Friday, December 2, 2011

Dock Boggs: False Hearted Lover's Blues

Review # 55
Artist: Dock Boggs
Title: False Hearted Lover's Blues
Format: LP
Label: Monk Records
Year: 2009
Songs: 10

Dock Boggs is one of my all time favorite musicians in the American folk tradition, and False Hearted Lover's Blues is a collection of his recordings from the late 1920s. Boggs recorded a number of albums for Smithsonian's Folkways label in the 1960s when folk music became popular again, and those are fine records and better recorded, but there's just no substitute for hearing the original recordings. These are little slices of a culture and way of life in America that have largely disappeared. Boggs's somewhat abrasive voice combined with an aggressive, often fast, style of banjo playing conjure echos of a time when ramblers walked the dirt back roads of America, drinking corn whiskey. These songs have an ominous sound to them, and the lyrics tell of lost love, broken hearts, bad decisions, ruined lives, nights in jail, and ultimately, death. In "Country Blues" for instance, Boggs laments the bad decisions of a rambling lifestyle, as he envisions his own funeral. The spine-chilling "Pretty Polly" tells the story of another rambler who, after breaking his lover's heart, kills her and buries her body in some desolate place. It's not entirely clear, but he may bury her alive. Afterwards, he goes down to the river, "where deep waters flow," and there the song ends. Again, it's not clear, but he may drown himself in the river for what he's done. You won't find "You Are My Sunshine" or "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain" in Boggs's catalogue.

I think most people who aren't well acquainted with American folk music have an idea of it as a tame, friendly acoustic music, children's songs, or political protest music. They think of sanitized Americana like Peter, Paul and Marry basically. Maybe they think of early Bob Dylan, or even Woody Guthrie if they're slightly better informed. Folk music can be all of these things, but much of the earliest music recorded in America isn't like that at all. These songs created images of the darker side of American rural life--hardship, loneliness, violence, alcoholism. "Hard luck," in these songs isn't your computer crashing or getting a flat tire, it's your brother getting shot, or spending your life in prison for robbing someone in alley and accidentally killing them. The lyrics to Boggs's songs have more in common with gangster rap than they do with children's music or even the protest music of the 1960s.

These recordings vary a fair amount, in terms of recording quality. Taken from 78 rpm records if I'm not mistaken, some of these songs probably sound as good as they ever did, while others obviously were damaged. The last couple of tracks are very scratchy and sound like they run a little slow. Monk Records (a German label, I believe, which is sort of odd) seems to have done the best they could in cleaning these recordings up, but you can only do so much with damaged records from almost 100 years ago. Even so, if you are a fan of classic American folk music, this record is indispensable. Boggs's songs (and variations of other folk tunes, like "Sammie Where You Been So Long," which has much in common with  Bascom Lamar Lunsford's "I Wish I Was A Mole in the Ground") are classics. His approach to banjo playing is exciting to listen to, and clearly influenced many who came after him. The Folkways stuff recorded 40 years after this has many of these qualities. They're more accessible, perhaps. But if you want to hear some real, authentic American folk music, there are few better examples than False Hearted Lover's Blues.

Here's Boggs's version of "Pretty Polly."

Total songs listened: 695

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