Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Country Blues

SONG: Country Blues

WRITTEN BY: Traditional/Dock Boggs – at its base, “Country Blues” is a traditional song, both musically & lyrically. However, Boggs certainly added enough of his own touches to call it “his” song.

APPEARS ON: The Anthology of American Folk Music, vol. 3, "Songs" (Smithsonian/Folkways); Dock Boggs: Country Blues (Revenant); Doc Watson: The Essential Doc Watson (Vanguard)

I don’t recall the specific circumstances when I first heard Dock Boggs sing “Country Blues.” It was probably back in the 90s in San Francisco when I purchased The Anthology of American Folk Music. What I do recall is that chill one gets from a song that combines great playing skill with an almost raw emotion; this, combined with the song’s unusual (to contemporary ears) harmonic structure produce an altogether eerie listening experience.

Of course, I’ve since listened to a good deal more of the real old-time music recorded in the 20s & 30s, & have come to realize that some of those qualities I associated with “Country Blues” are endemic to Appalachian music—when I hear Buell Kazee sing & play “East Virginia” or Clarence Ashley sing the old Child ballad “House Carpenter,” I recognize that same underlying sound & that same approach to the music—something that sounds very much to us as coming from another place altogether. This sound is what rock critic Greil Marcus wrote about in his Invisible Republic, in which he devoted two chapters to Boggs. It should be noted, however, that music critic William Hogeland made some good points in critiquing Marcus’ approach to Boggs’ in his article “Corn Bread When I’m Hungry” (published in The Atlantic Monthly, & available online here) Leo G. Mazow gives a nice summary of this debate in Picturing the Banjo; Mazow sums up the points of difference as follows: “Is the banjo simple or surreal? Is it folk or fantastic.” Mazow himself sees these contradictions as embodying something very real within the banjo as a signifier.

But back to the music—& to point out that there are tangible factors behind that alien sound. One important consideration is that, like African American music, the Appalachian sound drew on scales & harmonies that move beyond the typical major & minor scales. This music is often called “modal,” & put very simply, the scales underlying these types of music are neither completely major nor completely minor. This is not only true of the blues, which introduces all sorts of “minor” tones in the form of “blue notes,” but also of traditional British Isles music, which took root in Appalachia. Of course, ultimately American folk music is a Creole concoction—a mixture of styles & concepts between quite different cultures, & in many ways this was as true in the hill country as in New Orleans.

The two most common “modes” in traditional music (not counting plain old major & plain old minor) are what are called the “Mixolydian” & the “Dorian” modes. Without getting too mind-numbingly technical, the “Mixolydian” comes up fairly often in music from the British Isles—& hence, in Appalachian music; a very well known old-time song in the Mixolydian mode is "Old Joe Clark," while pop fans will find the sound in the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood." The “Dorian” mode, which is more on the “minor” side, is found in a number of very old-time Appalachian tunes; perhaps the best known is "Shady Grove" (the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" also is in the Dorian mode). It’s what Pete Seeger called “Mountain Minor,” & one fairly common banjo tuning used in old-time music (usually referred to as the “Sawmill” tuning) is employed exclusively for this mode.

Dock Boggs was much influenced by the blues—we have this on the best authority: Boggs himself. He said, “You think them blues ain't here on this banjo neck, the same as they're on that guitar? They're just as much on this banjo neck as they are on that guitar or piano, or anywhere else if you know where to go and get it, & if you learn it & know how to play it.” Boggs did utilize “blue notes” in his playing, & some of his recordings sound very “bluesy”—one major influence apparently was an African-American guitarist named “Go Lightening.” The song “Country Blues” itself owes a lot more structurally to the way the Mixolydian mode than to the blues, however. Boggs frequently used a particular banjo tuning to accommodate this—given the often eerie nature of Boggs’ music, this is appropriately known as the “Graveyard” tuning.

“Country Blues” is based very closely in terms of melody & harmonic structure on the old time song “Darling Corey,” which is also related to the song “Little Maggie”—the latter song is often played in a major key & in an upbeat tempo by contemporary bluegrass bands, but in origin it’s a modal tune, & old-time musicians still play it that way.

The lyrics also bear considerable similarities; the third verse of “Country Blues” (see below) is found verbatim in both “Darling Corey” & “Little Maggie,” while the last verse is found pretty much verbatim in the song “East Virginia” (also closely related in melody). The penultimate verse (“Go dig a hole in the meadow, good people, Go dig a hole in the ground”) also appears in “Darling Corey,” tho in that song it’s the woman who’s being buried, not the “poor rounder.” In fact one thing that I find remarkable about “Country Blues” is how Boggs strung together so many traditional verses & yet formed a very coherent story.

The lyrics follow, as do YouTube clips of first Boggs & then the great Doc Watson. Despite the fact that Watson is a more “polished” musician both as a singer & an instrumentalist, he brings his own soulfulness to both the playing & the lyrics & produces a version that can stand on its own (in my opinion) next to Boggs’ version.

Come all you good time people,
While I've got money to spend;
Tomorrow might be Monday,
And I'll neither have a dollar nor a friend.

When I had plenty of money, good people,
My friends were all standing around;
Just as soon as my pocketbook was empty,
Not a friend on earth to be found.

Last time I seen my little woman, good people,
She had a wine glass in her hand;
She was drinking down her troubles
With a low-down, sorry man.

Oh my daddy taught me a-plenty, good people;
My mama she taught me more.
If I didn't quit my rowdy ways,
Have trouble at my door.

I wrote my woman a letter, good people
I told her I's in jail;
She wrote me back an answer
Saying, "Honey I'm a-coming to go your bail."

All around this old jailhouse is haunted, good people,
Forty dollars won't pay my fine;
Corn whiskey has surrounded my body, poor boy,
Pretty women is a-troubling my mind.

Give me corn bread when I'm hungry, good people,
Corn whiskey when I'm dry;
Pretty women a-standing around me,
Sweet heaven when I die.

If I'd a-listened to my mama, good people,
I wouldn't have been here today;
But a-drinking and a-shooting and a-gambling,
At home I cannot stay

Go dig a hole in the meadow, good people,
Go dig a hole in the ground;
Come around all you good people,
And see this poor rounder go down.

When I am dead and buried,
My pale face turned to the sun,
You can come around and mourn, little woman,
And think the way you have done.


  1. When I sing them to myself, the connection between "Old Joe Clark" and "Norwegian Wood" is so obvious that I can't believe I never noticed it!

    John, you might be interested in Otis Taylor's Recapturing the Banjo, which I reviewed last year here.

  2. Hi K:

    Yes, it really is, but they aren't two songs many people would put together. Another odd pair: the old Irish tune "She Moved Through the Fair" & G Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"--both also, like "Country Blues"--in the mixolydian mode.

    Will definitely check out your "Recapturing the Banjo" post.

  3. Do you have an online source for the chords to these songs? Specifically country blues atm. I've found some of the others on ultimate guitar....