Dock Boggs - Biography
Dock Boggs was born Moran Lee Boggs in 1898 in West Norton, Virginia. (He was called Dock because his parents named him after the doctor who delivered him.) His recordings are few, but they remain important documents, preserving the sound of early folk music at the dawn of the recording era. Boggs played banjo in his own unique style, applying the techniques of blues and folk guitar to the instrument.
For most of his adult life (ages 12 to 56) Boggs worked in the coal mines and was a member of the then radical United Mine Workers, and never bowed to the harsh demands of the mine owners. He was the youngest of ten children; three older brothers played banjo and several sisters were know as fine singers, as was his father. He heard a banjo player in a black string band finger picking the instrument and was inspired to play in that style. Boggs started playing on his brother Rosco’s banjo and eventually bought a Gibson banjo for himself. Everyone in his hometown was familiar with his music, and Boggs dreamed of making a living with his banjo. For a while he even quit the mines for a life of bootlegging and music. He got his first taste of potential success in 1927 when a Brunswick Records talent scout came to town to audition local pickers. He invited Boggs to record in New York City. Boggs cut eight songs for the label and a few years later, in 1929, cut four more for Chicago’s Lonesome Ace Records. These early recordings are available, along with a few out-takes, on John Fahey’s Revenant label as Dock Boggs - Country Blues (1997 Revenant).
When the 78's were first issued, Boggs played locally, still working in the mines. He had a band together for a short time, and tried to get a job singing on the radio, but his stage fright made that impossible. When his wife asked him to quit music, he gave up.
Thirty years later, 78 RPM collectors were revering Boggs’ music. When the folk revival kicked off, Mike Seeger tracked Boggs down. In 1963 Boggs was 65 and unemployed. He still lived in West Norton in an economically depressed region and hadn’t been able to find work in years. He’d just started playing music again after a 25-year break. Boggs took up Seeger’s invitation to play at a couple of festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival. Parts of his performance there are available on Old Time Music at Newport (1963 Vanguard). His rendition of “Oh Death” at Newport, just as the Atlantic fog began rolling across the stage, is an iconic moment. Boggs was a big hit at Newport and went on to make three stellar albums for Folkways Records; Legendary Singer and Banjo Player (1963), Dock Boggs, Volume 2 (1965) and Dock Boggs, Volume 3 (1970). Smithsonian/Folkways reissued them all on a two CD set called Dock Boggs His Folkways Years in 1998.
Dock Boggs became a star on the folk music circuit for his gruff primal vocals and unique picking style. He died on February 7, 1971, his 73rd birthday.