For those of you who don’t know, Dock Boggs was a coal miner who also happened to be an extraordinary banjo player. In fact, he was successful enough with his music in the late 1920s to record a number of sides for Brunswick Records. Unfortunately, the Great Depression hit the recording industry hard, & musicians in southern rural areas weren’t recorded as much in the 1930s as in the previous decade. Unable to make a living with his banjo, Boggs pawned the instrument.
However, when Harry Smith issued his landmark compilation, The Anthology of American Folk Music, two of Boggs’ songs were included: “Country Blues” & “Sugar Baby.” Both are extremely dark songs played in different modal tunings that Boggs favored for such old-time fare. As was the case with many of the musicians featured on the Anthology, Boggs was sought out, “discovered,” & found himself in a whole new musical career from the early 60s until his death in 1971. Mike Seeger was particularly instrumental in getting Boggs his new start.
Boggs played “Country Blues” in an odd tuning: f#CGAD, which is somehow related to the more well-known “Graveyard Tuning” Boggs & many others used, but which has amazing possibilities for discordance. In Boggs hands, the tuning doesn’t produce discords, but it certainly produces a whole lot of spookiness. As you listen to the music, you’ll easily hear why critic Greil Marcus used Boggs as one of his prime examples of “the Old Weird America!”
In fact, Boggs used this same tuning for his great song “O Death,” which is one of the most harrowing old time songs I know—invoking scenes from medieval art with death personified, but all the while in a pure old Appalachian musical style. Other than Boggs, the only examples of musicians using this tuning I can find are Mike Seeger & John Cohan of the New Lost City Ramblers, & since they were associated with Boggs, I suspect they learned it from him.
Boggs’ music often had a blues inflection. In fact he stated:
You think them blues ain't here on this banjo neck, the same as they're on that guitar? They're just as much on this banjo neck as they are on that guitar or piano, or anywhere else if you know where to go and get it, and if you learn it and know how to play it.
Boggs made this recording in 1927 for Brunswick recordings; it was the A side, with "Sammie, Where Have You Been So Long?" as the B side.
Absolutely great tune—enjoy!