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Fiddlin' Doc Roberts
Born:  April 26, 1897
Died:  August 4, 1978
WHAS Louisville, KY

About The Artist

Phillip Roberts, nicknamed Doc, spent most of his adult life in Madison County, Kentucky (south of Lexington) where he farmed for a living and sometimes served as a jailer and county farm superintendent. His real claim to fame came from being regarded as one of the truly great old-time fiddlers of his generation. Although he eschewed full-time musical professionalism, Doc left a legacy of recordings for Gennett and the American Record Corporation that display his excellent skills.

In addition, he played mandolin in support of the vocal duets of his guitar accompanist Asa Martin and son James Roberts on their discs with artist credit to Martin & Roberts.

Growing up near Richmond, Kentucky, he first learned to play fiddle at the age of seven and spent the next two decades perfecting his skills. Roberts' style was somewhat atypical as he learned tunes and techniques that came from black fiddlers as well as white ones.

Researching old newspaper articles found a reporting of a fiddler's contest in the town of Berea, KY in 1919. The chronicler of the event wrote it in a bit of a humorous angle. Mr. John F. Smith wrote that the people of Berea were given the 'greatest treat they have had in many moons - the Old Fiddlers' Contest. It was held to benefit the folks of Berea and the local school. That is, the money would go to the school, the fun to the folks in attendance.

"Fifteen royal fiddlers, the pick o' the covey, were in the ring. They were culled from the whole tribe of worshipers of the horse hair, from Pine Mountain and Hell-for-Sartain to Joe's Lick and Pilot Knob. ... No one except those whose musical sense had been revolutionized by a course in a conservatory could have failed to see the fun.

While the Tabernacle was being filled, Mrs. F. M. Livingood, with recitations and an invisible musician with cornet, flute and piccolo, entertained the audience."

Mr. Smith went on to list some of the tunes the audience heard that night from the fiddlers. Tunes such as "Billy In The Low Grounds," "Jurang's Hornpipe," "Irish Gallup," "The Ways Of The World," "Adeline," "Forked Deer," "Waynesburg," "Cacklin' Hen," "Calahan," "Waggoner" - by Doc Roberts, all played in the first round. A second round was done and the fiddlers went at it again.

The third round would be the last round. Mr. Smith noted that the audience would be hard pressed to hear better versions of "Calahan" by Botner, "Waynesburg" by Ramsey, "Turkey In The Straw" by Doc Roberts, or "Lost Girl" by Green. He wrote, "THe audience never before heared "Turkey In The Straw" as it was done by Doc Roberts. "And that number of Doc's convinced the judges that he was entitled to the first prize of $50. Second prize went to Dude Freeman and in third was E. L. Cox.

In May of 1920, another Old Fiddlers' Contest was held at the State Normal in Richmond, KY. The contest included an eighy year old youngster who the judges gave their approval to. Doc Roberts won first prize in the "Old Fiddle" category. Doc came in second to Leo Bertain on the "mandolin" category.

Dock Roberts (as his name was sometimes spelled) was awarded a $20 first prize in an old-time fiddler's contest held in Stanford, KY in March of 1926.

Martin and Roberts Promo Ad - WHAS - 1931 Among the African-American ones, some of whom recorded sparingly, were Owen Walker and both Jim and John Booker. About 1924, a local man named Dennis Taylor began to look about for talented musicians he could take to Richmond, Indiana, among them Roberts, the Bookers, a guitarist Edgar Boaz, and balladeer Welby Toomey.

Doc soon learned that he could make his own arrangements and eliminate Taylor who had taken the lion's share of the profits. Some of the musicians Doc recruited were Dick Parman, Ted Chesnut, and Green Bailey as well as Asa Martin and James Roberts, some of whom recorded for Paramount as well as Gennett.

With Starr Piano Company (parent corporation of Gennett) experiencing financial problems, the Roberts' and Martin switched to the American Record Corporation (Melotone, Perfect, etc.) with the fiddle tunes released as the Fiddling Roberts Trio. The Martin & Roberts vocal discs continued as well through 1934. Many of the Roberts tunes bore such atypical titles as "Brick Yard Joe," "Old Buzzard," and "Shipping Sport."

Gennett Records Ad - Fiddlin' Doc Roberts - Circa 1926 Although he might go to major cities to cut recordings, Roberts did not otherwise care for any aspect of urban life. He once spent a week at WLS Chicago complaining that the noise on the streets kept him awake all night.

For a few months in 1932 and 1933 he and James went to Council Bluffs, Iowa and did programs for Georgie Porgie Breakfast Foods on a three-radio station hookup (Des Moines, Davenport, and Omaha).

Other than that, he preferred to play at local dances close to home and make an occasional radio appearance in Lexington or Louisville.

His son James went on to a longer career in music, usually under the name of James Carson (see separate entry).

When interest revived in early day country recording artists both Martin and the elder Roberts were "re-discovered. Doc played a few times at Berea College (at least one with Asa and James). But with declining health, he soon stopped even that. In the late 1970s, long play albums of some of his tunes came out respectively on Davis Unlimited and County. In 1999, the Austrian label document released three compact discs containing most of his classic fiddle tunes.

In 2007, as part of its ongoing effort to promote and celebrate the music legacy of Starr Piano Company and its subsidiary, Gennett Records, the Foundation inaugurated the Gennett Records Walk of Fame to honor those who recorded for Gennett Records and whose work contributed significantly to American history. In 2014, Asa Martin and Doc Roberts were added to the Walk of Fame.

Gennett 78 - Fiddlin' Doc Roberts - Billy In The Low Ground - 1926

Credits & Sources

  • Hillbilly-Music.com would like to express its thanks to Ivan M. Tribe, author of Mountaineer Jamboree — Country Music in West Virginia and other books that can be found on Amazon.com and numerous articles in other publications for providing us with information about this artist.
  • Old Fiddlers' Night; John F. Smith; August 21, 1919; The Citizen; Berea, KY
  • Fiddlers' Contest Proves Big Success; May 29, 1920; Richmond Daily Register; Richmond, KY
  • Madison Fiddler Wins Prize; March 28, 1926; Lexington Herald-Leader; Lexington, KY
  • Folk Festival Is Scheduled; April 14, 1946; The Lexington Herald; Lexington, KY

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Recordings (78rpm/45rpm)

 
Banner
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  32309 A The Waggoner (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  32309 B Shortenin' Bread (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  32713 A Carroll County Blues (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
  32713 B Charleston Number 1 (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
  32889 A Cumberland Blues (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
  32889 B Down Yonder (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
  33488 A A Good Man Is Waiting For You (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  33488 B Way Down South (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
 
Challenge
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  229 A In The Shadow Of The Pine
  501 A All I've Got Is Done Gone
  501 B And The Cat Came Back The Very Next Day
 
Conqueror
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  7766 A Farewell Waltz
  7766 B Sally Ann
  7975 A The Waggoner (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  7975 B Shortenin' Bread (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  8078 A Ninety-Nine Years
  8078 B Over The Waves
  8104 A Carroll County Blues (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
  8104 B Charleston Number 1 (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
  8136 A Wednesday Night Waltz
  8136 B Did You Ever See The Devil Uncle Joe?
  8208 A Put My Little Shoes Away
  8208 B In The Shadows Of The Pines
  8234 A Little Mother Of The Hills
  8234 B Mother, Queen Of My Heart
  8239 A Cumberland Gap (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  8239 B I Don't Love Nobody (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  8566 A Ragtime Chicken Joe (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  8566 B In The Shadows Of The Pines (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
 
Gennett
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  3152 A Dixie ('Way Down South In Dixie) (w/Edgar Boaz)
  3152 B Martha Campbell (w/Edgar Boaz)
  3162 A All I've Got Is Done Gone (w/Edgar Boaz)
  3162 B My Baby Loves Shortenin' Bread
  3235 A Billy In The Low Grounds
  3235 B And The Cat Came Back The Very Next Day
  6025 A In The Shadow Of The Pine
  6025 B Little Brown Jug (By Welby Toomey)
  6257 A Black Eyed Susie
  6257 B Waynesburgh
  6390 A And The Cat Came Back
  6390 B Billy In The Low Ground
  6495 A Old Zip Coon And Medley Reels
  6495 B Dance With A Gal With Hole In Her Stocking
  6689 A Run Smoke Run
  6689 B Shippin' Sport
  7017 A Honeymoon Waltz
  7017 B Jack's Creek Waltz
  7049 A Deer Walk
  7049 B Johnny Inchin' Along
 
Melotone
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  12522 A Over The Waves
  12522 B Ninety-Nine Years
  12641 A Carroll County Blues (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
  12641 B Charleston Number 1 (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
  12746 A I Don't Love Nobody (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
  12746 B Turkey In The Straw (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
 
Minerva
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  M-914-A A Mother, Queen Of My Heart (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  M-914-B B On The Banks Of The Rio Grande (By Cliff Carlisle)
 
Oriole
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  8251 A I Don't Love Nobody (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
  8251 B Turkey In The Straw (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
 
Perfect
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  12724 A Wednesday Night Waltz
  12724 B Did You Ever See The Devil Uncle Joe?
  12765 A The Waggoner (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  12765 B Shortenin' Bread (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  12857 A Over The Waves
  12857 B Ninety-Nine Years
  12895 A Carroll County Blues (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
  12895 B Charleston Number 1 (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
  12929 A I Don't Love Nobody (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
  12929 B Turkey In The Straw (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
  13073 A Blue Grass Rag (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  13073 B Coal Tipple Blues (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  13162 A A Good Man Is Waiting For You (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  13162 B Way Down South (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  35-10-12 A Ragtime Chicken Joe (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  35-10-12 B In The Shadows Of The Pines (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
 
Romeo
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  5072 A Wednesday Night Waltz (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  5072 B Did You Ever See The Devil, Uncle Joe (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  5215 A Carroll County Blues (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
  5215 B Charleston Number 1 (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
  5251 A I Don't Love Nobody (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
  5251 B Turkey In The Straw (Fiddling Doc Roberts Trio)
  5492 A A Good Man Is Waiting For You (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  5492 B Way Down South (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
 
Royal
Rec. No. Side Song Title
  91909 A Blue Grass Rag (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)
  91909 B Coal Tipple Blues (Fiddlin' Doc Roberts Trio)


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