Introduction by Jon Pankake
The life of Dock Boggs is measured out not only in decades but in entire cultures. When he was a child, he often followed a Negro musician up and down the dusty roads pestering the man to play a tune on the banjo. The man, perhaps in irritation and perhaps in an amused and calculated effort to fathom the boy's desire for the music, refused repeatedly and kept walking, and so the boy dogged his steps sometimes for miles. Inevitably, the man gave in and sat down on the roadside to play and the boy to listen. Like many musicians of his generation, Dock can still vividly describe the passion with which he heard music as a child, the vision it became to him, the preciousness and rareness of its sound.
Today Dock in his old age moves easily through the modern world of jet liners and engagements coast to coast, of Carnegie Hall audiences and Newport ovations and television interviews. A long way from the dusty road. But the passion of the child hearing his first precious notes of music remains to awe us, we whose brains are so chock full of electronic echoes and broadcast jangle that we will never, never hear music the way Dock heard it from that banjo player in his boyhood. But then, we have not earned the right to hear as has Dock.
Night came to the Cumberlands during Dock Boggs' lifetime. It was while he was still young that his people abandoned their heritage of working the earth and of hunting and herding animals under the sun and attuned to the seasons and went down under the ground to labor in stinking holes like machines, cutting away the mineral at the coal face, not breathing air or seeing sunlight or knowing the seasons any longer. The new life was a change so simple and so profound that it will never occur again: it was the exact moment people ceased living on the natural earth and began living under and over and away from it and it only happens once. Its terrible toll among Dock's people--all of us, really--is still being taken.
(I once asked Dock why the people of the Cumberland, especially during the years when he was a young man, so often resorted to violence, why so many of them seemed in despair, why their lives were cheap and their peace of mind so rare: what was the temper of the time? He said simply, "People were afraid." I thought then--and know now--that the reason why Dock had survived from the one culture to the other is because he was not afraid.)
[Something is missing here but I know not what it is. Any help?--LTC:DB] law and order that came into the hills with the railroads and tipples, accelerated by Prohibition and its degeneration of the traditionally upright rural lawman into a corrupt cop. Like any man human enough to want to uphold the integrity of his property, his family, and his person against the anarchy that was the plateau in the 1920's and 1930's, Dock Boggs carried his own protection stuck in his belt. It was a .38 Special and Dock by his own admission could use it well. He also by his own admission drew it on another man in anger and with full intention to use it on at least one occasion that we know of. Yet, Dock Boggs, in a time when life was so cheap that a murder sentence often consisted of two years in the penitentiary with time off for good behavior--and to accommodate the hordes of convicted killers who otherwise would have inundated the penal system under normal terms of punishment--Dock Boggs had the courage not to pull the trigger, the courage to face down his enemy and thus defeat him rather than merely destroy him, the courage to live rather than die a little with the man killed. Today, many otherwise respectable middle-aged mountain men can still brood over the bitterness scored into their youths by a sentence, however brief, for killing another man--but Dock Boggs is serene and free and his vision unclouded by spectral prison walls. He was not afraid. He did not pull the trigger in fear.
As a young married man, Dock went to work in an industry in which men fought and died for the right to work. A mine job meant more than a living: it meant self-respect, self-sufficiency, and simple survival. Even so, Dock Boggs had the courage to walk off a job in those days rather than work in sub-standard safety conditions, the courage and pride in self to demand to work like a man rather than be driven in animal fear to labor in brute apathy of the contempt of King Coal. Now, one commonly encounters in Dock's land legless men, armless men, blind men, men with crushed and twisted backs and pelvises, men with weakened and enlarged hearts, men with burned out lungs, wheelchair men, broken men, widows and orphans of men who literally--literally--had to be scraped out of the mine shafts with scoop shovels to be buried. Mine victims all: they were afraid. Dock Boggs is whole and hearty at 67, and if he tells you occasionally of his shortness of breath due to the coal dust on his lungs, still you know there is none on his heart.
Even in his retirement Dock's courage has stood him in good stead. Without the two principal elements of his life, hard work and music, Dock found his physical and mental vitality siphoned off into restless and futile automobile trips through the mountains, burning up, as he has said, "twenty or thirty dollars a month" worth of gasoline aimlessly searching for--he hardly knew what. Then he had the courage to take up his music again in the face of strong community social and religious pressures because he knew the preciousness and passion of it, the pride of it and the beauty, and once again he hadn't the fear that the knownothings had. He did it partly for us who love his music and partly for himself, for of all his enemies, the stagnation of old age was the one he had the roughest time facing down.
Now, he loves to see the youngsters learning his songs, trying to play the banjo as he does, picking up his tunings and turnings of phrase - and he lives through the music. "I'll live longer this way," he has said of his new career of traveling and performing for college and city audiences. I think he has said that a few other times in his life, too.
Like the staunchest of William Faulkner's southerners, Dock Boggs has not only lived through Cumberland's long night but has prevailed over it. He has mastered it and infused its raw spirit and tragic temperament into his old songs and brought the gift of his life to us all.
Listen: Do the best of men and the worst of times always go together?