SMOKE DAWSON – ‘FIDDLE’ – 1971 Private Press LP Reissued on LP / CD/ DL August 19th
Listen / Share
Notes by reissue producer / Tompkins Square label owner Josh Rosenthal :
I was doing some research for a box set of music recorded at Caffe Lena, the hallowed folk music venue located in Saratoga Springs, NY, when I came upon a photograph of a musician I didn’t recognize. He looked like a sixth member of The Band – a handsome fiddler with wax moustache, goatee, black Western hat. There was a traditional air to him, a seriousness, but there was also something wild there. I needed to know who he was, and everything about him. The producers told me his name was Smoke Dawson, and they had tape on him. We listened, and his live version of “Devil’s Dream” made it onto the box set. Then I started digging. I found a 1996 blog post from someone named Oliver Seeler, who claimed to have recorded a solo album by Dawson in 1971. I called the number on the site, not expecting much from an 18 year old blog post. But he picked up. He gave me background on the record. And, he gave me Smoke Dawson’s phone number.
George Dawson was born June 5, 1935 in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, New York. His father was an Irish immigrant blacksmith who worked for years on the Brooklyn Bridge. He was an Irish choral tenor singer, and his wife, a Philadelphia native of Irish descent, sang as well. Around 1955, George picked up the banjo and started meeting fellow musicians. In March of 1960, George joined a trio, MacGrundy’s Old-Timey Wool Thumpers, with Rob Hunter on guitar (not of Grateful Dead fame) and Peter Stampfel (of Holy Modal Rounders fame) on fiddle and mandolin. That was Peter’s first band too. “Wool Thumpers was a euphemism for fucking,” Peter recalls. “George played banjo, he was an extremely good player, and a wrestler and a weightlifter. There was a half-way house for bad Jewish girls who had been sent to a mental facility called Hillside. There were periodic reunions of the bad girls, and they hired our group to play. Paying gigs were extremely rare at the time. The woman who ran the show hated us. We had a choreographed stunt that we had planned. We’re playing “Dallas Rag”, Rob has a pipe in his mouth, and Dawson swings his banjo into Rob’s face, and the pipe goes flying right into the boss lady matron’s forehead and there’s a big loud gasp. Rob and Dawson fell down on the floor laughing . . .” And so it began. According to George, it was actually Peter’s proficiency on banjo that turned him into a fiddle player. “Peter was such a good banjo player. I said, ‘Why don’t I learn the fiddle and you can play the banjo’.” Or as Peter tells it, “George took a fuck-ton of speed and came back in a couple of weeks playing fiddle better than I did.” Around 1962, George was a new father to a boy named Wade (named after old-time banjo player Wade Ward). But he left his family behind, and ran off with Peter’s wife.
George began frequenting Caffe Lena in 1960, playing there October 14th and 15th of that year with Rob Hunter. George would live at the Caffe on and off for eight years. “It was the nicest place I knew of in the whole country. I helped cook, painted, I had romances there. It was the place I came of age.” He also immersed himself in the West Village folk scene, hanging out at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center, seeing Dave Van Ronk, Tom Paxton, Jack Elliott. “There was no one playing fiddle and suddenly I was in demand. I watched Dylan slowly sink into the scene. I ran a Sunday afternoon show at the Gaslight for (owner) John Mitchell.” Eager to discover the influences of so many folk artists during the period, George took an extensive Southern road trip. “I looked up people who Alan Lomax recorded. I lived in North Carolina and Virginia and spent a week with Doc Watson and Wade Ward. Eventually I moved to Florida, playing on the bar circuit, on the street. Then I drifted to California, chasing a girl. Went back and forth to Saratoga but stayed in California from 1968 on.”
Dawson played bagpipes at the California Renaissance Pleasure Faires, and busked on the streets of San Francisco. He fell in with a collective called Golden Toad, a rotating troupe of folk musicians led by Robert Donovan Thomas, a charismatic bagpipe player who designed the Grateful Dead’s skull and lightning bolt logo. Their first gig took place at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and although original member Mickey Zeckley claims it was recorded, there’s no evidence of this, and sadly no other recordings of the group are known to exist. Golden Toad would open for the Dead on occasion (never with George). Zeckley remembers, “George was a crazy, wacky guy who could play a hell of a fiddle. He was with Suzy Marceau, who had a green card marriage to Marcel Marceau’s son.”
On the afternoon of October 20, 1968, George joined his girlfriend Ruth Denny Decker Sennepf, and another couple on the Mendocino Headlands, a rugged stretch of coastline, while “experiencing enhanced consciousness” as George recalls, out on the rocks, watching the waves. A “sneaker” wave came and swept them in. George and the other couple were caught between some rocks down below and escaped, but Denny, as George called her, was swept away, and drowned. The Ukiah Daily Journal reported the story on October 21, 1968 : ‘ A 27-year-old Mendocino woman drowned Sunday at 1 :30 p.m. when she was swept from a rock by a towering wave. Victim was Ruth Denny Decker Sennepf, formerly of Mill Valley, who was sitting on the rock when she was swept away. Her companions, two men and a woman, escaped.’ Fellow Mendocino resident Ramblin’ Jack Elliott knew George in the early 70’s, and recalled the story. Folk musician Bob Gibson describes a lonely bagpipe player who can be heard in the Mendocino night in his tune “Smoke Dawson,” which recounts the incident. “George went home and burned his fiddle and swore he would never play again,” says Zeckley.
Oliver Seeler, a bagpipe player inspired by Golden Toad and Robert Thomas, recorded fellow busker Dawson in 1971 in Sea Ranch, CA. Seeler would go on to build bagpipes and run a world bagpipe website. The studio was situated near an airport, which made recording difficult. Oliver describes George as restless and uncomfortable in the studio, but George remembers a kid coming in with very good hash. Either way, what we hear is remarkable. “My whole training came from Mozart’s father’s book about violin technique (Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule).” A tune like “The Minotaur” however, sounds like a swarm of bees violently shaken out of their hive. Where did he come up with that technique ? “I made it up. But my influence is from baroque violin, and on bagpipes I know Dutch, German, Spanish, Welsh and great tunes from a couple of hundred years ago.” These are traditional tunes leavened with a touch of sorcery (see cover), a bit of Mendocino hippie, an audible ’60’s hangover. 750 copies of the album were manufactured.
In 1972, Dawson took the stage at Ash Grove with The White Brothers (Clarence, Roland & Eric), their father Eric White, Sr., LeRoy Mack and Pat Cloud. There is a photo from the show. A fiddle player was needed and George somehow got the call. Roland recalls George as a fine player although a somewhat awkward fit, with George playing in a traditional old-timey style maybe not best suited for a bluegrass group. It would be the last moment in the limelight for Smoke Dawson, at least in terms of playing with nationally recognized artists. “I’ve been a computer programmer for IBM, a commercial fisherman, blacksmith, aerial photographer, goldmining engineer, wrestler, entertainer,” Dawson says. “I’ve played music for three to eight hours a day for thirty, forty years.”
In 1992, George was diagnosed with cancer at the base of his tongue, was given six months to live, and went through experimental treatment protocol. The treatment was devastating and it took five years for him to recover. On his way from Eugene to Spokane WA, he collapsed. And he has stayed in that same small town in Washington state ever since. Although he was left with essential tremor and other debilitating effects from radiation, he continued to play bagpipes. His town bought him a beautiful set so he could play weddings, funerals and town events. He is in touch with his four sons, from four different relationships.
“I row a boat, smoke dope, my girlfriend of twenty years is in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s Disease. I talk to fish, deer, birds.” George turns reflective. “I was cuckoo, couldn’t get along in the world. The music always saved me. It got me friends, it got me shelter”.
“I could go into my own Dreamworld.”
- Josh Rosenthal
San Francisco, CA
Photograph by Joe Alper
Smoke Dawson on his lawn. Washington State, August 2014. Photo by Josh Rosenthal