Some old habits die hard, others die peaceful and free. This new Dock Boggs set — a beautifully packaged double CD containing all three of his Folkways albums made between 1963–68 –is a study in the latter.
When Pete Seeger “rediscovered” Boggs in 1963, Boggs hadn’t performed publicly in 30 years. He pawned his banjo back in ’33, during the darkest days of the Depression. Perhaps he was distraught over his flagging recording career. Perhaps his wife’s constant pleading for him to stop playing the devil’s music finally prevailed. Perhaps he just needed the money. In any event, Boggs was flattered, if a little bewildered, when Seeger and a nation of folkies renewed his career, and like many of his peers he coveted the opportunity to record again.
Boggs revised many of his trademark songs — “Sugar Baby”, “Country Blues”, “Down South Blues” — for Folkways, and the effect of 30 years time is pronounced. Of course, the fidelity of these later recordings is superior — in conventional terms at least, though one might argue that the haunting sound of those old 78s suits Boggs’ muse best. Technically, Boggs’ fingers aren’t the nimble instruments they were, and his pacing tends to stray, too.
But that’s all to be expected. What’s surprising, even ironic, is the spirit of these ’60s sides. The unmistakable sound of death which defined Boggs’ early recordings seems to have actually tempered with age. When he sang “Sugar Baby” in 1927, it sounded as though he was enduring Egyptian mummification, the words being pulled from his brain through his nose. When he recorded those same words in 1964, they merely sounded nasally.
The most telling song on this set is Boggs’ rendition of “Oh, Death”, a traditional ballad pleading for God’s messenger to “please spare me o’er ’til another year.” Boggs had probably known this tune for decades, and had he recorded it in the ’20s, it would undoubtedly stand as a defining moment in his early canon. But Boggs’ ’60s rendition is, well, lifeless. It is the product of a man neither fearful or disdainful of his own mortality, but rather, at ease with it.
Boggs died in 1971. He no longer had the stark, singular voice that he did as a young man, but he probably died happy, and who’d want to deny him that?