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CD Review
Dock Boggs
"Dock Boggs; His Folkways Years"
Smithsonian Folkways 40108
Reviewed by Tony Glover
In the late twenties Dock Boggs, a coal miner from Virginia who played banjo at parties, recorded a dozen songs for a couple of labels. (All recently reissued on a fine compilation: DOCK BOGGS: COUNTRY BLUES--Revenant 205, reviewed in these pages a few months back.) He had a brief musical career and was beginning to have hopes of gaining enough fame not to have to go down into the mines any more when the depression hit. It knocked the bottom out of the record market, nobody had money to spend on entertainment. Boggs spent some time moonshining and playing shows, but his wife gave him an ultimatum--quit the music or forget about me. Boggs chose a home life and pawned his banjo, not doing music at all for some 25-30 years.

A couple of Boggs tunes were used on Harry Smiths ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC in 1952 and a new generation picked up on the blues-driven raw boned sound of numbers like "Sugar Baby" and "Country Blues". In the early sixties, a folk revival was underway. Researchers and fans were hunting down roots musicians and bringing them to perform for urban audiences. Bluesmen like Skip James, Son House and Bukka White were all located and began second careers on the folk circuit, playing concerts and coffeehouses both here and abroad. Musician Mike Seeger (from the New Lost City Ramblers, a revival string band that played numbers in the old-timey style) found Boggs in Kentucky in 1963. Boggs had just recently begun playing again and Seeger got him gigs at the Newport and Ashville Folk Festivals, and arranged for him to do recordings for Folkways Records.

This double CD set includes all 50 tunes, originally released on three LPs recorded in 1963, 64 and 68. Mostly it's solo banjo, Seeger does some tasteful backup guitar on a few numbers, at Boggs insistence. The repertoire runs the gamut from old Elizabethan murder ballads to badman songs, to gospel numbers, to blues tunes. What makes this set of interest to blues fans is the deep influence of Afro-American music on Boggs' playing style and tune choices. Boggs first heard "John Henry" as a boy, when he followed a black guitarist named Go Lightning on his street playing rounds-"it would thrill me from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. And so I'd walk along after him..."Boggs recalled. His "Down South Blues" was learned from a recording of a female blues singer with piano accompaniment, as were "Mistreated Mama Blues", and "Careless Love".

Dock's style suited the blues--when he sang he picked out single note melody lines behind his vocals, rather than chording accompaniment like most did. His raw-boned voice and syncopated, deliberately plucked notes made for an eerie, compelling sound. He also liked to play in minor sounding modal tunings, which added a haunted quality. The subject matter was often grim, check out these titles: "Poor Boy In Jail", "Brother Jim Got Shot" "I Hope I Live A Few More Days" and "Oh Death". But there are also several bouncy instrumentals and the gospel numbers promise some hope of redemption. About half of Boggs' twenties recordings are recut here and the later versions are on a par with the originals. Dock is playing better and singing almost as well as in his early days.

Like I said about the Revenant release--this stuff is not easy listening--but if you liked what you heard there, this 2-hour, twenty-two minute set is right down the same alley. Songs old as dirt sung by a man who knew how to work the hardscrabble soil.

This review is copyright 1998 by Tony Glover, all rights reserved.

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