“His Wife Looked Right Through Him”

by

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excerpt from “Dock Boggs in Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia”
by Greil Marcus
Representations, No. 58 (Spring, 1997), pp. 1-23

Dock Boggs was twenty-nine when agents of the Brunswick company-a major New York label with separate lines for “hillbilly” and “race” records-arrived in Norton, Va. to audition mountain talent. Boggs showed up at the Norton Hotel on Kentucky Avenue with a borrowed, second-rate banjo.

Even with a half-pint of Guest River whiskey in his stomach he was intimidated by the crowd of pickers and fiddlers: “I stood around and pitched them high as a dollar, dollar and a half at a time-I mean nickels, dimes, and quarters-to hear them play. They wasn’t doing nothing but playing and I was working on a coal machine.” A. P. Carter of the Carter Family failed the audition; Boggs passed.

He cut eight sides, four 78s, in New York City; the company wanted more but he demurred. Before traveling out of the Virginia mountains for the first time, Boggs went to the Norton haberdashery for a new suit, shoes to hat, socks to underwear; determined to walk the city streets with pride, he insisted on clothes that would draw no northern smiles.

Dock Boggs quit the mines after his records were released, drew crowds to schools and houses, formed the Cumberland Mountain Entertainers, and signed a booking agent, but the records sold mostly where he carried them. Boggs recorded only four more songs in the 1920s-generic blues and sentimental parlor lyrics written by a Richlands, Virginia, variety store owner named W. E. Myers.

Myers would send his “ballets,” or poems, to musicians he liked, hoping they would put his words to music. He’d release the results on his own Lonesome Ace label, which featured both a picture of The Spirit of St. Louis and the slogan “WITHOUT A YODEL,” because Myers loved Charles Lindbergh and he hated yodeling.

Boggs cut “Will Sweethearts Know Each Other There,” “Old Rub Alcohol Blues,” and two other Myers efforts in Chicago in 1929; then the Depression destroyed the southern economy and Myers went bankrupt. Boggs pressed on, writing to record companies, traveling to Atlanta for a session with Okeh, which shut down just before he arrived, finally surrendering when a recording date with Victor in Louisville fell through because Boggs, knocking on the doors of his now penniless friends and relatives, could not raise the train fare.

He drank hard, leaving home, even leaving the state for a week at a time, running to where no one would recognize him on the last day of a ten-day drunk, always returning home, where his wife looked right through him.  Again and again his wife gave him the same ultimatum: she refused to sleep with him unless he gave up his music, and finally, not long into the 1930s, he did.

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