Dock Boggs

His Folkways Years 1963-1968

Smithsonian-Folkways SF 40108

In classical music, it wasn't until the early 19th Century, and the Bach revival spearheaded by Mendelssohn, that there was much of a historical approach to music in Western culture, or a sense that the manuscripts of earlier periods were worth investigating and performing.  For a similar historiographic notion to arise in respect of folk music, it was necessary for the intelligentsia to accept that folk music was of value as music and as cultural expression.  (The people who made the music knew this already, of course, in a much more immediate and important way.)  By the late 19th and early 20th Century, researchers had embarked on the laborious task of notating songs from live performance; but for interest to become more widespread, and for research to become less arduous, sound recording was almost a necessity.

These requirements - academic interest and ease of access - came together, among other places, in the home of Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, both of them academics and avant-garde composers; their collection of vernacular music recordings included an aluminium copy of Dock Boggs' 1927 Brunswick recording of Pretty Polly, much played by their son Mike, who grew up to become a folk revivalist in the New Lost City Ramblers, and one of the band of enthusiasts who began looking for the early country recording artists in the late fifties.  Dock Boggs was at the top of Seeger's research list because of "the serious raw, other-worldly power that [his] music possessed", and in the summer of 1963, the search ended in Norton, Virginia.  Boggs had recently got his banjo back from a friend, to whom he had pawned it 25 years previously, and started playing again; he was willing to perform in public, and in a very short time was on stage at the Newport Folk Festival in front of more than 10,000 people, his nerves helped not at all by a tranquilliser.  He was also soon back in the recording studio, cutting three albums for Folkways, whose 50 tracks are brought together in this double CD.  Over the years, he became a more confident performer, much helped by Mike Seeger's support and reassurance, but was never really at ease with his new audience.  Barry O'Connell, the co-annotator of this collection, observes that 'he sensed his status as an object'.  As Phil Spiro, one of the co-discoverers of Son House in the 'blues revival' that was paralleling the 'folk revival' has said, "Aside from a couple of people like Chris Strachwitz and Dick Waterman, the rediscoverers all too often didn't see the old guys as real, breathing, feeling, intelligent people.  In general, we were collectors of people, who we tended to treat as if they were the very rarest of records - only one copy known to exist."

I hasten to exempt Mike Seeger from inclusion in this; it's clear that Dock Boggs came to rely on him as a friend, musical collaborator, and sounding board for his doubts and uncertainties.  Looking back thirty years and more, though, one realises what a strange, unprecedented, and probably unrepeatable process the sixties 'folk revival' was.  Interest in the musics of other subcultures has remained, and indeed probably increased, since then; research has become much more systematic, and to a large extent the preserve of academia, for both good and ill.  My feeling is that the general level of appreciation among folk music enthusiasts is shallower and more consumerist, than it was in the sixties.  Nowadays, there are very few folk musicians who perform solely for their own communities, unaware of the outside audience for their music, whether live or on record, and of course this awareness has its effects on performance style, which tends to present the music to an audience, rather than representing it for a community.  It also afffects repertoire; I recently received three blues CDs for review, one by an older musician, two by younger artists, one of whom had shown a strong debt to Jimi Hendrix on his first LP.  All three musicians play acoustic or lightly amplified guitar, and each of the three CDs includes two Robert Johnson songs; both these phenomena surely owe a good deal to awareness of current white tastes in blues - the white market for blues CDs now being much larger than the African-American.

All this is by way of wondering whether Dock Boggs would have thought, and whether his surviving relatives if any think, of 1963 to 1968 as 'his Folkways years.'  It's probably a harmless way to construct the narrative of his life at this time but, as always, the reality of any musician's life is more complex than a list of works.  Boggs lived a difficult life in difficult times.  For many years, he followed the path that his wife's church would have characterised as typical of a musician, and therefore a sinner - drinking hard, making moonshine, sometimes resorting to violence (but only with his fists; he was proud that he had never used the .38 he carried, although he came close at least once.)  His abandonment of music in the thirties seems to have stemmed not only from frustration at the blighting of his prospective career as a recording musician by the Depression, but also from his concluding that music was to blame for his marital problems, drinking, and personal dissatisfaction.  Music doesn't seem to have functioned as a personal catharsis for the young Dock Boggs nor, despite the effects that he deemed it to be having, even to have been especially central to his life.

And yet nobody could ever characterise Boggs' music as impersonal or unemotional; and this despite the fact that the 'I' who often appears in or narrates his songs is clearly not Dock Boggs.  These songs are not directly autobiographical, or directly about his feelings, although those feelings -about his life, and about the events and ideas in the songs - inform and shape his delivery of them; in the manner of the African-American blues that were such an important influence on and component of his music, Boggs' songs speak of feelings, events, and encounters that are so much a part of the shared experience of his community as to have a common meaning for its members.

Consider Rowan County Crew for instance.  This murder narrative is over six minutes long, and was "learned...about 1920 from brother-in-law Lee Hunsucker.  Dock sang it for years before he evolved this very unusual arrangement at a seventh-fret position in the key of G."  (That is virtually the complete note on the song, and this seems a good point at which to complain that these song notes are mostly inadequate, considering only sources and banjo tunings, and making no reference to content or delivery.)  What is striking to me is Boggs' deep involvement in the horror of the bloody events of which he sings, play Sound Clipand his consternation in the face of a social and moral milieu in which they could take place.  John Donne's 'Any man's death diminisheth me' seems to sum up the lesson Boggs draws. (sound clip)

Kentucky and Virginia were places of pervasive violence when Dock Boggs was a young man.  Barry O'Connell resolutely denies that 'mountaineers' were innately violent, and of course it would be absurd and racist to make such a generalisation about any group; but I'm not as certain as O'Connell that the blame can all be laid at the door of the mine owners.  boggs1.jpg - 17.1 KWorking conditions were dangerous, wages low, unionism often violently suppressed, and the suppression in turn violently resisted; it's true, too, that Prohibition made distilling into a crime, and made the large scale production of whiskey profitable, and thus worth fighting over.  But all this took place in a culture that had routinely carried guns, and used them to defend land and water rights, and to avenge slighted honour, long before industrialisation.

In so far (not very) as I can understand the currently fashionable commentaries of Greil Marcus, play Sound Cliphe seems to find a nihilistic refusal to judge human conduct in Boggs' tales of murder.  This seems to me quite wrong.  Oh Death (sound clip), which on the surface is a plea for more time on Earth, asks for that time in the hope of avoiding an eternity in the burning Hell which, Mike Seeger recalls, made Boggs' nightmares vivid at times; the song dwells on the physical processes of death and corruption as a precursor of, and metaphor for, those torments.  Dock Boggs does not seem to have doubted the validity of the Christian message, but equally, religion appears to have offered him modest comforts at best.  play Sound ClipIn part, no doubt, this was due to the tensions, already noted, between him and in-laws, but No Disappointment in Heaven (sound clip) makes decidedly modest claims for the afterlife, seeing immortal bliss as consisting chiefly in the absence of Earthly trials.

That Heaven will be 'a beautiful City of gold' sets up an implicit comparison, I suspect, to the darkness and dust of the coal mines, and the pollution and squalor they brought to the landscape.  It's necessary to keep this in proportion, too, though.  The notion of preindustrial Appalachia as an Arcadia of virtually self-sufficient farmers, living in harmony with nature, is implicit on O'Connell's notes to these CDs, and explicit in those by Jon Pankake accompanying Country Blues (Revenant 205), the essential compilation of Boggs' early recordings.  It can confidently be said that this backward projection of the sentimental environmentalism of the late 20th Century comes from writers who have never tried to be self-sufficient, and have no idea of the unremitting hard labour of such a life - one which leaves no time or energy for contemplation, nor for much activity beyond the daily business of surviving one day in order to toil through the next.  Unrestrained industrialisation entailed plenty of attendant horrors for Dock Boggs' world, but it was industry's demand for labour that brought the migrants, both white and black, whose music cross-fertilised Dock's to such remarkable effect.  Without industrial wages, too, it's doubtful that there would have been a market for recordings of music such as his.  I stress that I am not advancing Dr Pangloss's argument in Voltaire's Candide that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds"; I am saying, however, that to romanticise and demonise the participants in history according to taste and/or political preconceptions is simplistic, and unlikely to assist in arriving at an understanding of Dock Boggs' music.

Which, it will be clear, is a difficult thing to do, and I'm not at all sure that I have achieved it.  Even after repeated listenings, he remains an often elusive, enigmatic commentator on himself and his world.  What I do know is that Boggs was an absolutely remarkable singer and banjo player, whose songs transcend their time and place.  They speak of particular events from within a particular world view, but - if one can understand the language in which they are sung - they resonate with a universal meaning, and talk about big issues: play Sound Clipwhy are we here?  how should we behave one to another?  what happens when we die?  These are not small subjects, but Boggs squares up to them unflinchingly, compassionately, and often with quirky humour.  (sound clip)

Having devoted most of this review to Dock Boggs as a singer of songs, I want to stress in conclusion, what may need no stressing, that he was also an extraordinarily proficient and skilful banjoist.  He played the vocal melody line on his instrument simultaneously with his singing of it, and was well known for this technique locally; searching for Boggs, Mike Seeger and his wife were told that the man that they were looking for "doesn't second while he sings, he picks the tune".  As he does so, he both compels one's admiration for his picking abilities, and keeps one's attention focused on the words which the banjo is following.  All this will no doubt have been evident from the sound clips already selected; it might be enough to say that all the other songs on these discs contain similarly remarkable playing.  play Sound ClipBetter, though, is to feature him on a purely instrumental performance; this is a snatch of the Banjo Clog that came to Dock from local African-American banjoists, and from white recording artist Byrd Moore. (sound clip)

Chris Smith - 1.2.99

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