordings and played music with the Payroll Boys for seven years. He appeared as an old-time musician in the movie, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and presently lives in Athens, OH where he teaches in the graduate school of film at Ohio University. He is founder of the Dock Boggs Memorial Music Festival now in its 30th year at Wise, Va. Jack is married to the writer, Sharon Hatfield.

The Old-Time Herald Volume 6, Number 5



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