A Wilkes County, NC musician born on a farm in Lewis Fork (now named Ferguson) to Lee Walsh and Diana Elizabeth Gold Walsh on July 23, 1901, Doctor “Dock” Coble Walsh was one of eight children who played music. His first banjo, fretless and made out of an axle grease box, was given to him by his older brother when he was just four years old. As a teen he began playing banjo and singing locally where earned some money performing. Besides his trademark three-finger style, Dock played “knife-style” or slide banjo on some of his recordings by placing pennies under the instrument’s bridge and playing the strings with a knife, somewhat similar to bottle-neck slide guitar playing.
When Dock was in his teens he started playing at dance parties with his friends and alone; sometimes he earned some money. Soon he bought a good Bruno banjo in Lenior, which he used until his 1925 recording sessions. In 1921 Dock became a public school teacher after receiving his teaching certificate at Mountain View. After he heard Henry Whitter’s recording of “Wreck of the Old 97” on Okeh Records, Dock became determined to make a record.
He wrote Okeh and then Columbia records but got no response. Undeterred, he quit his teaching position and moved to Atlanta where both companies did field recordings and got a job working in cotton fields. After six months he arranged an audition with Columbia’s Bill 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” Walsh made keeping time with his shoe heels. His first single was “I’m Free At Last,” backed by “East Bound Train.” He next did a parody of “The Girl I Loved In Sunny Tennessee” called “Bulldog Down In Sunny Tennessee” and “Educated Man,” a version of “I’m A Highly Educated Man” known as “I Was Born 4,000 Years Ago.” After his triumphant recording session he walked home from Atlanta to Wilkes County; a distance of over 300 miles!
No longer interested in teaching, Walsh devoted himself to being a professional musician. He traveled the highways and byways, entertaining lumber haulers and sawmill workers along the way. The Columbia catalogue for 1927 read: “Dock Walsh is hard to catch. So great is the demand for him at country-dances and entertainments in the South, that it’s mighty hard to tell where he’ll be next. However when you catch him, it’s worth all the trouble.”
He played primarily in the claw hammer style but along with Charlie Poole and Dock Boggs, was another forerunner of the three-finger style. On April 17, 1926 Walsh once again returned to Atlanta to wax “We Courted in the Rain,” “Knocking on The Henhouse Door,” “Going Back To Jericho,” “Traveling Man” and the very first recording of “In The Pines” for Columbia. He met some of the musicians soon to be named the Skillet Lickers including Riley Puckett, Clayton McMichen, Gid Tanner and Fate Norris.
In the summer of 1926 Dock was playing banjo and harmonica (on a rack) in Gaston County when a listener offered to take him to see a good harmonica player, Gwen Foster. Gwen, who was a doffer in a Dallas NC mill, began playing with Walsh. They teamed up with two Gastonia area guitarists, Dave Fletcher and Floyd Williams forming the Four Yellowjackets. A Victor talent scout heard them and they traveled to Atlanta where Ralph Peer recorded four duets with Foster and Walsh naming them the Carolina Tar Heels.
Dock Walsh billed himself as the “The Banjo King of the Carolinas.” Charlie Poole, a similar three-finger style mountain banjo picker who also recorded for Columbia in 1925, had a smash hit (selling 102,000 copies) with “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.” Walsh was well aware of Poole’s career with Columbia and covered one of his songs, “The Girl I Loved In Sunny Tennessee,” with his parody called “Bulldog Down In Sunny Tennessee.” It’s probable that Poole’s success with Columbia was a bone of contention for Walsh as Columbia boasted in their catalogue: Charlie Poole is unquestionably the best-known banjo picker and singer in the Carolinas.
Walsh never again recorded for Columbia. On one concert poster for the original Tar Heels, Dock Walsh was billed as the Banjo King of the Carolinas and Garley Foster as The Human Bird (for his bird calls). In his last solo session Walsh recorded the folk hymn “Bathe in that Beautiful Pool” for Victor on Sept. 25, 1929. The other songs from the session were: “Laura Lou,” “A Precious Sweetheart From Me Is Gone” and “We’re Just Plain Folks.”
Walsh married in 1929 and immediately began raising a family. To make ends meet he went “bustin” or “ballying” on the streets (playing for spare change) with Garley. On May 30, 1931 Walsh and Garley Foster also recorded under the name, Pine Mountain Boys, which curiously is the same line-up as the next to last Carolina Tar Heel session in November 1930. The five songs that emerged from the session were: “The Gas Run Out,” “She Wouldn’t Be Still,” “Roll On Daddy Roll On,” The Apron String Blues” and “Wild Women Blues.”
After his recording career ended in the early 1932, Walsh worked in the poultry business to support his growing family- two boys and two girls. Later in the 1950s he became an outside salesman for a North Wilkesboro auto parts firm, C.D. Coffee and Sons.
After decades of inactivity, Dock the group reformed in 1961. Walsh has been dead for several years but played at the Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers Convention as recently as 1959. The second generation of the Carolina Tar Heels featured his son, Drake Walsh of Millers Creek, recently a member Elkville String Band as well as original member Garley Foster. They recorded an album for Folk Legacy in 1964. Drake, born on Dec. 28, 1930, played fiddle and guitar, played with his Danc-A-Lons at the North Wilkesboro VFW on Saturday nights.