[18 August 2014]
Above: Photo by Joe Alper, courtesy of Tompkins Square Records.
Josh Rosenthal’s Tompkins Square Records has steadily grown into one of those where, seeing the label name in a record shop bin, one can confidently purchase the album without ever having heard the actual performer’s name. You know you’re getting an eclectic, often rough but soulful collection of music. From unearthing forgotten gospel on the Fire in My Bones and This May Be My Last Time Singing collections, to introducing a broader audience to American primitive guitar through the multiple volumes of the Imaginational Anthem series, to supporting late career records by legendary artists like Charlie Louvin and Ran Blake, and to resurrecting small press recordings from overlooked masters of their craft, the common denominator is passion, often uncontained by commercial minded producers or production.
The release of George “Smoke” Dawson’s sole recording, Fiddle, falls into the last category. Originally released as a private pressing in 1971, this is the album and performer’s first true introduction to a wider audience. Its release is a worthwhile act of sonic archeology that adds to the oeuvre of artists associated with the early 1960s to mid-1970s experiments in psychedelic folk and hippiefied country music.
Information about Dawson is sparse and, while he gained a strong reputation among like-minded musicians of the era and played live with many of them, including Clarence White, his commitment to being the traveling minstrel (on bagpipes as well as fiddle) kept him out of the studio and off record for most of his career. Josh Rosenthal’s liner notes comprise the most complete narrative available of Dawson’s many small triumphs and personal tragedies. Originally a member of the comically raunchy MacGrundy’s Old-Timey Wool Thumpers with Peter Stampfel (their name being, as Stampfel has noted, a euphemism for sexual intercourse), Dawson was already well on his nomadic way long before that band morphed into the Holy Modal Rounders. Described as something of a country dandy due to his sharp dress and waxed mustache and goatee, he was known as well for the precision of his playing, his humor and a wild streak.
The playing is, of course, the matter here, and Fiddle offers a fitting document of all Dawson’s qualities: precision, humor, and wildness are all on display here. The longest track on the album, the three-part “Connaughtman’s Rambles / Devil’s Dream / March Venerie”, gives Dawson an opportunity to show his chops and even, during the third section, to pick up the bagpipes. “Drowsy Maggie” and “Turkey in the Straw” also spotlight what could be termed Dawson’s wildness, or, better, his loose precision: he misses not a note but is often content to let them slide together, intoning heart and informality, evoking an impulsive dance. “Wild Goose Chase” and “Cackling Hen” capture the frenetic nature of their subjects and are as like to evoke a chuckle as a tapping foot.
The sparseness of the recording gives the album a timeless quality. But for the lack of pops and crackles in these remastered recordings, the brief, no frills fiddle performances here could just as easily have been recorded in 1931 as 1971. There is an enjoyable, if brief, album, with a running time just under 28 minutes. Overall, a worthwhile collection for anyone interested in the American folk revival and particularly for those who enjoy its outsider elements.