riginally released in 1998, Dock Boggs’ Country Blues, a collection of 78s released by the white ‘bluesman’ between 1927 and 1929, has been reissued in a deluxe double-vinyl package by the late John Fahey’s label, Revenant. Without embracing the same sort of pro-Luddite ideology that Fahey used to—and seemingly still does—promote, I must declare emphatically that compact disc does this music a great disservice; at once an artifact and a process, the LP gives the music what it decidedly deserves: tangibility and palpability. The LP has greater physical presence; it must be handled and cleaned and placed upon its table to be turned and therefore played. And with music like Boggs’, the compact disc can only serve to cloud its contents; the dry science that denotes music as ‘information’, or the transfer of music as ‘encoding’, presents a staid antithesis to Boggs’ emotive music that is anything but reservedly mannered. So, here we are already: at the fork of new and old, where the tines do anything but dig, pitch, or stake; when faced with music like that of Dock Boggs’ one must deal with the innumerable accompaniments: real and unreal, science and magic, life and death. These are not soft issues; these are not thin issues; these are dichotomies as demandingly dense as they are disconnected.
First and foremost, this music does not prove an easy listen; it must be worked as any amateur baker knows a dough must: the object calls for hands, for kneading, for participation, yet it comes together on its own, proofing in a quiet corner. And even after it’s fired and freshly presented, it’s still a difficult enterprise to wrap your head around. The chasm bisecting past and present is too deep: our world is an avalanche of cellular phones and PDAs, e-mails and faxes—communicative invasions for the sake of access, availability as an understood bullet-point on every modern resume. Obviously, Dock Boggs inhabited a very different world; a world of turkey vultures and black snakes, rusted red tin roofs, bootleg whiskey, fried pork chops and rhubarb pickles. Entertainment wasn’t a section perused in a local paper—it was something provided by fingerpickers around a dying fire. It was also something Dock once enjoyed, and soon became the provider of.
Depression-era Virginia was transforming from Appalachia to Industry; railroads lay over its land, stitching tracks into its fabric to run coal and lumber cars in and out with mechanized regularity. Rural Virginia stood as a deep well begging for extraction; and trees lost to the saw; mines gave up their coal; camps crept up around these sites as possums congregate about a carcass. The camps, whose moonshine drenched pickin’ breakdowns agitated Boggs’ Christian wife, Sara Stidham, provided a well of another kind for Dock: it was here that Boggs heard different kinds of African-American music—blues and gospel, string bands, and banjoists. Boggs took what he needed, a sort of cut-and-paste of styles; he eschewed the popular ‘clawhammer’, or ‘knockdown’ styles, opting for a more melodic attack and adopting several unusual tunings; tuning the banjo to match his voice rather than matching his voice to the sing of the strings. When Boggs gets going, as he does on “Sugar Baby”, or “Country Blues”, one is privy to a voice, that for all its Virginia twang, stands as solid and unwavering as a host of fire and brimstone Protestants. His lyrics, whether dealing with the inevitability of death or the basic needs of his person, are weighted, bloated clothes drowned in a watery eschatology; each song seemingly lives and dies as its melodies are stretched wide, pulled like warm plastic to each of the cross’ four stations to provide a cadence not so much Sophoclean as it is Crewsian. And I suppose that’s the point: this is ageless folk music; like the melodies of Ayler’s jazz that you were sure you had heard before, Boggs channels past ghosts all while looking forward to the marginalized, the grotesque, the forgotten. Music’s timeless quality is lauded often, but when it’s as real and as hairy as the problems of the present, it’s stuff to hold tight and true (Fahey knew this; he had a surer and more reliable ‘bullshit detector’ than any of us).
Ultimately, it’s impossible to lock Boggs into genre’s cellblock: it’s not folk, roots, or blues; it’s only a man, a man with a whittled stick of a voice and ten fingers as swift as they are strong; a man as beaten as he was victorious; a man as together as he was fractured. But whatever Boggs was, is wholly left up to the listener: in the end it’s only you and him—your turntable and two thick onyx circles that were pressed and mastered to spin.
Reviewed by: Stewart Voegtlin
Reviewed on: 2004-08-04