Down South Blues, pt. 1

Clara Smith

Clara Smith

excerpt from “The Three Doc(k)s: White Blues in Appalachia,” by William E. Lightfoot:
When Dock Boggs was a small boy, he became fascinated with the music of a black man named “Go Lightening” (probably “Golightly”), who would walk along railroad tracks playing his guitar. Young Boggs would follow the man and beg him to play: “and I’d follow him … a lot of times to get to hear him play two, three, four pieces and I a lot of times heard him play ‘John Henry’ and I learnt it partly, learnt some of the words from him”.   This experience may have been Boggs’ first exposure to the open-tuned slide guitar style, the way in which “John Henry” is usually played; he would have been unable to apply the style to his music, however, because a slide implement does not work very well on a banjo.
Boggs did, however, learn his finger-picking banjo style from an African-American man. When he was twelve years old and already working full-time in the mines around Norton, Boggs attended a dance in Dorchester, a mostly black coal town. The all-black band consisted of a fiddler, a guitarist, a mandolin player, and most striking to young Boggs, a banjoist. Dock was much impressed with the banjoist’s finger-style technique: “I heard this fellow play the banjo …    [and] I said to myself, I want to learn how to play the banjo kinda like that fellow does. I don’t want to play like my sister and brother [who frailed in the old “clawhammer” or”knockdown” style]. I am gonna learn just how to pick with my fingers.”
What developed from this experience was Boggs’ personalized banjo style, which combined the minstrel thumb-lead clawhammer technique with up-picking: his thumb thumped melody notes down on the lower strings while his fingers sounded both melody and accompanying notes on the two upper ones, his index finger on the second string and his middle finger on the first, with both picking up. Although her fingers were doing different work (i.e., brushing down and up), it was this basic thumb-lead style that young Maybelle Addington was applying to her Stella guitar some twenty miles southeast of Norton in Nickelsville, Virginia.
Three of the four songs Boggs recorded that came close to the blues were learned from records made by African-American women. His best-known effort is “Down South Blues,” which he remembered hearing in the early 1920s and which featured a black woman vocalist with piano accompaniment. Alberta Hunter recorded the song twice in May 1923, once with Joe Smith on cornet and Fletcher Henderson on piano and once with Henderson only.
But Hunter could not have been Boggs’ source; although the melody is similar, her lyrics differ radically from
Boggs’. Tony Russell  believes that the singer was Clara Smith.
In Dock Boggs’ 1927 recording of “Down South Blues”he  punches out each note, both vocally and instrumentally, in an aggressive staccato attack. He clips off his words abruptly rather than playing around with them. Moreover, as Seeger points out, Boggs turns the “three-cornered” blues of the women into two-line stan- zas, about six bars each. He also rushes impatiently from line to line, cutting measures short, precluding any kind of call-and-response activity.
Boggs seems to want to get through the song as quickly as possible; the tempo hovers around 114 bpm, and the performance is intense. The most unsettling feature of Boggs’ blues, however, is the singer’s sense of time, which gets derailed right from the beginning and never gets back on track. Unlike the many blues and jazz musicians who play with meter like they play with melody notes, lagging a little here, anticipating there, or playing against the beat (e.g., three against two), Boggs plays apart from the beat as though it has no relevance in his song.
There is a huge difference between the controlled polyrhythms of black blues players and Boggs’ out-of-time music. These differences are due not so much to the latter’s misreading of the women’s performances as to a less-than-com- plete reading; certain important elements of the blues that Boggs heard simply did not register solidly in his consciousness. Boggs’ so-called receptive competence for African-American music, in other words, was compromised by culturally determined factors over which he had no control.
While he sang the song’s bluesy lyrics (which make little sense from a man’s perspective) and threw in a few scattered flatted thirds, Boggs clearly did not understand the blues that he had heard sung. On the other hand, Smith and Henderson would perhaps not have absorbed fully the grainy power and mystery and edginess of some of Boggs’ most artful songs, such as “Sugar Baby,” “Pretty Polly,” “Oh, Death,” “Prodigal Son,” and “Prayer of a Miner’s Child.”

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