Week 11 Music Notes

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From the Syllabus:  Many of the Anthology artists were tracked down by folklorists and fans after the albums’ release in 1952, and enjoyed second careers often much more successful than their first. Among the most interesting of these was Dock Boggs, who was recorded and interviewed by Mike Seeger for Folkways Records beginning in 1963. In these recordings, Boggs serves as an honest and rudely eloquent spokesman for the conflicts and contradictions that inhabit so much of rural southern music. Mississippi John Hurt’s second career brought him a good deal more fame than did his first. His recordings were both commercially and artistically successful, and his personal appearances reached a wide and appreciative audience. Other rediscovered blues musicians, whose music was less accessible (and who were personally less affable than Hurt) had less success. One of these was Son House, whose adversarial relationship with the blues often marred his performances.

We begin with John Hurt, whom we’ve heard both on the Anthology (Frankie on CD 2, Spike Driver Blues on CD 6) and on our Week 8 CD (Avalon Blues). Hurt recorded Got the Blues Can’t Be Satisfied in New York on December 21, 1928. Thirty-odd years later, back in New York to record I’m Satisfied for his comeback LP Mississippi John Hurt: Today!, he doesn’t sound much different. Way back in August, I did a post that included a video of Hurt’s appearance on an episode of Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest TV show. You might have missed it then – don’t miss it now!

Only twelve Dock Boggs sides were issued in the 1920s. Harry chose two of the best (Sugar Baby on CD 5, Country Blues on CD 6) for the Anthology. Here we have Danville Girl and Down South Blues, both recorded for Brunswick in 1927. Dock first heard Down South Blues as a classic blues, recorded by Rosa Henderson and a jazz band. Here he transforms it into something totally his own. Danville Girl is one of those songs made up of verses that might fit in almost anywhere. Dock learned this version from his brother Roscoe.

Mike Seeger found Boggs in Norton, Virginia in 1963 and began recording him for Folkways records almost immediately. He recorded this version of Sugar Baby in 1964. He learned it from his oldest brother John, who like  brothers Roscoe and Dave and sister Jane, also played banjo. Greil Marcus wrote of Boggs that he “sounded as if his bones were coming out of his skin every time he opened his mouth.” That may not be as true in 1964 as it was in 1927, but this is still powerful music. You may remember O. Death from the Coen Brothers’ film O, Brother, Where Art Thou. Ralph Stanley sang it in the movie. Dock learned it from a friend in 1930, and recorded it in 1963.

Mike Seeger and Dock Boggs became good friends during the years they knew each other, and Seeger recorded many of their conversations. These excerpts are taken from a Folkways CD (the complete transcript is on the readings page). The sections of the transcript I’ve included on the CD (in case you want to read while he talks) are: Side 1, part 3; Side 2, part 1; Side 2 part 2.b.; Side 1, part 9.

Son House recorded Dry Spell Blues and My Black Mama, Part 1 for Paramount in 1930. The dancers he played for must have appreciated his rhythmic and repetitive guitar work. House recorded three two-part blues at these sessions, indicating that he was more comfortable with the kind of long-form work that would have been played at dances and jook joints.

Son House and Dock Boggs shared a feeling that somehow their music really was part of the devil’s work. Boggs was a religious man whose wife disapproved of the banjo. Son House, as Ted Gioia writes, used the performance stage as a pulpit to rail against the blues even as he performed them. House sang John the Revelator unaccompanied, and it was perhaps the signature song of his second career.

Enjoy the music!

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2 Responses to “Week 11 Music Notes”

  1. Judy Uhl Says:

    My favorite Mississippi John Hurt song is the Coffee blues. I just found it on YouTube and I highly recommend that you listen to it. It brings me way back to my rent controlled apartment in New York City in a time when I couldn’t have conceived of something like YouTube. I thought he was sooo old then; not any more!

  2. Don Bashline Says:

    Judy! Did you give up a rent controlled apartment in NYC? Those are passed from generation to generation – what happened?

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