Dock Boggs, age 9
Ever since banjoist Dock Boggs made his first recordings, people's interest in him has often taken on a rare intensity, part revelation, part morbid compulsion.
In 2005, Rennie Sparks described his 1927 recording of Pretty Polly as "compassionless, cold as a cockroach." Greil Marcus devoted a whole chapter to Boggs in his book about Bob Dylan's Basesment Tapes — Boggs, he wrote, sang Oh Death with "the words jerking in his throat like a marionette." The night in 1932 that Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger first heard Boggs' recording of Pretty Polly, they realized that an American folk music was still alive and they dedicated the rest of their lives to it.
In 1963, Mike Seeger, Charles and Ruth's son, sought out the long-lost Boggs while traveling with his wife and three pre-school children in a Studebaker Lark station wagon. When they finally realized they were really getting close to finding Boggs, it was getting dark and they needed to find lodging. Mike's wife finally suggested they look in a phone book under "Boggs." Seeger was amazed — "Look in the phone book for Dock Boggs?" Boggs was listed, they called, and Dock was in.
In the last eight years of Boggs' life, Seeger became Boggs' recordist, booking agent, best friend, confessor, and maybe in a certain unforeseeable way, demon. Seeger writes: "I've often wondered if his second — his 1960's — music career was good for him."
In 1910, Boggs had gone to work under the surface of the Earth, in the coal mines, at the age of 12. He spent 44 years digging coal in eastern Kentucky and western Virginia. In his youth, he supplemented a coal miner's starvation wages the same way many others did — bootlegging whiskey. It was a violent existence, reflecting a disregard for people's lives shared by the coal companies that dominated the region's economy. Boggs was often arrested, carried a gun and used it, beat a brother-in-law almost to death, and at one point plotted in detail the murder of his wife's entire family. "I'm talking about being set on it. I was set on it," he told Mike Seeger's tape recorder.
During the boom of the late 1920's, Boggs made several recordings and vividly glimpsed a chance to escape the mines through music. But the boom soon busted, and Boggs missed a last recording session because he was unable to scrape up any cash for a train ticket. He continued to play his banjo for a few years, but eventually had to pawn it during a run on the banks. Decades later, he would talk to Mike Seeger about these losses with acute pain.
When Mike and his family showed up in their station wagon, Boggs had just retrieved his pawned banjo no more than six months before. Members of his wife's holiness church considered the playing of music to be a sin, and to both Dock and his wife Sara, the instrument was an ominous reminder of their darker days.
He travelled and recorded extensively with Seeger. Boggs deeply enjoyed his second music career, there's no question about it. There's also no question that it was emotionally challenging for him as well. He started to drink heavily, at least occasionally. On one such occasion, with Mike Seeger's tape recorder rolling, Boggs threatened to buy a .38 Special and murder someone over legal issues regarding a cesspool, as well as the entire staff of an insurance office. One night, during a concert tour, Seeger and Boggs shared a sleeping room and at one point, Seeger awoke to find that Boggs had had a "rough wakening." Dock said he'd dreamt of "burning hell."
Boggs was a complex, intelligent, and sensitive person, so we'll never fully understand the conflicts that troubled him in those final years. Surely, his 44 years in the mines had a lot to do with it. Boggs was a staunch advocate of the United Mine Workers union, and understood the brutality of an extractive economy. Boggs' father had started life with 350 acres of land, but sold one farm after another to the coal companies until, "When he died, he never owned enough land to bury him on." The chance to make money and fans through music must've produced regrets over the time Boggs had lost, as well as something like survivor's guilt.
My copy of the double CD of Boggs' music from the 1960's is one of my most cherished possessions. Certainly, it's one chapter in the life of Mike Seeger, which has taken on mythic proportions for me and, I've noticed, a lot of other fans of oldtime music. But the facts of what Boggs' music meant to Boggs himself — how it framed, troubled, and gave meaning to his life — make his 1960's work some of the deepest art I've ever known. In the end, what really make these recordings so valuable is something I've barely mentioned here — Boggs' startling, touching voice and his exquisitely original and skillful banjo playing.
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