Ted Bogan was one of the greatest musical artists to ever emerge from Spartanburg, SC, or "South Cackalacky," as the natives would describe it. Bogan was something like a growth from a massive tulip bulb, a bloom that for some reason was never allowed to fully open. He performed and recorded beautifully throughout a career that spanned more than half a century, but was mostly known as a member of the string bands variously known as Martin, Bogan & Armstrong or Martin, Bogan & the Armstrongs. The various members played in many other formations, including the New Mississippi Sheiks, over the years, but at the crux of it all was a strange relationship between Bogan and Howard Armstrong that seems to have rivaled the hate-fest of Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. Most important, however, is that Bogan was not just a country bluesman, but a skilled and versatile purveyor of a variety of classic styles who apparently held his own up against no less a genius guitarist than Les Paul. Bogan wasn't just a fancy picker, though he could do that, but an interpreter of songs who apparently should have known much greater glory from this aspect of his talent. The many new fans Bogan played for during this period may not have realized the man could indeed outdo Janis Joplin, Jimmy Stewart, and Ethel Waters in his rendition of "Summertime." Bogan learned guitar as a child, beginning with fingerpicking. His early efforts were in humble imitation of Leroy Carr and Blind Blake, artists he had heard on records. A Canadian huckster who called himself Dr. Mines hired Bogan to play in his medicine show, the story goes, and like all the details involved with Martin, Bogan & Armstrong, there is also the possibility of fiction baked in with fact. Bogan in his later years was always happy to explain the many inaccuracies or outright lies in the details of Armstrong's life story, as Armstrong was always telling it. He criticized the flamboyant Armstrong to concert organizers, backstage help, and hipsters who happened to be standing around, all part of a relationship that lasted for almost 70 years. Armstrong also would have been happy to talk about Bogan, but never found the time in his full schedule of talking about himself. Bogan's performing experiences were from the beginning ones in which diverse music played a strong part, as the medicine show also featured comedians and dancers, including historic early performers such as Ham Bone and Leroy and Bozo Brown. Dance music of the era included themes associated with the "Bucking Wing" and the "Possum Walk." Bogan's flair with this material led to live broadcast exposure in Spartenburg, traditionally a strong border location with access to North and South Cackalackears, as well as Georgians. Hooking up with fiddler and guitarist Carl Martin, Bogan relocated to Knoxville, TN, where he would become such a local institution that when it came time to paint the Knoxville Music History Mural, there was no question that Howard Armstrong, Ted Bogan, and Carl Martin would be included; after all, the trio had performed for years on Knoxville street corners as well as on radio and local television. It was during the extended Knoxville stay that Bogan strongly advanced his guitar technique, including the development of a system he called "octahaves," basically doubling one or both of the chord's lowest notes on the high strings. Bogan's style also shifted to flatpicking during this period, part of the sonic demands of playing in a group and projecting in venues such as street corners. One of the groups these players had in the '40s was the Four Keys, which toured throughout West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. In Chicago, the group recorded as a backup unit for bluesman Bumble Bee Slim and this enjoyable material has been reissued in a series of three volumes or a complete box. The group then changed its name to the Tennessee Chocolate Drops in a shrewd move that cashed in on both the race record market as well as the fanatic interest in hillbilly music on radio and records. For many years, the group worked quite successfully until the advent of jukeboxes and amplified bands eroded public support for traditional acoustic string bands. The revival of the band began in the late '70s, with Bogan and Martin still based out of Chicago. Louie Bluie, a film based on one of Armstrong's stage and recording pseudonyms, features plenty of footage of Bogan in action.
Share this page