There are lots of reasons for paying attention to Dock Boggs. For musicians, there’s the interest in his style of banjo playing and his gold mine repertoire of Appalachian songs. For historians, there’s his portrayal of a Southern coal miner’s life in song, his wild songs of outlaws, jail, hard times, courtship, hard-boiled religion and drink.
For the rest of us, Dock Boggs, like many "primary-source" musicians, takes some getting used to. Times and musical fashions change and so do recording techniques. We have to suspend our 1990’s notions of what’s musically pleasing, and in some instances, what’s appropriate in a song, aesthetically and socially. Dock made his first recordings in the ‘20’s. Back then people took different things for granted than we do today. We don’t have so many murder ballads now, or songs about death in general or quite so many songs about women who rock the cradle and sew. This doesn’t mean there’s nothing here for most listeners: only that we need to be a bit more attentive, and willing to imagine ourselves with a slightly different set of prejudices than the ones we have.
Dock had a big, rough voice which nevertheless had great versatility and subtlety, a great collection of songs and strange little banjo tunes, and great conviction and good humor. He admired the music of fellow musicians of all races and both genders, performing songs from a woman’s point of view as many old-time singers did. He had in his repertoire a number of "blues" pieces. His banjo work, always intriguing, is a sort of "missing link" between the old frailing styles and later fingerpicking. His handling of his subject matter is as varied and sensitive as that of any of the better modern artists, to anyone willing to listen sympathetically.
The Smithsonian-Folkways collections are a major contribution in the effort to preserve American traditional music. They are well-recorded, copiously annotated, and respectful of the people they record, treating them properly as artists rather than museum specimens.
This is a great example of the work of all involved: Smithsonian-Folkways, Mike Seeger and other suppliers of commentary, and Dock Boggs himself: artist, coal miner, great man. I was really glad to see these songs reissued on CD. They’ve been favorites of mine for a long time. With a little patience, they could be favorites of yours too.
One can usually tell about music: if the artist has really put some thought into the things he records, if he understands what he’s doing, if he respects whatever tradition he’s working from, stuff like that. Music can, of course, be pleasant enough without any of that kind of care and honesty, but it won’t stick in the mind for any length of time. Maybe ‘til the next offering comes along, but not for longer.
This album will stick with you. It seems to be the album that Frode Nyvold has always wanted to make. Each song is chosen for its individuality and sung with loving care, performed with painstaking balance between personal artistic taste and faithfulness to traditional style. There are two actual sailor songs, a couple of lullabies, funny songs, bawdy ones; a striking, tragic story told in an unusual, three-line form; a funeral song of a type traditionally sung by men and frowned on by the establishment as "heathen howling". Twenty songs altogether, all different. Frode sings and plays the accordion. He is joined on some cuts by Anon Egeland and Leiv Solberg, playing mandola, fiddle, ukulele, Jew’s harp, flute, and harmonica. The accompaniments are sensitive, astoundingly good and just right for each song. Even without knowing what is being said all the time, one is continually charmed and beguiled by the changes in mood and delivery, all held together in a cohesive work by Frode’s strong, straightforward voice.
The songs are all Norwegian. Without knowing what is being said, just listening to them with no clue as to what’s going on, you’ll be taken with how familiar it all sounds: tunes, dance rhythms, phrasing…especially the sea chanteys, which are actually bilingual, since crews on ocean-going ships were from all over. It’s neat hearing "Oh, du New York girl, kann du danse Polka?" And occasionally, how strange it sounds, drawing on traditions we don’t have. There are extensive notes on the CD. These are all in Norwegian as well, but I believe plans were in the works to include an English translation. I was given an English translation and will be happy to copy it for anyone who orders this CD and finds no English in it. (email email@example.com).
I’ve also done a bit of internet research and came up with a company who will order this and other Scandinavian music; no doubt anyone with minimal computer skills can turn up lots more places, but these people seem very cooperative and glad to help. Norsk, Ltd., at 770 Linden Ave, Boulder, CO, 80304; phone (303) 442-6452; email firstname.lastname@example.org and finally a web page: http://ares.csd.net/~sodaling/ should put you there.