Happy Banjo Friday, all! Hope you’re in the mood for some great old-time banjo playing, because that’s what we're featuring today.
Since I’ve been showcasing some of my favorite banjo tunes, & also have been focusing recently on old-time players who picked “up” on the strings rather than striking down on them (as in frailing), I’m really excited to feature perhaps my favorite old-time banjo player, Dock Boggs. Hearing Dock Boggs on the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music was a major motivation for me wanting to learn the banjo back in the late 90s.
If you know “old-timey” music much at all, you probably know Dock Boggs’ music. If you’ve never heard him before—well, prepare yourself to be amazed, if not transported! You can read an excellent biography of Dock Boggs at this link, but in brief: Boggs began learning the banjo around 1910, which would have been around the time he was twelve; he was also at that time already working the coal mines around Norton, Virginia. His interest in music grew as his playing proficiency increased, & by the mid to late 1920s he was serious enough about his music to try & get a recording contract—& in fact, he was signed on by the Brunswick label, & he recorded eight songs for Brunswick in 1927. He also formed a band called Dock Boggs & His Cumberland Mountain Entertainers. & in 1929, he recorded an additional four songs for the Lonesome Ace Recording Company. But various issues conspired against a music career for Dock Boggs. There was apparently domestic strife, as his wife Sara was very devout, & considered Dock’s music & musical lifestyle sinful; the Stock Market Crash & the Depression hit the recording industry hard, & there were far fewer opportunities for either Appalachian or African American musicians to record than in the 1920s; & he also ran afoul of the law over bootlegging charges. Boggs eventually pawned his banjo & went back to a miner’s life.
Of course, the fact that Harry Smith included two of Boggs’ recordings on the Anthology (these were “Sugar Baby” & “Country Blues”—chilling & unforgettable performances) piqued the interest of folk revivalists, & Boggs was one of the many “re-discovered” musicians who had a second career in the 1960s, when he also recorded for Folkways. Sadly, the most recent edition of Boggs’ 1920s recordings, which was issue3d by the Revenant Label is out of print (I thank my lucky stars I have one), & going for $30 & up used online.
“Danville Girl” is one of Boggs’ 1920s recordings, & if you know a version of “Danville Girl” either by Bluegrass musicians or folksingers, be advised that this is a whole other kettle of fish! Boggs played a lot of songs in D using variations on the so-called “Graveyard Tuning” (which will seem appropriate once you hear him!) Boggs’ variations, however, sound even more strange than “Graveyard,” which is an open D chord tuning as follows (from 5th string to 1st): F#DF#AD. The fact that the F# is a drone string makes “Graveyard” sound more modal than some open tunings—but the tuning Boggs uses on “Danville Girl” (& some of his other songs) is F#DGAD. Substituting the G for F# on the 3rd string produces all sorts of possibilities for very juicy discords & makes this a haunting tuning—Boggs also used this F#DGAD tuning for his famous version of the old murder ballad “Pretty Polly.”
By the way, if you’re interested in learning about lots of old-time banjo tunings, you should really check out the page at this link (also, as with the Boggs’ bio, on the Zepp Country Music site); you’ll find over 120 tunings! In the meantime, hope you enjoy “Danville Girl.”