Corn Bread When I'm Hungry

Dock Boggs and rock criticism

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

HERE'S Dock Boggs, an Appalachian banjo player and singer born in 1898: "Give me corn bread when I'm hungry, good people,/Corn whiskey when I'm dry,/Pretty women a-standing around me,/Sweet heaven when I die." That's lucid. Here's Greil Marcus, Dock Boggs's best-known interpreter, writing a century later: "But always, the sound the banjo makes pulls away from the singer, discrediting him as a fact, his performance as an event: the sound is spectral, and for seconds at a time a specter is what it turns the singer into. When this happens, to the degree that he has made himself felt before you, it's as if you can see right through him, as a physical fact, to a nowhere beyond."

Surely that's meant to be opaque.

THE career of Moran Lee "Dock" Boggs was divided into two phases by a long period of retirement during which American music -- and America itself -- underwent rapid and fundamental change. In the late 1920s Boggs made several powerful, idiosyncratic 78s for the Brunswick and Lonesome Ace record companies, accompanying himself on five-string banjo and sometimes backed by guitar. The records gave him notoriety around Norton, Virginia, where he lived. He briefly quit loading coal and moonshining; for a few months he traveled the mountains of Kentucky and Virginia with a band, performing and selling 78s. But the Depression deepened, and Boggs was forced back to the mines near his home. Soon he pawned his banjo, partly at the insistence of his wife, who like many others associated the instrument with rowdiness and sin. Apparently by the mid-1930s Dock Boggs had stopped making music.

His records, however, which had drawn the admiring attention of northern musicologists, were rediscovered in the 1950s and taken up by the second wave of the urban folk movement. In 1963 the revivalist Mike Seeger found Boggs laid off from the mines and living in poverty in Norton, and encouraged the sixty-five-year-old singer to pick up his music again. What a strange bunch his new fans must have seemed after the hard-bitten coal miners and sorghum farmers who, more than thirty years earlier, had given commercial country music its first boom. Clean-cut collegiate refugees from rock-and-roll were drawn to folk festivals in the early sixties, eagerly seeking correctives in Appalachian music to teen-pop slickness and their own privilege. Dock Boggs late in life became an important member of a folk scene that before shriveling would engender the period in rock now called classic. He died in 1971. Now he is having a third career, and the latest Boggs revival raises questions about the politics and the aesthetics of revivalism in American popular music and the mixed blessings of ambitious pop criticism.

Happily, it also gives us Country Blues: Complete Early Recordings (1927-29),on Revenant, a new label presided over by the musician, composer, and veteran iconoclast John Fahey. The disc brings together the seminal recordings of Boggs's first career, for many years available only by special order from Smithsonian Folkways. That label, too, has furthered the Boggs revival, by re-releasing last month many of the late-period Boggs recordings that Mike Seeger produced in the sixties. Seeger, who is one reason that many of us have any firsthand experience of the deepest sources of American music, has written important new notes for the Smithsonian Folkways release.

beautifully summarizes Boggs's early work. Revenant's package includes twelve tracks from 1927 and 1929 and five alternate takes, never before released; it appends revealing bonus tracks by a banjoist and a fiddler from Boggs's region. The package comes with a sixty-four-page book, so informative and artfully designed (yet only double-CD-case in size) that it is comparable to a catalogue for a major exhibition of paintings. The book contains useful session notes , a thoughtful and witty reminiscence by Jon Pankake, and remarks about the bonus tracks by Charles Wolfe.

Its most substantial contribution, however, a long essay by Greil Marcus, complicates appreciation both of the package and of Boggs's music. A pioneering rock critic when that term drew snorts of derision from establishment writers, Marcus has for three decades been an important and provocative voice in discussions of popular music. Last year he published Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes,from which his essay on Boggs is adapted. Invisible Republic called attention not only to Dock Boggs but also to the other early recording artists featured in Harry Smith's 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music,which Smithsonian Folkways recently reissued. The anthology presented early 78s by professional country, blues, Cajun, and gospel musicians rather than field recordings by amateur folk artists, and thus had the effect -- fateful to the future of rock -- of challenging snooty ideas about professionalism and rural music.

Yet in his Country Blues essay Marcus seems to find Boggs's music transcendently odd: "Already, he had created a small body of work so dissonant that like black gravity it can seem to suck into itself whatever music might be brought to bear upon it." Even that oddness can't be clearly described; it can only be imitated or approximated in loosely constructed, elaborately associative prose. An unfortunate result of the mystification is that Marcus is so busy being spooked by Boggs's life and music that he fails to see clearly the musical background to Boggs's work. He thus risks leaving false impressions about the style and significance of the recordings.

The music on Country Blues does compel attention. That its strengths and drawbacks go largely unnoticed in Marcus's essay reflects a peculiar mixture of glorification and trivialization -- a mixture that haunts the entire "roots" revival in American pop.

PART of the problem in dealing with Dock Boggs's music lies in the natural fascination of Boggs's life. The definitive Boggs autobiography can be derived from the series of interviews Boggs gave Mike Seeger in the 1960s. (Excerpts from those interviews can be ordered from Smithsonian Folkways; fragments can be heard at Marcus presents Boggs's life as having been marked to an almost preternatural extent by anguish and turmoil, and it is true that Boggs was often beset by financial and alcohol troubles, in-law tensions, and outlaw temptations. But aren't such problems common among young men -- and among older men and nonmusicians? The lives and music of poorly educated rural southerners born in the past century will naturally be strange to most of us who read and write articles on roots music. Shouldn't "strange" mean not fully understood, intriguingly different, even initially forbidding? Must it mean only titillatingly exotic? Critics who glibly endorse the strangeness in older music, associating it with the blurry auras of anxiety now in vogue (Dock Boggs in an X-Files cameo),may be trying to rob that music of its actual unfamiliarity. Marcus insists on hearing in Boggs's recordings from the 1920s what he imagines about Boggs's personal pain and anxiety; he describes Boggs's singing and playing as if music were always literally reflective of the life of the musician.

Mike Seeger, when interviewed for this article, offered a more focused vision than Marcus does of Dock Boggs's personality and its relation to his music. Of the interviews Seeger conducted with Boggs over six years, Seeger said, Marcus relied mainly on "the last of it, [when Boggs] tended to be saddened" and was "closing down some." Resuming performing "gave Dock something to live for," Seeger said. "Then, as he wasn't able to travel so much, he was getting disappointed again." Seeger made the hardness of Boggs's life real and specific: "This man had been in the mines for forty years, some of it when he was drinking or hung over. And of course he caroused. He loved to fight with people, just for fun -- he wasn't trying to beat up anybody, at least from what he said. Then, in the ten years before I met him, he was living in penury, laid off by the mines but too old to get a job. That was an awful time for him." Nevertheless, in his relationship with Seeger, Boggs was "engaging and thoughtful," Seeger said. "He wanted to express what he believed straightforwardly and have it back from you that way. And in the years before I met him, he was totally sober, living a retired man's life.

"Dock, I think, liked to have a good time. He also had a dark, worried side that brought him to the serious songs. He didn't sing comical banjo songs the way a lot of people did. He was from the darkest theatrical end of music, but in his life he loved to drink and he liked good jokes. He had wonderful stories about the good times."

Seeger made the crucial distinction between theater and life that is absent from Marcus's essay and from so much other discussion of music. Certainly there is no sense in Marcus's essay that Dock Boggs or Bob Dylan or anyone else has drawn from music a measure of relief from the pain and frustration of life, some extra space in which to play, create, discover truths, and -- dare one say it? -- have fun. To contemplate with furrowed brow Dylan's basement tapes is so obviously misguided that it is harmless: a miraculous degree of fun thrived in that basement, some of it at the expense of sobersided critics. But Boggs's work is older than Dylan's, more remote and fragile. Because Boggs sometimes expressed depths of anger and grief, it's all too easy to avoid the real demands of his music, to make him into a stereotype of an impressively tortured artist. A listener should be free to hear sprightliness and resilience in Boggs's songs where another listener hears anguish and darkness and yet another hears all that, or nothing, or something new on each hearing.

has written about music for the New York Press. He has just completed his first novel.

Illustration by Steve Carver

The Atlantic Monthly; November 1998; Corn Bread When I'm Hungry; Volume 282, No. 5; pages 116 - 124.