Saturday, December 11, 2010

Old Time Holiday Train #2

Happy Saturday, folks!  The Old Time Holiday train is pulling into the station (just a bit behind time) with two more great tunes for your enjoyment.

Critic Greil Marcus wrote about Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music as portraying the “weird old America.”  Today’s two examples are definitely from that same place, tho neither song is found on the Anthology (Dock Boggs, who performs “Danville Girl” is found on two songs on Smith’s magnum folk opus, however). 

In old-time music, we often hear about “modal” songs—songs that are built less on the harmonic structure of chord changes & more on the use of a certain scale.  In particular the modal songs tend to use either a variation of the minor scale called the “Dorian mode” (what Pete Seeger called “mountain minor” in reference to a banjo tuning used for playing in this mode) & the “Mixolydian mode,” which is a more or less major scale with one tone altered.  If you have a piano, you can hear an example of the Dorian mode by starting on a D note & playing all the white notes in ascending order until you reach the next D; you can hear an example of the Mixolydian mode by starting on a G note & then playing all the white notes in ascending order until you reach the next G.

What may not be quite as well known is that the blues also ventured into modal territory, particularly in the Mississippi Delta & environs, & particularly in the hands of slide guitar players.  While we tend to think of blues songs having a very defined chord structure (the “12 bar blues”), in fact a fair number of early blues songs relied much less on those changes & only hinted at them.  On to the songs themselves!

Dock Boggs: Danville Blues (1927)

Dock Boggs was an extraordinary banjoist & singer who made some records for Brunswick back in the 1920s.  He sang with a raw emotion & urgency that really seems to come from some weird old world, & his style of 3-finger banjo picking was intricate & beautiful.  As with many of the old-timers, Boggs used banjo tunings that accomodated his music’s modal character.  For “Danville Girl,” he tuned the banjo to #fDGAD, a series of open string notes that allow him to hover between major & minor modes.  If you know the song “Danville Girl” from its later major chord incarnations, you won’t even recognize this version. 

King Solomon Hill: The Gone Dead Train (1932)

Not very much is known about King Solomon Hill.  He was born Joe Holmes in 1897 (at least that’s generally accepted, tho it’s not certain), & took his later stage name from his address in Mississippi: King Solomon Hill Baptist Church.  We do know that his playing was memorable & powerful, tho unfortunately he left behind only 8 tracks (a total of six songs, with two takes each of “Whoopee Blues” & “Down on Bended Knee”); we do know that the tracks were recorded for Paramount in Grafton, WI in 1932. 

Hill played slide style guitar & favored the open D tuning (in other words, the 6 strings of the guitar, when unfretted, will sound a D major chord).  Because of the way open tunings typically work on a guitar, however, it’s pretty easy to make the sound drift between major & minor in true bluesy fashion.  As far as the guitar part goes, Hill essentially stays on the D chord throughout, & any hints at chord changes come thru in the vocal & chord fragment riffs.

You may be interested to know that King Solomon Hill used a cow bone as a slide!


  1. Nice. The Dock Boggs tune is especially haunting.

  2. Thank you for these very interesting stories!

  3. Hi Merisi: So glad you enjoyed this!

  4. Doc Boggs got closer to that early version 'wild mercury sound' than any other white player, didn't he? And that great regret that one feels in respect of so many of those obscure but tantalisingly great blues singers: why only 8 tracks?

    Thanks so much for these, John. My blues/white rural/mountain music jukebox!

  5. Hi Dick: Ah, "the wild mercury sound"--that's a Dylan quote isn't it? That sure would be appropriate for Boggs. Little is known about King Solomon Hill, so hard to say why there was such a small output. He most likely was a street performer--he certainly had the voice for singing outdoors!


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