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A TASTE for early recorded music may not come naturally. Though recorded within living memory, Boggs can sound archaic and harsh, and his singing on Country Blues is probably the first hurdle uninitiated listeners will face. Such is the power of the hillbilly stereotype that his ancient accent and willingness to strain will make many listeners envision a geezer. At the time of these recordings Boggs was about thirty. His singing sounds strange today less for "violently bucking like a patient in a mental ward convulsing in restraints," as Marcus has it in reference to one of the recordings, than for being ramrod straight. Boggs's phrasing is often syncopated, reflecting his and his contemporaries' immersion in Scots-Irish balladry, minstrelsy, ragtime, and blues. But he unabashedly hits the tune, never caressing or massaging it. He seems to care not how his breath and diction sound, only about delivering the melody. Some of the songs are dark and unnerving, some sunny and confident. Regardless of lyric, Boggs's voice must sound to us impersonal and remote, awkward and imprecise -- expressive, yes, but in the sense of being fearlessly produced. Rural singers had to be heard in open spaces and in noisy mills and mines.
It's a truism of pop history that the microphone introduced previously unimagined intimacy, becoming an instrument in its own right; we associate that instrument with Frank Sinatra, of course, and other proponents of ear-kissing romance. Even comparatively raw vocal sounds -- Loretta Lynn's hardness, Kurt Cobain's vacillations between plaint and roar -- are as instantly recognizable as Sinatra's, as indulgent of nuance, and as impossible without the microphone. The vocal tradition that produced Dock Boggs pre-dated the audio close-up. The song stylist who interprets a lyric and melody would have seemed as weird to him as his pure, rough tune dipped from a common pail seems to us.
That doesn't mean Boggs had no style. The nasality and loud waverings that modern listeners may object to were common among Appalachian singers of his time. It was for a quality newly important to recording -- something equivalent to being photogenic -- that Boggs was plucked from the herd. His singing has tremendous presence. Later country voices like Roy Acuff's, Kitty Wells's, and Charlie Louvin's, though far more polished than Boggs's, can sound refreshingly naive and even raw to ears surfeited by high-tech aural refinement. But to their first audiences they sounded accomplished -- warmer and more powerful than country life. Sharecropper, wife, or miner, anyone might keen while chopping wood; when people paid good money to hear disembodied voices on a Victrola, they wanted big, rich vocal production (or rapid-fire fiddling or cornpone comedy). Even as Boggs was making his 1920s recordings, Louis Armstrong was rejecting the operetta formalism and music-hall bullyragging of the nineteenth century, which were heard not only in mainstream pop but also in much of urban blues; he sang with conversational insouciance and wit. Hillbilly singers eagerly adopted the outmoded parlor and theater styles cast off by urban singers and audiences. They salted old northern sounds with distinctively accented, vocally untrained southernness. Upscale pop audiences of the time found the blend as revoltingly grotesque as upscale pop critics of today find it thrillingly grotesque.
Dock Boggs's singing does not for a moment contemplate the laid-back sophistication that Armstrong invented and Bing Crosby popularized, but it isn't "folk," either. Boggs had the vocal presence and commercial ambition essential to making records. He eschewed insouciance. This seemingly contradictory attitude used to be called country singing. Country Blues lets us hear blasts from its newborn lungs.
BOGGS'S repertoire and banjo-playing may also raise questions for new listeners. To modern ears, the less cornball of the numbers Boggs explored in his 1920s recordings are likely to be those with dark, eerie tunings: in Boggs's hands "Sugar Baby," "Country Blues," "Danville Girl," "Pretty Polly," and "Old Rub Alcohol Blues" become one beautiful and haunting tune given deft variations. That tune is one we know from rock, yet rarely hear in its unadorned state: a powerful, droning minimalism described by some folk musicians as "modal." Such tunes do not progress through three chords to a satisfying resolution but instead rely on what might be thought of as one chord and no chord -- a melancholy, chantlike row of a very few tightly related notes. (A familiar song that sounds modal is "The House of the Rising Sun." Dylan's "Masters of War," another memorable example, echoes the surreal English nonsense song "Nottamun Town"; Dylan has been excavating modal song for almost forty years.) In modal form, tension is all. Tunes refuse to resolve and can therefore go on forever. In American folk this repetitive, throbbing sound seems to rise at once from the war cries of Celtic warriors, the field hollers of black slaves, the court ceremonies of African nobility, the harsh laments of Welsh captives. For us, modal music seems to unify West Africa and the British Isles.
Of course, British Isles emigrants and West African slaves came here from radically different cultures with radically different theories of music. Certainly they had radically different lives in the New World. Yet by the 1920s -- possibly even by the 1820s -- American black and white folk musicians would have sounded unrecognizable to their African and European ancestors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The blues were not to be heard in the West African states from which slaves were taken; the blues were heard here, and after Emancipation at that. Country music is no mere reduction of British ballad and dance, despite the hobbitry of certain folkies. Africa and Europe are but two among many sources -- some untraceable, some literally new -- of blues and country and their evolutions into jazz, rhythm and blues, rock, funk, punk, and hip-hop.
Blackface minstrelsy, an especially perplexing manifestation of inequitable racial mingling in American pop, is given a reverse interpretation by Boggs. His banjo lends an urban piano-rag oompah to "Sammie, Where Have You Been So Long?," a tune that in other variants can sound so rural and Scots-Irish as to fulfill purist dreams of an unsullied British ancestry for Appalachian music. The song's sources may be as deeply rooted in Yankee blackface as in Anglo folk music. The sources of Yankee blackface are partly in the trips impresarios made to plantations to steal the songs and romanticize the sufferings of slaves. It's not only that you can't extricate blackness from whiteness in early recorded music; you can't extricate folk art from hucksterism, North from South, or city from country.
The central and influential fact that the banjer -- a West African stringed drum -- became, in its development into the banjo, the emblem of poor white Appalachia has been greatly underestimated in histories of country, pop, and jazz. Even if the blues weren't heard in West Africa, banjer was. Sam Charters, searching Africa in the 1970s for "the roots of the blues" (which became the title of his beautifully written 1981 book), had to confront the dearth of obvious blues ancestry (and also the continuing practice of slavery in some of the areas he visited). In the nineteenth century white mountain men and women suddenly started playing a slave instrument brought from Africa. Cecelia Conway has shown, in her landmark study African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia (1995), that Charters heard in Africa a source of late-nineteenth-century Appalachian dance and song. Whether Appalachian musicians took the banjo from rural black players, from Yankee showmen doing racist impressions of rural black players, or from strumming parlor swains of the Yankee and British bourgeoisie, they did more with it than play old Celtic tunes. With a playing technique called "clawhammer," derived from the downstroking of African gourd banjers, European-Americans invented a new American music, even while African-Americans were putting down banjos and picking up guitars and brass and pianos, elaborating the banjo's rhythmic and sonic properties on European instruments.
Marcus fails to mention the African origins of clawhammer in describing Dock Boggs's banjo style, which Boggs developed in part by turning away from the clawhammer technique used by many local white banjo players and adapting the styles of black blues guitarists. A reader is likely to come away from Marcus's essay with the false impression that Boggs's distinction as a banjoist lies in his having been especially black-influenced; according to Mike Seeger, Boggs learned at least some of his fingerpicking style from a white man. Many white players, clawhammerers and fingerpickers alike, credited black banjoists with having taught them to play. Marcus may be relying on rock criticism's great heroic legend, in which a rebellious white man enlivens American music by opening it to the saving grace of negritude.
Marcus has not merely oversimplified Boggs's playing. To describe it as an improvement in melodic clarity over that of the white musicians Boggs had seen and then to associate that imagined improvement with black playing reflects a misunderstanding of an instrument crucial to the development of country and blues and thus of rock. Clawhammer banjo players don't "clawhammer the strings up and down," and they don't produce "an undifferentiated flurry of sound," as Marcus claims; the briefest listen to the banjoists Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham (or Danny Barnes, of the band Bad Livers) will refute him. In clawhammer the stroke is forever downward, producing a sound that while rhythmically complex, texturally dense, and irresistibly percussive can also be highly melodic. That technique and the banjo itself have roots in West Africa; blues guitar, using an instrument brought from Europe, applies the early modal sensibility uneasily shared by American blacks and whites to the three-chord structure of much of European classical, folk, and popular music.
What, then, to make of Boggs's playing? Although admirably relentless and driving (particularly, as Seeger points out, in the Brunswick recordings of 1927), it is actually notable for a certain modesty. Boggs's banjo remains for the most part an accompaniment for vocals -- a rural version of parlor or saloon piano. Boggs cannot be ranked among the finest of the banjoists who used traditional styles in the years before bluegrass virtually obliterated such subtle and artful sounds from commercial country (although his picking style was a precursor to Earl Scruggs's bluegrass innovations). Country Blues commendably offers on bonus tracks the warm yet dazzling banjo playing of Hayes Shepherd, who had a fingerpicking style related to Boggs's. Boggs's playing may suffer by comparison, but it matches the intensity of his singing, and that is no small artistic feat. Smithsonian Folkways has recently released Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia, a rare and fascinating collection of black banjoists playing in very old styles, produced by Cecelia Conway. In September, Mike Seeger released Southern Banjo Sounds, in which he plays in a wide variety of southern banjo styles. Listeners may decide for themselves what makes Dock Boggs's music special.
In his 1920s recordings Boggs sang alone, and played with at most one sideman. His spare approach, which distinguished him from glitzier and more successful country acts of the 1920s and 1930s like the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, had a strong influence on the urban folk musicians of the 1960s who gave us the solo singer-songwriter. Solo acts, again in fashion, can have rare musical and poetic power; their long (and brave) ancestry is well worth honoring. And perhaps we're ready to take Boggs's music on its own complex terms, regardless of fashion in criticism. Those who find Country Blues compelling should look further into the wealth of old-time music. Long played and preserved by a cult of passionate and sometimes possessive devotees, in places including Asheville, North Carolina, and Lexington, Virginia, old-time should at last be treated like the great American popular music that it is. If the rich and varied Appalachian music of Dock Boggs and his contemporaries could gain the kind of committed mainstream acceptance long enjoyed by rock, blues, jazz, country, bluegrass, and classic pop, then the roots revival -- even the triteness of the term -- would be redeemed from the critical cycles that feed themselves and leave us hungry.
William Hogeland has written about music for the New York Press. He has just completed his first novel.
Illustration by Steve Carver
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1998; Corn Bread When I'm Hungry; Volume 282, No. 5; pages 116 - 124.