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Dock Boggs
Country Blues– Complete Early Recordings (1927-29),  Revenant CD 205, 1998

 Timeless raw beauty

Like most, I first heard Dock Boggs on Harry Smith’s monumental  Anthology of American Folk Music (see our review). Out of all the Anthology’s eighty-odd songs, Dock’s two numbers–"Sugar Baby" and "Country Blues"–were among the first to grab me. His harsh, dissonant banjo playing and hypnotic blues-inflected singing made an immediate impression.

With the  Anthology stirring up renewed interest in American music, the timing couldn’t be better for John Fahey’s new Revenant label to release Dock’s early recordings in their entirety. This reissue is every bit as lavish and reverent as the Anthology, including as it does a 64-page booklet with an exhaustive essay by Greil Marcus, complete lyrics, and alternate tracks.

Boggs started working in the Virginia coal mines at the age of twelve, picking up the banjo when he was in his twenties. He spent the next few years bootlegging moonshine and performing informally at various socials and dances in western Virginia. When Dock was twenty-nine, a scout from New York’s Brunswick Records came looking for mountain talent, and with some help from a half pint of whiskey, Dock passed the audition (beating out A. P. Carter of the Carter family).

He traveled to New York to cut four 78s for Brunswick, and these eight songs are the highlight of the set. All feature his distinctive banjo work–each note picked separately, full of blue notes–sounding more like a guitar than a clawhammered banjo. His singing is also unique: his harsh, flat delivery telling tales of what Marcus describes as "primitive-modernist music about death." Life in the mining region of western Virginia was violent, especially for a bootlegger (Boggs packed a .38, even in his own house), lending Boggs’ delivery an overpowering emotional edge, in contrast to, say, Gillian Welch, whose new CD ("Hell Among the Yearlings") is fine but not altogether convincing.

Boggs has been described as a white Robert Johnson, and though the context and style of the two men’s music is considerably different, both sang with a unique intensity about similar subjects. "Danville Girl" has Boggs down at the train station singing of unrequited love, much like Johnson’s "Love in Vain." "Country Blues" is a rounder’s tale of waiting for Judgment Day after a life of sin. "Pretty Polly" is a folk murder ballad, and Boggs is entirely believable as a rambler leading a poor girl over hills and valleys to her already dug gravesite. (Marcus’ essay places it as a forebearer to "Polly" from Nirvana’s  Nevermind.) "Sugar Baby" has to be one of the most hopeless and forlorn songs ever recorded ("Done all I can do, I’ve said all I can say...I’ve got no sugar baby now").

In 1929, Boggs recorded four songs for Lonesome Ace records in Richland, Virginia. Many of the lyrics for these were provided by label owner W. E. Myers (who also provided the words for Mississippi John Hurt’s "Richland Women Blues"). While very good, they are more generic than the Brunswick sides. Five alternate takes from these sessions are also included, and oddly enough Fahey closes out the CD with four tracks from the Shepherd brothers, proto-bluegrass musicians representative of the Kentucky mountain sound in the 1920’s.– Scott Boggan

of related interest

If you like this release, keep your eyes open for Smithsonian/Folkways’ recent two-disc collection of Boggs’ complete 1960’s recordings.

Copyright © 1999 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.