The explosive combinations of styles, instruments, and new songs that resulted constituted an expressive feast, and one of the great periods of creativity in American musical history arose from it…”
by john pinamonti
If I told you to visualize a couple of white men from Kentucky playing banjos, you might dream up a typical stereotype of inbred backwards hillbillies pickin’ the theme from Deliverance (ok, I know that took place in Georgia, but you get my point!). But what if said pickers were really incredibly unique, sophisticated musicians who fused a myriad of influences and created styles that still influence musicians today? And what if said “hillbillies” were astute, proud men only held down by their own demons and the hand that life dealt had dealt them? Such men existed, and they were Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb.
To some, the banjo is a quaint instrument, associated with the South and a bygone era in America. To others, it is the driving force in Bluegrass. Far fewer have considered it’s African origins and its crucial role in the creation of American music. This is where pivotal figures like Boggs and Holcomb come into play. As Barry Connell mentions in his excellent overview of Boggs’ music and life (http://www.folkways.si.edu/40108notes.htm ), Dock (and I will add, Holcomb) created “a banjo style which combined elements of African and Anglo-American instrumental styles… In the mountains the presence of so many culture groups and sub-groups created a rich and exhilarating musical world. The explosive combinations of styles, instruments, and new songs that resulted constituted an expressive feast, and one of the great periods of creativity in American musical history arose from it.”
The two CDs that will give you the whole picture as far as Dock goes are Country Blues: Complete Early Recordings 1927-1929 (Revenent 205) and Dock Boggs: His Folkways Recordings, 1963-1968 (Smithsonian/Folkways 40108). It is compelling to listen to these two discs in succession – even if you know nothing of his life, you can surmise that 30 odd years stand between the two, and it’s fascinating to compare them. So much attention has been paid to Boggs’ early stuff that sometimes the later stuff is dismissed as being second-rate.
While it’s true that some of Dock’s prowess and vocal ability might have diminished during 30 years of non-activity, he more or less rises to the occasion. The 50 songs he performs give a clearer view of the man and his music – imagine, for example, if Robert Johnson had lived until the ’60s and was rediscovered and recorded some more. Yes, perhaps it wouldn’t match the brilliance of his early and best records, but it would still be damn fascinating. If you can only own one, however, the Early Recordings are the way to go. It was put together with great care by the late John Fahey’s Revenent Records, and is considered the definitive version of this important work. Hearing these first versions of the songs is mindblowing and quickly explains why Boggs is so revered today. The CD contains a 64 page booklet about Boggs’ life and music with complete lyrics as well. Unfortunately, many pages are wasted on a rambling essay by Greil Marcus. I found an article from The Atlantic archives by William Hogeland – check it out at http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/98nov/banjo.htm – which is a much better read, and it helps clarify the few good points that Marcus tried to make. I also feel the liner notes to the Smithsonian collection to be better – they in part contain a truncated version of Connell’s essay, along with much information from Mike Seeger, the man who re-discovered Boggs.
Roscoe was a largely unknown musician when John Cohen met him in 1959 and began to bring him to the attention of the world at large. Listening to The High Lonesome Sound – Roscoe Holcomb, you will immediately understand what Cohen means when he writes that you are “hearing a man confronting the dilemma of his own existence”. Cohen continues to clarify by writing:
“Appalachian posture, hard work, hard life, broken health, coal mines. lumber mills, moonshine, and conflict between old and new ways all gave an edge of his music. Although he rarely talked about the poverty he was raised in, it clearly shaped his outlook. he never saw himself as important, and he was neither assertive nor ambitious. Yet there was something heroic and transcendent in his singing. It has a power that went straight to the listener’s core.”
I don’t want to bore you with my own recapitulation of what’s already been written about Roscoe. Suffice it to say, his music always sends shivers down my spine. Ultimately, I think both he and Boggs come from a time and place where there weren’t clearly defined categories such as “country”, “blues” “gospel” and “folk”. As a musician who always gets uncomfortable when asked “So, what kind of music do you play?”, I can completely relate to these two men who just played from their hearts and souls. As Roscoe himself said, “I play if it suits me. It’s all right, I don’t care if it suits anybody else or not, just so it’s done me good.” Do yourself some good and give a listen to these men.
Final Note: More of Roscoe can be heard on the essential 2 CD set Mountain Music of Kentucky (Smithsonian Folkways 40077). He performs 9 additional tracks on this collection, and there are also outstanding contributions by many other unknown greats. If you own the early Boggs, The High Lonesome Sound and this album, you will be in possession of some of the greatest American music ever made.
John “Pointy” Pinamonti is a Managing Editor of Smokebox and an accomplished guitar slinger who practices his trade while slurpin’ fine bourbon and playing smoky clubs in New York City. His latest cd “High, Wide And Handsome” is available at his website.