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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dock Boggs, "His Folkway Years, 1963-68"

Dock Boggs
"His Folkway Years, 1963-68"
Revenant (1997)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

It's tough to find music unique to the United States that didn't originate in the South. Throughout Tom Moon's book, we'll see dozens of collections compiling music from artists in two of these genres: blues and bluegrass. One is traditionally accepted as black music, the other as white music. But you can't argue the forms are far removed from each other. Both were prominent among the non-wealthy, and both called for simple instrumentation (no pricey pianos here). Dock Boggs is a bluegrass artist to be sure, but he's special in that he learned from blues artists and applied it to his craft.

As a resident in a Virginia coal mining community, playing the banjo made sense for a fellow like Boggs. He learned the instrument like most: by observation. But young Boggs snuck off to watch black blues guitarists play. He soon adapted a picking style referred to as "up-picking," rather than the traditional "clawhammer" banjo form. Boggs performs solo during every track on this album, so he needed to provide both rhythm and melody, just like the country blues performers he admired. Up-picking involved Boggs holding the "bass" notes on the top string with his thumb, and plucking the melody on the low strings with his remaining fingers.

Boggs' style of picking often results in melodies that start high and go low, whereas the opposite is true in most of today's guitar music. Check out "Mixed Blues" or "Pretty Polly," the latter of which accelerates as the song progresses. The presence of the word "blues" in so many of the song titles demonstrates the influence the genre had on Boggs. Even the less secular track, "No Disappointment in Heaven," takes a more rhythmic approach to banjo playing than is typical.

Boggs doesn't forget the bluegrass he grew up with, however. Although he waxes blues themes during tracks such as "Little Black Train," he includes bluegrass standards like "Oh, Death" in equal number. Narratives of his region's history, including "Rowan County Crew" are among the most entertaining and gripping listens. "Prayer of A Miner's Child" reminds the listener that woe and worry aren't monopolized by blues musicians.

At 50 songs, "His Folkway Years" is another long listen. The downtrodden sound of Boggs' tales is aided by the fact that the performer was in his 60s when these tracks were finally recorded (folk musician Mike Seeger went looking for Boggs during the '50s). The sounds of heavy breathing, coupled with Boggs' Appalachian drawl during "Peggy Walker," sound like a voice unchanged by sudden folk stardom.

INTERESTING FACT: Seeger recorded a series of interviews from Boggs' recording sessions that shed light on the artist's life (such as how he got the name "Dock"), and back history behind songs. Boggs recalls that early in his career he learned not to play "Rowan County Crew" in the actual Rowan County because the true story still invoked bloodshed between disputing faction more than 50 years after the song's events took place.

Pretty Polly by Dock Boggs on Grooveshark

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