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The Young Musicologist

Today is the 39-year anniversary of Mike Seeger's recording of Dock Boggs singing "Careless Love." Last February 10, I marked the 38-year anniversary with a good entry about the song. That entry is one of the most-visited pages at The Celestial Monochord, and I won't try to rewrite it today.

Thanks to Invisible Republic by Greil Marcus, I bet Mike Seeger is almost constantly asked about Boggs these days. His "rediscovery" of Boggs in 1963 and the short time they spent working together have taken on the qualities of myth in a lot of people's minds, including mine. I always think of Mike and Dock alongside the story of Johannes Kepler at Tycho Brahe's death bed. I've tried to interest a show-biz relative of mine in the idea of a movie about Seeger and Boggs (maybe with Kevin McDonald as Seeger and John C. Reilly as Doc Watson? Any ideas about Boggs?).

Anyway, in the few, very brief exchanges I've had with Seeger, I've tried to avoid the obvious topics like Boggs — I asked him about Maybelle Carter's playing of melodic autoharp, for example. But I made an exception back in 2004, when I told him a story about Boggs. It seemed to go well — maybe it was good to be told something new about Boggs for a change.

Mike had just completed a workshop on picking styles and a few people hung around afterwards to talk to him. Someone mentioned Boggs, and I launched into the "conversion experience" story I tell now and then:

The first CD I got after The Harry Smith Anthology was the Folkways stuff you did with Dock in the 1960's. I put it on the stereo for the first time, and when "New Prisoner's Song" came on, I just burst into tears. I sobbed openly for a while. And then I collected myself and thought ... "My musical tastes have CHANGED."
And with that, Mike let out a big belly laugh. It seemed to me that he appreciated how bizarre and potentially intolerable Boggs' music could sound to someone in their 30's, as I was then, and understood my surprise at myself.

Among the other people in the room was a kid around 20 years old, I guess. He had the coolest, silliest haircut — sort of a cross between a mohawk and the coxcomb of a chicken. This young banjoist — who reminded me of a very young Bob Carlin — mentioned that he had an original Brunswick 78 of Dock's "Sugar Baby."

Mike was surprised. He said his "friend Greil Marcus," who "loves to write about Dock Boggs," had asked him to see if he could get him some of those 78s, but Seeger was unable to locate any at a reasonable price. The youngster said he'd payed less than a hundred dollars for his. About a half an hour later, during lunch, Mike and this mohawk kid were sitting together, engaged in some kind of intense discussion.

I'm finding that it matters, this getting up close to the people you write about.

Over the course of the long weekend of the "Black Banjo: Then and Now" conference, Mike slowly painted a portrait of himself as a young, inexperienced folklorist in the 1950's and 1960's. Around 1953, he briefly met a black banjoist named Sam (the one he describes in the liner notes to "Tie Your Dog Sally Gal" on Close to Home). Days later, he asked a shopkeeper in a black section of Kensington, Maryland where he might find Sam. Mike explained, with obvious regret in his voice, "I was green, and looking for Sam, and he thought it may not be good for Sam." He never did find the banjoist.

That same weekend, Mike told a remarkable story about visiting Sewanee, TN, where he met the dean, Red Lancaster. Hearing that Mike was into the banjo, he invited Mike back to his house. This was OK, Lancaster said, because his wife was away. Young Mike wondered nervously what what this might mean, exactly. That night, Lancaster brought out some whiskey and began to drink it. Mike didn't feel he had much of an option except to drink it too, although Mike was definitely not a drinker of hard liquor. His memory of the evening is very cloudy, but he was able to record the session, and the tape is now at Chapel Hill.

What Mike does remember is that Lancaster consistently stroked the fifth string of his banjo with his thumbnail, flicking UP (not down, as everybody else does, regardless of style). He also remembers that Lancaster's thumb was clearly bloody after an evening of banjo playing.

This is the tension that would be great to get into a film — the young folksinger/folklorist, green and nervous, suddenly immersed in the universe of men and women very much older than himself, people who had seen a lot and who had many decades worth of demons, resentments, desires, and regrets to contend with. It reverses the old myth still so emblematic of anthropology — the picture of a worldly, sophisticated representative of the wider planet who comes to study an innocent product of a tiny, insular culture. When Mike met Dock in 1963, who was like a lamb, and who represented a big, complex world?

 

Editor's Note: This is installment #10 of The Celestial Monochord's great and stress-inducing adventure in cutting-edge bloggery — we are attempting to post one entry every day during the month of February.

 

Comments

Greil Marcus

 

11 Feb 07

It's more than gratifying to have Mike Seeger describe me as a friend. Without his generosity, lack of vanity despite decades of remarkable achievement, and unfailing curiosity, I could never have gotten anywhere with Dock Boggs. I did ask him for suggestions as to how to go about finding an actual 78; I work best with talismans, and figured Boggs would be more present if I could turn and look at a piece of black shellac with the Brunswick label on it. (It probably wouldn't have hurt getting a line on Harry Smith if I'd known I was walking past the apartment where he amassed his record collection every day while I was writing "Invisble Republic.")

As it happened, my wife talked to the folklorist Ed Kahn, and he entered an auction, looking--and came away with a perfect "Pretty Polly" for about $15. Later I found "Country Blues" for $100--much less than Otis Rush's "Double Trouble" on the coiled Cobra label--with the soundtrack LP for Elvis's "Double Trouble" not that much easier to find.

I'd always coveted one of the early DJ copies of "Like a Rolling Stone" with the song cut in half, one half on each side, on red plastic, but assumed they were hen's teeth. In London the DJ Charlie Gillett pulled out a copy--the only copy of the song he had. He'd picked it up used for 25 cents in a New York store in 1965. Turned out they are fairly common, and an instant yes on eBay. But the thing glows--light shines right through it.

Greil Marcus

 

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