Friday, February 3, 2012

"Country Blues"

A happy Banjo Friday, folks! A rather quick post today involving one of the great old-time banjo songs, period—Dock Boggs’ haunting “Country Blues.”

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!


  1. Wow! That was amazing! That one certainly points right back to Senegal and the other areas that used to be within the boundaries of the old Malian Empire. The melodic structure and the banjo accompaniment sound exactly like the old griots singing the family history and plucking the kora; you could play this side by side with some of the stuff Foday Musa Sosu was doing when he first came to America and you'd be hard-pressed to figure out which was which. Great post, John!

  2. That's a weird tuning indeed, John. What a work of musical sophistication is the devising of a radical non-standard tuning. It's easy to conceive of Davy Graham experimenting in a West London bed-sit with time on his hands and coming up with DADGAD. Another altogether to imagine a sharecropper home from the fields after a dawn-to-dusk day serving the man reaching for a banjo and coming up with F#CGAD! I guess all those Sunday hours in church absorbing the cadences of modal singing (as in 'Oh Death') must have saturated the senses and provided plenty of material for contemplation out there on the land. These musicians black and white constantly surprise, enchant and dazzle, don't they?

  3. Hi Roy & Dick: Truly sorry to be so late in responding--a very busy weekend, including a show Friday night.

    Roy: Yes, Boggs' sound is archaic, primordial, even chthonic! I'd say that he of any white artist, with the possible exception of Clarence Ashley, most typifies the "Old Weird America" sound that Marcus wrote about--& I'd certainly put him up there w/Patton & Skip James & others.

    Dick: It truly is an odd tuning, & I wish I knew the history behind it. I can't say for sure that Boggs came up with it--certainly, as such things go the odds may be against that, since I tend to believe the "nothing new under the sun" paradigm--but from what little research I've done, I could find no one else who used it in an old-time recording. It's 2 notes off the "Graveyard Tuning,"" which Boggs used a lot--that tuning is an open D, tho made a bit more modal by having the third, F#, as the drone string--these days when the bluegrass folks play open D they tend to have A as the drone string. Graveyard=f#DF#AD, so the change down to the C & up to the G complicates things a good bit as you can see. I've tried to mess around in that tuning & find it quite challenging!


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