by Reed Martin
My sister lived in Whitesburg, Kentucky, during the mid 1960s and thereafter. In 1967 I went to live with her for the summer. I had been living in my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. I was used to playing at noisy dances and had taken to the habit of winding all four strings in the peg head – the same direction. If I was part of a band and the noise was great, if my third string was flat, I knew that even if I could not really hear it, I could reach up, turn the peg clockwise, and the tone of that string would rise. All four pegs were wound so that it worked on all four. I hope you are following this so far…
Anyway, in 1967 when I went to visit my sister for the summer, I remembered that Doc Boggs lived in Pound, Virginia. I looked at a map and Pound was just up the valley from Whitesburg. I gave him a phone call and he invited me over.
Upon arriving, we talked a little and then I took out my banjo. It was Larry Richardson’s old 1928 RB-3 ballbearing flathead with a newer tonering and no more a ball-bearing. It was a lot like Doc’s banjo. He looked at it and ’bout had a stroke when he saw what I had done with the windings on the third and fourth strings. “You’re a-gonna ruin that banjo by doin’ that.” He stared at the peghead again. “What you’re doin’ is going to twist that peghead all to pieces.” I told him that the banjo had been wound that way for a year and wasn’t showing any sign of twisting. We sat and talked for awhile and I took out a tape recorder and made a 5″ reel of tape of the afternoon. Every once in awhile he would stop whatever we were doing and look at the peghead on the Mastertone and repeat, ” You’re a-gonna ruin that banjo by doin’ that.”
It was a great afternoon with a great fellow. He claimed that back in his youth he used to spin the banjo around and flip it up in the air and never miss a lick. I brought in my old Thompson & Odell banjo which was in my car, and I pleaded with him to try one of his old tricks so I could see him in action, but he refused. I told him it was alright if the banjo got loose and broke all to pieces – I really wanted to see some of the old tricks, no matter how out of practice he was. He was determined to keep the banjo tricks within him until he died. No matter how many times we saw each other, he would never do any banjo tricks. And he never forgot me….everytime he would see me at a festival, or I would visit him, he would pretty soon be looking up at my banjo peghead to see if I was still ruining banjos. I will never forget what Doc looked like, because I have a photo here of my maternal grandfather, George Morris Jones. The two men look like identical twins.
In 1967, I had just dropped out of Indiana University for the second time. I taught beginning ice skating at the local ice rink and was also a rink guard. The winter passed, the rink closed, and by spring I was unemployed.
My older sister had moved to Whitesburg, Kentucky, to work as a writer and photographer for the Whitesburg Mountain Eagle Newspaper, and she heard that some government folks back in Washington, D.C. were interested in setting up a record company in Whitesburg to record the local folks. The government would pay the salaries of the company employees, and the money from record sales would go to the musicians themselves. It sounded like a great thing to me.
I was asked to come to Whitesburg and spend the summer walking up creek beds and nosing around locating unrecorded musicians. I was to be paid $25 a week. So I hopped into my 1957 VW bug and off I went. My sister was living in a log cabin atop Pine Mountain, so I stayed the summer with her. On one of my visits to Dock Boggs, over in Pound, Virginia, I took over the 1964 Folkways / Disc LP which has a 1927 photo of Dock on the cover.
I recognized the banjo in the photo as a Sears & Roebuck banjo, yet no trace of that banjo had been found in more recent years. Dock told me that he bought a Gibson soon after the recording sessions of the 1920s, and he had sold that old Sears banjo. I could feel the excitement of finding that old Sears banjo, so I pressed him for more details. “I sold it to a man who worked in the mines with me….he lived in Whitesburg, Kentucky.”
I wrote down the man’s name and bright and early the next morning I was all over Whitesburg knocking on doors, chasing down the man and the Sears banjo. By 10 a.m., I was standing on his porch and he said, “Yes, I bought that banjo from Mr. Boggs many years ago. We kept it up on the mountain in a shack next to the cabin where we made moonshine. In the early 1950s, both our buildings caught fire and everything was burnt up.” ” Even the Sears banjo?” I asked… “Even the Sears banjo.”
And so that is what happened to that banjo. I thought I should put the story in print since there are probably Dock Boggs fans who will see the old photo and say to themselves, “I wonder whatever happened to Dock’s banjo – the one he played in the 1920s?”
It was at the North Georgia State Folk Festival. A friend was invited as a performer, and I was the driver. At that time I was working in a machine shop in Sparks, Maryland. We were making nose cones for missiles to be used in Vietnam, so I had a draft deferment… I had a choice…1. Keep my job and be safe from the draft and death in Vietnam 2. Quit my job and drive the Georgia Sea Island singers and my friend to Unicoi State Park and the 1st Annual (?) Georgia State Folk Festival.
So I quit my job and my parents went crazy. “How will you pay us room and board?” was their main concern. I drove to Washington, D.C., changed cars, and two of us headed for Georgia. We picked up 3 people and headed for Unicoi State Park. I had never seen the red clay of Georgia. It was an eye-opener. Never even been in Georgia before. Got to the festival and who was there but Dock Boggs.
He was very proper and well dressed, as always. There was a workshop with banjo styles being discussed. He was playing up-beat and happy tunes. It was a hot day and somebody was passing around a bottle of something. A little later, after a sip or two, Dock played another tune. WOW – what a difference the sips had made.
The banjo tuning went into blues mode, and out came the dark side of Dock Boggs. I had never before seen it happen. Dock would be Mr. Happy and play in the major keys – someone would offer him a drink or two, and BOOM – the bottom would fall out, and into the blues he would go. Forever after, when I was around Dock, I could predict what would be his mode by paying attention to whether he had had a drink beforehand. I never met another banjo player who had two banjo personalities – before the bottle (happy) and after the bottle.
My wife does not like cold weather. We live in Maryland, and every winter I see it coming about the first week of December. “Let’s go to Florida… let’s go to Yuma, Arizona… ” every winter.
About five years ago (I’m guessing it was 1998), she was getting to the frantic stage, so we packed the car and headed for Florida. Down to her favorite place, Key Colony, next to Marathon. We got nice and sunburned, stayed for ten days, and then began our leisurely drive back north. She wanted to go to Cypress Gardens to see the beautiful gardens, so we were heading that direction.
I decided to stop for something to eat, so I pulled into a small roadside restaurant. We went in, and the woman by the door said, “Howdy – make yourselves at home and I’ll be right with you folks.” Her accent and relaxed manner immediately impressed me. I said, “Where are you from?” She said, “Honey, I’m from Pound, Virginia.”
I told her that twenty years before, I used to go visit a man named Boggs who lived in Pound, Virginia. She said, “Honey, everybody in Pound, Virginia is a Boggs. My name is Dreama Boggs, and that lady over there is my sister, Loretta Boggs.” I asked her how she was related to Dock Boggs. She said, “He was our uncle.” I asked Dreama if she had ever heard Dock play the banjo when she was growing up. She said that both she and Loretta knew that Dock had played the banjo in the past, but actually, neither she nor her sister ever heard him play, but everybody around Pound knew that once he had been pretty well known with his banjo. They had both left Pound as soon as they were old enough and had not gone back.
I asked her if she knew that in the early 1960s, Dock had got his banjo back and started playing it again. Then a LP record was made of him, so he got to be pretty well known. She was totally surprised. “Well, I’ll be…”
There was a beautiful yellow Cadillac parked outside the restaurant. I asked her if that was by any chance HER car. She beamed and said that it was. I figured that it probably had a cassette player, so I said, “I’ll tell you what… I will go home and make a cassette of my Dock Boggs record and send it to you. That way you can listen to Uncle Dock when you are driving to and from work.” She thought that was a lovely idea. I made the cassette and sent it to Dreama and Loretta Boggs. They wrote me back a thank-you letter which I cherish. Two Boggs girls living in Southern Florida… who could have imagined it.
While visiting Dock one time, he mentioned that he knew of a family in the hills outside Whitesburg, Kentucky, who owned a machine that could cut 78 rpm records. I was quite surprised and asked him for their name. He said, “I remember it as Swartz or something like that. They got folks up to the cabin in the early 1950s and would make 78 records right on the spot.” It seemed like a long shot, since it was now 1967, but I started walking the hills around Whitesburg and asking if anyone remembered this family and their record cutting machine.
Eventually I ended up at a run down shack with windows busted out and the door swinging back and forth on its hinges. Over in the corner was THE exact machine Dock had seen 25 years before.
There seemed to be a half-dozen kids running around, but nobody over the age of 18 was to be found. Their last name was something close to Swartz, and they lived up Pert Creek holler and then another holler, and then over a ridge or two, and there I was.
It was an extremely confused situation. Nobody could answer any questions, and nobody seemed to be in charge. Finally, a lady came walking up and didn’t particularly want to see me there. She said that in WWll, one of the Swartz boys had been killed. The government sent the family a check for $75, which they spent in Hazard, Kentucky, to buy the record cutting machine. There were a lot of musicians in the family at that time, so they cut a lot of records. I looked around the piles of broken records and found a couple of dozen that were still intact. I put one on the wind-up victrola which was there and played it.
The recording quality was awful and the music was virtually unrecognizable. Lots of yelling and voices drowned out any music that was being played. The lady asked me if I wanted the machine and all the records for $200. I had no money, and the nearest road was ridges and valleys away, so even getting everything out of that cabin would have been a challenge.
So I declined the option to buy everything, thanked her for her stories, and left. I had the feeling that the dwelling would probably collapse soon just from neglect. In 1997, I drove back with my wife, from Maryland to Whitesburg, Kentucky. I wanted to show her some of the places I had explored in that summer of 1967. I tried to find anyone living who remembered the family with the 78 record cutting machine, but found no one. I asked the folks who run June Apple Records in Whitesburg, but they had never run into anyone who knew anything about this “Swartz” family. And so goes another chapter in the history of old time music.