The Real Billy Boy Boggs
In the 70’s, while serving in the Navy, I knew a guy named Tay Hogg. Tay was an affable 19yr-old stoner from the South. His eyelids always at half-mast, he’d recount tales of his Kerouacian exploits in a soft-spoken Louisiana drawl.
One story in particular stuck with me, and years later I decided to make it the basis of a new song. I camouflaged Tay’s name, added ample alliteration, and came up with “The Ballad of Billy Boy Boggs”.
As often happens in the creation of a piece of art—that’s right, I call it art—the final version strays from the initial concept. When completed, “The Ballad of Billy Boy Boggs” didn’t contain Tay’s memorable story at all. The conceit of the lyrics was that here was a song called “The Ballad of” something—evoking multiple-verse story songs of old—yet there was no story whatsoever. There was no ‘there’ there. It became a self-referential exercise in meta, with lines like:
The Ballad of Billy Boy Boggs is a rambling, disjointed,
unfocussed collection of half-truths and half-baked adventures.
The Ballad of Billy Boy Boggs is a daring depiction
of sordid encounters unlikely to slip past the censors.
Ultimately, I like the song and I’m not at all distressed by its divergence from the original inspiration, but I still think Tay’s story deserves a re-telling, so here goes…
Tay was a born wanderer, to hear him tell it. He’d get itchy feet and light out on regional walkabouts starting at about age thirteen. After one too many incidents of Tay being picked up by authorities as an unaccompanied minor and returned to his concerned parents, Mom and Dad Hogg decided to have a legal document drawn up by a helpful local attorney. It stated something to the effect of:
“The bearer of this document, Tay Hogg, although a minor, hereby has our parental consent to be gallivanting around the country on his own.” Signed, Ray and Mae Hogg. Parenthetically, I never really heard the names of Tay’s parents, but Ray & Mae sound plausible to me. Apparently, this well-worn piece of paper on more than one occasion spared Tay the inconvenience and indignity of repatriation to rural Louisiana.
Tay’s most epic trek took him all the way to the Pacific. En route, he decided to drop in to see some cousins in Texas. He had a fun visit for a couple of days, the highlight being an afternoon swimming with the cousins in their small private lake. In the middle of the lake was a 10’x10’ raft that served as platform for diving from or sunning on.
As a joke, Tay decided to give his cousins a little scare. He dove off the raft and swam beneath it. The way the wooden raft was constructed, there was a pocket of air underneath, so Tay could hide there, unseen, indefinitely. As he heard his cousins calling out for him, their cries getting more frantic by the minute, he had to suppress giggles for fear of giving away his hiding place.
When the freaked-out cousins finally gave up trying to find him and went to the house to tell their parents that poor cousin Tay had drowned in the lake, Tay surreptitiously grabbed his clothes and continued on his merry westward way, thinking what a hoot it was that his kin thought him deceased.
Some months later, after having experienced all the wonders that LA can offer a broke teenager, our hero decided to check in back home in Louisiana. It was an awkward homecoming. A shocked Ray and Mae tell him that after they’d gotten the news he’d drowned tragically in Texas they’d held a tearful, well-attended funeral service for him. They showed him the front-page story of his demise they’d cut out from the local newspaper. They’d donated all his clothes and things to Goodwill and they’d turned his bedroom into a sewing room for Mae.
When Tay first told me this story it was several years after the events, and he said, ”Even now I can be home in Loosiana and see somebody on the street who didn’t get the news that I ain’t really dead, and they’ll turn fishbelly white like they jes’ seen a ghost.” With that, his half-lids closed all the way for a second and he chuckled, pleased with himself that he’d masterminded such a clever ruse.
And that, my friends, is the true story behind “The Ballad of Billy Boy Boggs”.