Henry Bogan

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The instrument has a superb bottom end, capable of playing a bass line for any kind of music. The strings can be plucked or bowed, the range high enough to jump above an ensemble for solo lines, but characteristically…
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The instrument has a superb bottom end, capable of playing a bass line for any kind of music. The strings can be plucked or bowed, the range high enough to jump above an ensemble for solo lines, but characteristically strong in the midrange. If played right, the cello creates a warm fuzzy feeling in the listener's stomach. The assumption would be that this versatile instrument would have been, throughout its history, in demand for a variety of styles of music. Not so. Omnipresent in classical music only, the cello eventually was able to rise to a level of moderate activity in jazz and related improvised music, despite the fact that a much greater demand should exist for an instrument that can play bass lines without taking up the entire back of a touring van.

As for country music, the name of cellist Henry Bogan is one of the very few that ever comes up. A tale has been told of a country band with a cellist, seeking work in the deep South. A demo tape goes out to a club, but when contacted for an opinion the booker is aghast. "What do y'all want with an oboe instead of a bass?" he asks the bandleader, so disgusted with the idea of the cello that he is unable to even use the instrument's real name, although it is also possible the fellow didn't know the difference. Probing through the history of country music, the musical archaeologist gets to the pottery shards left behind by string bands from the '20s and '30s, and remarkably enough finds the oboe, oops the cello, playing a role in a handful of string bands.

Several things are worth noting for the cello of it. These groups with cello, such as the East Texas Serenaders, with whom Bogan played, and the Appalachian Seven-Foot Dilly & the Hot Pickles, consistently turn up as the most praised of the early string bands; and in the wads of hyperbole there will always be a mention of the cello and how much it adds to the sound of the group under discussion. Interestingly enough, while the tendency in jazz has most often been to use the instrument's pizzicato or plucked notes to form bass lines, Bogan and other string band cellists would bow the instrument itself. Obviously, these players were under the greatest influence of fiddlers, who at this point in time were living repositories of music, kind of living-and-breathing Napster files, and were figuring out how to harmonize from the low end. The proper technical term for playing the cello with a bow is "arco," but in Bogan's case "sawing" is the descriptive term used most often; but that is not to denigrate his rhythmic skills, which were excellent. He also did not play with the instrument's full four strings, his specialty being a three-string model.

While music history abounds with sagas explaining how a player created a variation on a standard instrument, no such information has emerged about Bogan over the years, nor much of a record of any musical activity after the East Texas Serenaders' final recording sessions in 1937. The three-string cello actually makes Bogan sound a bit similar to several North African stringed instruments used to play bass parts in traditional music. The East Texas Serenaders were formed by two musicians from Linsdale, TX, the fiddler Daniel Huggins Williams and guitarist Cloet Hamman; had a difficult repertoire of rags and waltzes; and recorded some two dozen sides beginning in the late '20s for the Brunswick, Decca, and Columbia labels. The music was a huge influence on Western swing, yet another genre that didn't have any room for cello players on-stage.