25 May, 2010

"Sugar Baby" - "Dock" Boggs

Set Three: Songs; Disc One; Track Six: "Sugar Baby" perfor1med by "Dock" Boggs. "Vocal solo and 5-string banjo, with guitar by Hub Mahaffy." Recorded in New York on March 9, 1927. Original issue Brunswick 118B(01).

Moran Lee Boggs was born in West Norton, Virgina on February 7, 1898, the youngest of ten children. His nickname, "Dock," was reportedly given to him because of his resemblance to the local physician. His father, a carpenter and blacksmith, taught his children music from an early age. As a small boy, Boggs came under the influence of an African-American guitarist known only as "Go Lightning." In interviews with Mike Seeger, Boggs recalled how he followed "Go Lightning" around, hoping he would stop and play for change. Boggs also recalled sneaking into the African-American mining settlements to listen to string-bands. He became enamored of the African-American style of banjo picking, which differed from the frailing style he had learned from his siblings.

As an adult, Boggs worked as a coal miner, but he continued to play the banjo, learning songs from his siblings, as well as from local musicians. Around 1918 he is believed to have started performing publicly at parties.

Around 1927, Boggs auditioned for Brunswick records. Although nervous enough to require whiskey to calm him down and performing on a borrowed instrument, Boggs passed the audition and traveled to New York to record eight sides, including "Sugar Baby" and "Country Blues," both of which appear on the Anthology. The success of the records allowed Boggs to quit mining and work exclusively as a musician, performing at parties and in mining camps.

In 1929, Boggs traveled to Chicago for a recording session for Lonesome Ace Records. The records failed to sell, however, and a subsequent audition for Okeh did not result in a contract. Between the Depression and the objection of Boggs' wife and neighbors, Boggs decided to pawn his banjo and give up music forever. He returned to coal mining, which he did until his retirement in 1952.

With the release of the Anthology, Boggs' music found a new audience, and in 1963 he was contacted by Mike Seeger. Coincidentally, Boggs had taken up the banjo again and had been practicing for several months before his rediscovery. Boggs went on to record three albums for Folkways Records and perform in clubs and at folk music festivals. He died on February 7, 1971, his 73rd birthday.

In 1968, Jack Wright, a protege of Boggs', started the Dock Boggs Festival which is held annually in Norton, Virginia.

Boggs' entire recorded output can be heard on just two CD collections: Country Blues: Complete Early Recordings on Revenant and Dock Boggs: His Folkways Years on Smithsonian-Folkways. Both are highly recommended.

Like "James Alley Blues," "Sugar Baby" is the lament of henpecked man.

Oh, I've got no sugar baby now.
All I can do for seek peace with you,
And I can't get along this a-way.
Can't get along this a-way.

All I can do, I've said all I can say.
I'll send it to your mama next payday.
Send you to your mama next payday.

Got no use for the red rockin' chair,
I've got no honey baby now.
Got no sugar baby now.

Who'll rock the cradle, who'll sing the song?
Who'll rock the cradle when I'm gone?
Who'll rock the cradle when I'm gone?

I'll rock the cradle, I'll sing the song.
I'll rock the cradle when you gone.
I'll rock the cradle when you gone.

It's all I can do, said all I can say.
I will send you to your mama next payday.

Laid her in the shade, give her every dime I made.
What more could a poor boy do?
What more could a poor boy do?

Oh, I've got no honey baby now.
Got no sugar baby now.

Said all I can say, I've done all I can do,
And I can't make a living with you.
Can't make a living with you.

Greil Marcus, in his Invisible Republic, makes much of this song and of Boggs. He describes Boggs as a man who "sounds like his bones are coming through his skin" when he sings. Marcus also makes "Sugar Baby" sound particularly sinister. At one point, Marcus singles out the following stanzas:

Who'll rock the cradle, who'll sing the song?
Who'll rock the cradle when I'm gone?
Who'll rock the cradle when I'm gone?

I'll rock the cradle, I'll sing the song.
I'll rock the cradle when you gone.
I'll rock the cradle when you gone.

To Marcus, the answering voice ("I'll rock the cradle") is terrifying and unearthly. It is at this point that Marcus's romanticism gets the better of him.

A close reading of the lyrics to "Sugar Baby" reveals nothing sinister or supernatural whatsoever. The song is told from the point of view of a man who has had enough of his wife. He describes how he "gave her every dime [he] made" and yet he "can't make a living with [her]". He plans to send his wife back to her mother "next payday."

The question about "rock[ing] the cradle" is asked by the wife when she is threatened with being sent away. "Who will look after the children?" she asks, to which the husband simply replies, "I will."

Marcus's supernatural reading of "Sugar Baby" is, in large measure, influenced by Boggs' performance. It is undeniable that Boggs has an unusual voice. He seems to strangle each word in his throat as he sings it. Yet when one listens to the recordings of Boggs from the early '60s, it becomes clear that Boggs' voice isn't so odd. Certain nuances of his voice are clearly absent from his 1927 recordings, likely due to the relatively primitive recording techniques. Captured on magnetic tape using more sensitive and sophisticated recording equipment, Boggs' voice loses much of its uncanny quality.

Like "The Coo Coo Bird" and "East Virginia," "Sugar Baby" seems creepy because it is performed on the banjo in a minor key. This quality is enhanced on this particular recording due to Boggs' unusual banjo technique. The style he played is called "up-picking," which involves picking upwards on the first two strings and playing one of the other three strings with the thumb.

Two interesting miscellaneous notes about "Sugar Baby": "Sugar Baby" was recorded on March 9, 1927, exactly two days before Rabbit Brown recorded "James Alley Blues."

"Sugar Baby's" label contains a rare instance of crediting a musician other than the recording artist. The label (and Smith's subsequent entry in the liner notes) credits one Hub Mahaffy as the guitar player on this recording. Who was Hub Mahaffy? Nothing is known of him, other than the fact that he accompanied Boggs on this session.

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Here's a video of "Sugar Baby" performed on fiddle and (off camera) banjo. The fiddle and vocal are by the author of the wonderful Old Weird America blog!

Here's a more modern reading by the Indaba Harry Smith Project, featuring Dale Crowley on keyboards, Jussi Salminen on electric and acoustic guitar and banjo,
Scott Swatzell on drums and vocal, and Mike Tobin on bass.

Download and listen to Dock Boggs - "Sugar Baby"


  1. The song "Kiss the Devil" by the Eagles of Death Metal seems to be derived from this song.


  2. Definitely. Thanks for pointing this out!

  3. I'm a student at Eastern TN State, and we've heard of Hub Mahaffy in class and heard some of his other recordings. I believe professors in ETSU's Bluegrass department may have some info on Hub if you are interested.