Joe Dawson, Master Fiddler from Bloomington, Indiana

I’ve been meaning for a long time to write a post about my favorite fiddle player.  Joe Dawson was a master fiddler, carpenter, farmer, and a man of numerous other talents.  Joe’s repertoire of old-time fiddle tunes is totally unique, 100% Indiana and he taught them to a lucky circle of people who visited him at his weekly living room jam in Bloomington, Indiana.  I was one of these lucky folks and had the pleasure of jamming with Joe for over a decade.  Many of his tunes would be considered “crooked” (not in equal amount of measures or beats for each phrase) and could be very tricky to catch.   Here is a set of Joe’s tunes of played by Grey Larsen and Cindy Kallet:

Joe passed away May 11, 2012 and he and his music are missed greatly.  Grey Larsen and Cindy Kallet, Joe’s adopted family who spent countless hours playing music with Joe and recording his tunes and memories, wrote this lovely tribute:

Joe Dawson, master carpenter and fiddler, and long-time resident of Prospect Hill, passed away at Hospice House in Bloomington on May 11, 2012 at the age of 84. In his last days he was surrounded by his dearest friends.  He was predeceased by his beloved wife Lela (Pate) Dawson, his sister Mildred Wells and his parents Cletus Dawson and Myrtle Dawson Walker.  Joe was born in Bedford, Indiana on April 22, 1928. When Joe was ten his father died in an accident, and his mother moved to Bloomington to find employment. Joe’s sister lived with his mother while Joe went to live with his mother’s parents, Jasper and Ida Chambers, on their 140 acre farm on the Monroe/Brown Country line.Though money was extremely scarce, Joe and his grandparents were able to provide for almost all their needs by growing their own food, raising livestock, bartering eggs for supplies and by hewing and selling railroad ties. Years later, most of the farm was submerged by the formation of Lake Monroe. Due to the responsibilities of helping his disabled grandfather on the farm, Joe did not have to serve in World War II, but he was drafted to fight in the Korean War and saw heavy combat. Early in life Joe picked up carpentry skills from his father, and after the war he worked for a time at Showers Brothers Furniture. He soon moved on to work for Superior Lumber, Pritchett Brothers Construction and CFC Incorporated. As a master carpenter he was indispensable in the building of hundreds of important structures in Bloomington and beyond, including Beck Chapel, Fountain Square Mall, and the Graham Plaza Hotel. On the side, for a time, he raised hogs on his farm near Adel in Owen County.  As a masterful fiddler, Joe kept alive a beautiful and important repertoire of traditional music from Monroe and Brown Counties, music that has many of its deeper roots in Kentucky and the larger Appalachian mountain region. He learned this music from the fiddle playing of his grandfather, Jasper Chambers, as well as from other relatives and neighbors, while living on the family farm. He passed that music along to many younger musicians who continue to play it today. The Thursday night music sharing sessions that he convened in his living room for many years were a joy for those who were lucky enough to gather there to learn the tunes and all the stories and lore that went with them. Recordings of Joe’s fiddling and anecdotes will soon be deposited in the IU Archives of Traditional Music in Bloomington.

The recordings of Joe have been submitted to the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music in Bloomington, Indiana and will be available online through there website in the near future.  What a treasure!  I love playing and teaching Joe’s tunes to other people and I recorded two of them on my new CD, Kitchen Fiddle.  I hope many people listen to, learn and treasure Joe’s music for years to come.

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Hoosier Fiddlers Film Update

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but a lot has been going on.  I’ve been working on a new film project: Hoosier Fiddlers: A Documentary Celebrating Indiana’s Fiddle Traditions.  The film is currently in production and I am spending lots of time interviewing and recording fiddlers from around the state.  It has been a lot of fun meeting new musicians and learning more about the ones I already knew.

Three of the featured musicians, Dena El Saffar, Julane Lund, and Lee Mysliwiec, play very different styles of folk music and I think some people will be surprised at the diversity of styles of fiddling here in Indiana.

Dena El Saffar is a founding member of the band Salaam “which has delighted audiences for years with its expansive repertoire of Middle Eastern and North African music…Iraqi-American band leader Dena El Saffar’s compositions take advantage her own eclectic musical upbringing to create a sound rooted in maqam (the modal system used throughout the Middle East), with tasteful forays into Latin, African, Balkan, Rock, Blues, and Classical styles”.(www.salaamband.com)

I met Lee Mysliwiec, also of Bloomington, Indiana, at a weekly old-time in 2001.  I love his fiddle playing and his attitude about life as well. He is a patient and excellent teacher and is really well known at Clifftop (Appalachian String Band Festival) for his free fiddle and banjo lessons and you will often find him busking on the streets of Bloomington.

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Julane Lund plays traditional Norwegian music on the Hardanger fiddle and Norwegian-American tunes on the regular fiddle. I met Julane at the Indiana State Fair Fiddle Contest, sponsored by Traditional Arts Indiana, in 2006.  We ended up in a tie for first place and had to do a play off where Julane won.  It was very dramatic!  I also learned that she lived only 5 miles from my house- I couldn’t believe my luck!  She’s a wonderful musician and has travelled all over the world with her music, including BashkortostanJulane Lund

Irish Session at Fergie’s Pub, Sansom Street, Philadelphia, PA

I love Philadelphia, and when in Philly, I go to Fergie’s Pub, 1214 Sansom St., on Saturday from 4-7 p.m. In the corner of the downstairs bar is the best traditional Irish music around. The mood at Fergie’s is beyond cozy and the jigs, reels, and banter are fierce and energetic.

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Philadelphia has loads of fantastic Irish musicians and this is a regular spot for some of the best.  The session has been held down by guitarist Darin Kelly since it began 11 years ago.  It’s best to get there early as it can get crowded; some days are standing room only.  The exchange of tunes between the musicians never dominates over patrons conversations; this is an unamplified affair.  Kudos to the proprietors as there is not 1 TV in the whole place-a rarity in this day and age.  Another pint? Of course!

Irish Session @ The Golden Ace Inn, 2533 E Washington St, Indianapolis, IN 46201

The Golden Ace Inn, Indianapolis, IN  This eastside bar has been owned by the McGinley family since 1934.  The weekly Irish session, begun in 1999 by Doug Lammer, is hosted by Jim and Kate Smith and Jenny Thompson, and has been strongly supported by the McGinleys throughout the years.  A group of dedicated sessioneers ensure a lively evening with high quality musicianship each Tuesday from 8-10p.m. (often later).

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The decor is nostalgic and homey, the music always lively, and the budget-friendly burgers ($3.75, including chips) are fantastic and rated as “One of Indy’s Tastiest Burgers” by the Indianapolis Star.  You will be met with classic Midwestern friendliness and will feel welcome at this bar (I may be a little biased hailing from Indiana myself!).

The session focuses on traditional Irish dance tunes: jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas, and slides with the odd song thrown in.  Make no mistake, this isn’t an open “jam” but a traditional Irish session that is friendly to listeners and newcomers who understand (or are willing to learn about) the tradition.

Here are a couple of YouTube videos that feature the session as well as the owner of the bar talking about its history: