Following up last week’s entry concerning Pittsburgh DJ Jason Baldinger’s show that included about 30 versions of “SJI” and its antecedents, there are a couple more tunes that he mentioned to me that I thought I’d address. Today I want to focus on Dock Boggs.
Boggs’ take uses the title “Old Joe’s Barroom.” A site called Long Time Coming says that Boggs was an “old time banjo player and musician, former bootlegger” who recorded a dozen songs between 1927 and 1929. Two of these tunes, recorded for Brunswick, eventually ended up on The Anthology of American Folk. Boggs, born in 1898, was from Norton, Virginia, “a coal mining town in the Virginia panhandle,” according to Harry Smith’s notes to that famous collection. “Boggs hoped a music career might help him avoid a life working in the mines, but he was a miner most of his life, retiring in 1952. Both sources indicate that he was influenced in part by African American musicians.
According to this Wikipedia entry, Boggs gave up on music as a career in 1933, when he would have been 25, “hocked his banjo, and did not play again until the early 1960s.” Long Time Coming explains that he was “rediscovered in 1963 by Mike Seeger and recorded three full-length albums.” And from the discography on that site, it looks like his “Old Joe’s Barroom” comes from a 1964 recording session that was released as Dock Boggs Volume 2, on Folkways.
The tracks on The Anthology of American Folk (“Sugar Baby” and “Country Blues”) come from 1927 and have Boggs singing to his own banjo playing; his banjo style is compelling, but personally I find the incredibly hard twang kind of distracting, especiallly when it bumps up and over the limits of his actual vocal range. By 1964 Boggs would have been 66, and while he sounds older, the twang sure hasn’t mellowed. But once he gets going, his voice hangs onto a kind of weird and jagged charm.
In any case, his take is interesting. He begins with the traditional third-person setup that starts in the bar, with Old Joe telling the story of his “good gal” in the St. James Infirmary, laid out on the familiar table and looking, as you’d expect, “so fair.”
Then he goes to the lyric about the possibility that he may be kiled on the oceon or by a cannonball, but whatever happens, “a woman was the cause of it all.” As mentioned in the Little Pink Anderson entry, this is one of the lyrical variations that Carl Sandburg included (as “Those Gambler’s Blues”) in his 1927 American Songbag book, and that The Hokum Boys used in their 1929 “Gambler’s Blues No. 2.” But it’s comparatively rare, and his next two verses are even more unusual.
If I die little woman, won’t you bury me
On my tombstone write the letters in black:
“Here lays my hard workin’ daddy.
Great god won’t you please bring him back.”
I work in these old coal mines,
Sundays and all night long
Tryin’ to provide for my wife and baby
But now she’s took it and gone.
I may have that “Sundays and all night long” bit wrong — the twang can be hard for me to decipher. Anyway, the Hokum Boys’ “Gambler’s Blues No. 2” has a verse a bit like the one about about grave inscription, although in their take the singer wants his tombstone to note that he was “a gamblin’ papa” who “ain’t comin’ back.” As for the verse about working in a coal mine, that’s a new one on me, at least in the “SJI” context. More on that in a second.
Boggs brings things to a close with the standard “let her go,” verse (though he includes the unusual twist that “She’s mine wherever she may be”), then the funeral requests, with a few tweaks such as: “fill my casket with moonshine whisky, so I can drink while the hearse rolls on.” He concludes with the request for another shot of booze, and says that he’s got “the poker-playin’ blues.”
As with Little Pink Anderson, this collage of lyrics doesn’t do a lot for narrative linearity — but that just means it opens up some interpretive fun. The most obvious disconnect is the narrator spending a verse talking about what a hard-working coal-miner he is, which doesn’t quite square with the moonshine stuff and the poker-playing blues. By and large, the protagonists of the many versions of “SJI” are a shifty lot, with an almost universally bad work ethic. I can’t think of another instance of the song’s narrator talking about providing for his wife and baby. The Hokum Boys’ asked-for epitaph, Gamblin Papa, makes more sense than Hard Workin’ Daddy.
Then again, it’s intereting to speculate about who the “little woman” Boggs’ narrator is addressing is suppose to be. Wife? Daughter? Is “Daddy” meant to be literal, or slang? And perhaps the conflict is all intentional, in the sense of a guy who sees himself as, who wants to be, and who sometimes is a hard-working provider, but who got mixed up with a “good gal” other than his wife, leading to a bad end etc.
I’m guessing that while Boggs didn’t record this until 1964, he probably knew it back in the 1920s; and there’s nothing particularly surprising about an Appalachian version working in the coal mine angle. Apparently, Mike Seeger conducted “extensive” interviews with Boggs, and I suppose I should add that to my list of things to look into: It would be interesting to know if there are any clues about how Boggs first came upon the tune.
Thanks to Mr. Baldinger for bringing this version to my attention.