In 1927 in the heart of the United States’ central Appalachian mountains, an audition was held at the Norton Hotel in Norton, Virginia. The audition’s purpose was to find musicians playing traditional Appalachian mountain music to then bring back to New York to record phonograph records for Brunswick Records –one of the three largest recording companies of the time. Among the 150-odd hopefuls was a 29-year-old coal miner and banjo player named Moran Lee ‘Dock’ Boggs. Boggs was born and raised in Norton and, until he was offered a trip to New York to record, had never found a reason or the means to leave. After the trip Boggs began receiving a steady stream of recording offers and live bookings, but depression era frugality and the fact that his wife Sara felt that there was little honour in the life of a musician meant that by the mid-1930s, in order to ‘keep down trouble’, Boggs had returned to an arduous but morally secure life deep in the mines of the Appalachians.
In 1952, Bogg’s 1927 recording of Sugar Baby surfaced on an influential collection of folk music recorded by major recording labels in the 1920s and 30s assembled for Folkways Records by Harry Smith, now known as the Anthology of American Folk Music. Established in 1948 by music entrepreneur Moses Asch, by the mid 50s Folkways was a significant influence within the young folk music revival community. It was a unique company, known not just for the music they released but also their commitment to the full experience of buying and listening to recorded music. Each of the liner publications that accompanied a Folkways recording was rich with biographical and musicological material. The visual identity and quality of Folkways releases is a worthy subject in of itself.
In 1963 folklorist and musician Mike Seeger (son of musicologist Charles and half-brother to musician Pete) launched an investigation into Boggs’ whereabouts. He hadn’t gone far, and Seeger eventually tracked him back to Norton. Incidentally, he had just retired from the mines and, conveniently, just brought home from Kentucky the very same banjo that his wife had exhorted him to pawn to a friend in the mid-1930s. Seeger invited Boggs to consider touring again, including arranging an appearance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival – the year Bob Dylan made his Newport debut. While reporting the details of Dock and Sarah’s impending tour in July 1963, local Norton newspaper The Coalfield Progress reported that ‘it will be the first time for Mrs Boggs to visit the big cities of the East, and she still isn’t exactly sold on the idea.’
In the years between Boggs’ retirement and death Seeger acted as his chronicler. By the time he died in 1971, despite having spent 41 years of his life mining coal rather than plucking at strings, Dock Boggs had developed into a revered and singular figure in Appalachian folk music.
A band member once bemoaned Boggs’ decision to play, yet again, the funereal dirge Oh, Death by telling him to ‘get out of the graveyard’. It’s fortunate he never did, because the mournful nature of Boggs’ music has proven to be an instrumental factor in its endurance. But while it’s tempting to suggest such characteristics hold primacy in determining an artist’s endurance, the reality is that Boggs’ legacy is inextricably linked to the institution that sought him out in the 1960s – Folkways Records.
In 1986 the entire Folkways operation and collection was acquired by the national museum of the United States, the Smithsonian. Today known as Smithsonian Folkways, the organisation operates as part museum, part record label. It is a fascinating concept, and their website provides astoundingly easy access to the collection, supported by a trove of written and visual material. The releases are all available on CD and digital download, and many are available on vinyl and cassette also.
This narrative of a record label museum born from the vision of a singularly focused entrepreneur is uniquely American. The closest equivalent to Moses Asch Australia has would be Warren Fahey, founder of the Australian Folklore Unit. Since the mid 1970s Fahey has intermittently travelled Australia documenting traditional music and in 1974 he began Larrikin Records, which sought to record and distribute Australian music as well as a range of other musicological and folkloric material. The retail shopfront associated with the Larrikin label was also called, appropriately enough, Folkways Records. Since the demise of both companies, many of Fahey’s recordings reside in the music collection of the National Library of Australia, Macquarie University Library, and the National Film and Sound Archive. The 500-odd Larrikin Records master tapes are currently owned by Warner Music.
While there have been moves to establish an Australian institution similar to the American Folklife Center or the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in the past, none have ever made significant progress. All of the institutions that hold Fahey’s work and other important archival material do integral work in the area of collecting but none of them appear to have the commercial imperative to distribute material as a record label, which is a key aspect of what makes Smithsonian Folkways seem so dynamic and forward thinking.
Browsing through the Dock Boggs records available through the Smithsonian Folkways website, it’s alarming to ponder how many similar artists that this gap in our national collecting ecology may represent, and how many opportunities will pass before we’re able to correct the mistake.
Hugh Nichols is an arts and culture writer who lives in Sydney. Find his work at pageantcrack.wordpress.com.