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Dock Boggs circa 1964

Musical Analysis by Ralph Rinzler

Located on Dock Boggs, Legendary Singer and Banjo Player (FA 2351, 1964)
© 1964 Folkways Records
Note: I transcribed these notes exactly as presented, attempting to keep it as accurate as possible. However, don't be surprised if I accidently include more typographical errors in my transcription.
Some Considerations Regarding the Musical Style of Dock Boggs

By Ralph Rinzler

Taken from liner notes of Dock Boggs, Legendary Singer and Banjo Player (FA 2351, 1964)

       "I played different from anybody; I always did.  I
       taken up my own style of playing; I didn't copy
       after nobody."

Style is the key word in this discussion of the esthetic of Dock Boggs. Like many gifted creators, Dock is a humble man and yet is wholly aware and proud of his distinctive qualities of musicianship. One can only marvel at his ability to preserve the subtleties of tune and text in the pieces he performs after decades of exposure to varieties of music which would tend to destroy rather than reinforce his early learning -- this all the more so for he had virtually given up his music for some twenty years.

Most frequently the traditional singer who chooses to accompany himself on a musical instrument learns to play his accompaniment from family or friends. More often than not he tends to adapt the song to suit his ability on the instrument. The rhythm, tempo, pitch and vocal dynamics are adapted to his ability to control and vary his accompaniment. Dock Boggs differs from most traditional musicians in many ways, he will be pointed out in this discussion, but perhaps the most significant aspect of his style is his approach to accompaniment: the banjo accompaniment is artfully crafted to enhance the vagaries and subtleties of the song and the vocal delivery.

Let us compare this approach to that of a number of noted traditional musicians who use banjo accompaniment and are accomplished both vocally and instrumentally. Pete Steele uses a galloping rhythm on "Pay Day At Coal Creek"; the technique is rhythmically similar to frailing but differs in that the note which falls on the beat is plucked up on the string rather than down. Charlie Poole plays a rhythmic pattern somewhat like crude "Scruggs" style behind his singing; the pattern is constantly repeated. Justus Begley, singing the "Rambling Boy" uses a technique similar to Pete Steele's. Roscoe Holcomb plays a finger-style pattern behind his singing of "True Lovers" and Tom Ashley frails behind his rendition of the "House Carpenter". In most cases the vocal is clearly audible over the accompaniment which generally consists of a rhythmic pattern which is repeated as a continuo against which the vocal line is rhythmically juxtaposed. These musicians all seem to adapt the songs to their individual instrumental styles. Some of them command a variety of different styles on the instrument, and thus they can choose between these styles when arranging a song for accompanied performance. Many of them also sing without accompaniment using a markedly different vocal style when doing so.

The essence of Dock Boggs' unique esthetic can be found in the interplay between vocal and instrumental styles. The above-mentioned musicians all allow for greater interplay between the voice and the instrument; at times the banjo almost obscures the vocal either because of excessive volume or rhythmic complexity, as is the case with Justus Begley and Roscoe Holcomb. Pete Steele, when performing "Pretty Polly", plays an instrumental chorus after each verse, in typical traditional style; thus vocal and instrumental parts share equally in the performance. In most cases the instrument provides a rhythmic and harmonic background against which the vocal part is placed. Dock Boggs sings in the highly ornamented style which is characteristic of unaccompanied performance and he fashions his accompaniment in such a way as to permit maximum freedom in terms of meter, pitch and vocal stylistics. His banjo style boasts its own unique phrases which fill in between lines and verses adding a particular type of rhythmic figure peculiar to Dock Boggs. But while the voice is active the banjo does little more than support it by following the melodic line. Although it would seem to be a simple thing to play the tune while singing it, this technique, as most banjo pickers will agree, requires far better knowledge of the fingerboard, grater digital control and more precision than the usual types of accompaniment mentioned above. The difference then is one of emphasis: Dock is consistent in his tendency to regard the song, its text, tune and the style in which it is sung as the guiding factors in shaping his banjo accompaniment.

Although Dock learned to play frailing style on the banjo having heard his older brother and sister play this way since childhood, his principal interest as a young boy was in developing a plucked finger style based on a sound which he heard only once during his early years. At about nine or ten years of age he recalls standing at the door of a cabin not far from home; here he watched while a band of Negro musicians (banjo, guitar, fiddle and mandolin) played for a dance.

       "My mind was on this music, and I'd stand there
       and listen to every bit of it I could.  I
       watched that fellow play 'Turkey in the Straw'
       on the banjo, and I knew what he's playing,
       and he was a-picking it with one finger and a
       thumb or two fingers and a thumb; I couldn't
       tell for sure.  Some pieces I'm sure he played
       with two fingers.  And in my mind, and in my
       way I looked (what I was thinking about I
       didn't tell no one nothing about it) I said,
       'If ever I'm going to learn how to play a
       banjo...I don't aim to play like my brother
       plays.  I'm going to learn to pick the tune
       out; I want to play it straight and pick with
       the two fingers and a thumb, or one finger and
       a thumb.'"

It was several years before Dock got a banjo of his own, but when he did, he set to work to try and get the sound out of the instrument which had remained in his mind since that night. In this sense too, Dock is unlike the musician who follows the example of his family and friends; he heard a sound only once and after years had passed finally set out to develop his own technique based on that sound.

It is a happy coincidence that this style of banjo playing is rhythmically and harmonically less rigid than any other that seems to exist in tradition, for Dock has a marked pre-dilection for pentatonic tunes and metrical variation. Perhaps these preferences were responsible for the development of this style on Dock's part. In either case, the instrumental style is ideally suited to these tunes which are not harmonically oriented. The tunes can be harmonized in a number of different ways, but it is in the quality of ambiguity that their principal charm lies, and it is just this aspect of the airs that Dock manages to preserve by means of his sometimes unique tunings and by playing the melody on the banjo with only an occasional chord thus avoiding the intrusion of unwelcome trite harmonies. The chords are invariably in keeping with the particular mode of the tune, for Dock instinctively employs tunings which include the tones found in the melody of the song he is accompanying. This is the more impressive when one realises that he uses at least two tunings (strings 5-1 resp. F#CGAD and F#DGAD) which, far from being traditional, seem to be unique with him. On occasion the tuning includes a major third (the F#) which Dock alternates with a minor third in both the vocal and banjo parts during the course of the piece. Thus he increases the sense of ambiguity already inherent in the tune by nature of its pentatonic structure and the result is a sound midway between major and minor (as in "Pretty Polly" and "O Death", among others). The care and sensitivity with which Dock handles the preparation of an accompaniment for a song can be compared to the painstaking approach which any fine artist has towards his proudest effort.

       "I knowed that song eight years before I
       found the place on the banjo that it would
       fit in...(until then) I sang it without
       music" (meaning unaccompanied).

The rhythmic variations which Dock employs can easily be heard on a number of selections on this record, and there are examples of them in both transcribed tunes at the end of this piece. [Note: These are not included in my transcription-LTC:DB]

The subtleties of Dock's vocal style should be apparent to even the untrained ear: his ability to vary the contours of the tune from verse to verse provides the listener with a kaleidoscope of musical improvisation; his keen sense of pitch permits him to slide with tingling accuracy from tone to tone, but this technique is employed randomly without regard for regularity and is thus the more effective as it is wholly unanticipated; his manner of pushing a sort of muted yodel which is most effective. These are but a few of the aspects of Dock's vocal style...a style which provides a matchless subject for careful study and analysis.

It is interesting that unlike most singers who accompany themselves instrumentally, Dock does not sacrifice those qualities of vocal style which are generally most abundant in the style of the unaccompanied singer. This ability to employ numerous techniques of ornamentation with taste and economy while maintaining a banjo accompaniment should not be is indicative of an unusually high level of competence and artistry.

Although, strictly speaking, the subject of song texts does not belong in a discussion of musical style, it is germane in terms of the inter-relationship of text to purely musical elements. This subject was mentioned earlier when discussing the tendency of some traditional artists to allow musical elements to equally balance nonmusical elements or even to take over a greater share of the whole by obscuring the text almost completely. Dock Boggs is unusual in that the texts of his songs come up to the level of those found in the repertoire of the finest unaccompanied singers. The words are easily comprehended and seem to be sung with care and understanding, but there is no trace of the modern tendency to sentimentalize the songs because of the situations recounted in the text. The high incidence of qualities in Dock's style which are commonly associated with unaccompanied vocal style is surprising, but it can be explained by two facts. Dock is aware of and appreciative of the subtleties of vocal style. He tells us that he learned perhaps as many as half of his songs from his brother-in-law, Lee Hunsucker, an unaccompanied singer who evidently sang in a style which deeply impressed Dock. Moreover, the long hours spent working in the mines provided ample time for singing, and this he did. Dock had the opportunity, as does the unaccompanied singer, to mull over the verses to his songs, establish their meaning, evaluate the importance of words and phrases, to hone them down and make them a part of himself.

       "In the mines we'd be awaiting on cars.
       Sometimes you'd sit around an hour...two
       hours...and you have your coal all pre-
       pared and ready to load and nothing to
       do...your timbering up and all...and I'd
       sing some songs I knowed just for my buddies,
       you know, in the mines.  They say: 'Sing us
       a song or two, Dock, while we're sitting
       around here.'"

This is a cursory survey of the highlights of the musical style of one of the finest traditional musicians ever to come from the Southern Appalachians. It is hoped that a serious and thorough examination of this musician's background and style will be undertaken by a capable student of music and folklore, for such an analysis would surely shed considerable light on this relatively unexplored area - the vocal and instrumental styles of the Southern traditional folk musician.

My thanks to Peter Schickele for his assistance with the transcriptions of these two tunes.

[Musical transcriptions omitted-LTC:DB]

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