“Dock” Coble Walsh was a teacher by profession but music was his legacy. The self-proclaimed “Banjo King of the Carolinas” was born July 23, 1901 in the Lewis Fork community of western Wilkes County, North Carolina. Dock’s love for music began at an early age. His first banjo at the age four was a gift made by his older brother from an axle grease box. His teenage years found him playing music each opportunity he had. He became known for playing the banjo in the “claw hammer style”, “three finger style”, and for placing pennies under the bridge of the banjo and playing the strings with a knife.
As a young man in the early 1920s, Dock was determined he would make a record and was willing to do whatever it took to make his dream come true. Leaving the teaching profession behind, he moved to Atlanta with hopes of making a record for either Okeh Records or Columbia Records. Working in the cotton fields by day and playing music at night, Dock’s determination paid off. In 1925 he made his first recordings for Columbia Records that included “I’m Free at Last”, “East Bound Train”, “Bulldog Down in Sunny Tennessee”, and “Educated Man”. Dock was the first to record “bottle-neck” slide style by placing pennies under the bridge of his banjo. Once these recording sessions were completed, Dock walked a distance of 300 miles back to Wilkes County from Atlanta.
In 1926 Dock again returned to Atlanta to record “We Courted in the Rain”, “Knocking on the Henhouse”, “Going Back to Jerico”, and “Traveling Man”. It was during these sessions that Dock made the first recording of “In the Pines” for Columbia Records.
During the years of 1926 through 1929, Dock also found success as a member of the Four Yellowjackets and the Carolina Tar Heels. Along with Dock, Gwin Foster, Garley Foster, Tom Ashley and Dave Fletcher made up the Carolina Tar Heels. Together, this group recorded over 40 songs for Victor Records. Dock and Gwin recorded four duets for Victor Records. The song “Going to Georgia” showcased Dock’s three-finger banjo picking style and his lead vocals were seconded on the chorus by Gwin’s harmony and harmonica playing combining blues, slides, and wild improvising that resounds of both swing and early jazz. This early recording is much the way of modern bluegrass and a true example of bluegrass music being in place some twenty years before bluegrass was made more popular by artists like Bill Monroe.
Dock’s last solo recording session took place in 1929 for Victor Records. Four songs were recorded during these sessions, “Bathe in that Beautiful Pool”, “Laura Lou”, “A Precious Sweetheart From Me is Gone”, and “We’re Just Plain Folks”.
That same year, Dock married Annie Church and they raised four children (Drake, Dean, Libby and Judy) in the Lewis Fork community of Wilkes County. Dock continued to play music with Garley Foster by “bustin” or “ballying” in the streets and playing for spare change.
With the end of his recording career in 1932, Dock worked on a poultry farm to support his growing family. Later he became an outside salesman for C. D. Coffey and Sons Auto Parts in his hometown of North Wilkesboro. His music playing continued, however, with his good friend Garley Foster and Dock’s son, Drake, in local bluegrass bands.
The revival of folk music in the 1960s brought Dock in contact with Gene Earle and Archie Green who tapped Dock, Garley Foster and Drake Walsh to record several remakes of the Carolina Tar Heels recordings along with a few original compositions to release on a Folk Legacy Album.
Gwin Foster died November 25, 1954. Dock Walsh died May 28, 1967 with Tom Ashley passing shortly after on June 2, 1967. Garley Foster died October 5, 1968.
The musical legacy and tradition of Dock Walsh and the Carolina Tar Heels continued to be played by Dock’s son, Drake, who honored his father and the band playing beloved songs until his death in 2010. At the time of his death, Drake was a member of the Elkville String Band who today continues to carry on the legacy of honoring the music of Dock Walsh and the Carolina Tar Heels.