On a visit to San Francisco, owner of Tompkins Square record label, Josh Rosenthal, shared both his eclectic LPs and his optimism about record collecting. His label focuses on a variety of contemporary performers (Daniel Bachman, Ryley Walker, Frank Fairfield) as well as reissues of rare recordings and 78's. His personal collection, however, spans experimental rock to rare Folkways LPs.
Walking us through his Russian Hill apartment, he easily located his favorite records. Like a mechanic who places his tools within easy grasp, Josh’s records live in the central spaces along his daily path.
He opened up his hallway closet to reveal his main stash and pulled out an obscure record by George "Smoke" Dawson. The fiddler from the Caffe Lena scene plays in the traditional Appalachian style using hypnotic rhythms and melodies that are decisively primitive. Tomkins Square had already released one of his performances, "Devil's Dream," on their Live at Caffe Lena album. Upon seeing a picture of the eccentric performer, however, Josh wanted to know more. A bagpipe salesman who claimed to have recorded a full album with Dawson provided the link between Josh and one of only 750 copies of Dawson's Fiddle.
Transitioning from the fiddler’s story, Josh paused to regard his daughter's painting of a jukebox. He remarked, “And look how she spelled jazz. J-A-S-S. That’s actually how jazz used to be pronounced and spelled… So my daughter is super smart and a musicologist.”
He next selected Tia Blake’s Folk Songs & Ballads. The album cover shows Blake candidly clutching her nylon-stringed guitar with a look that hints at a deep ocean of melancholy. Not the choice you’d expect from a pre-war blues enthusiast, he accurately describes Blake’s influences as folk with a capital "F.” Despite its association with turtleneck sweaters and neatly trimmed beards, the album breathes with her intimacy and grace.
His job requires him to look past stereotypes and biases. In addition to managing contemporary acts, he scouts talent among the dead and the disregarded. Discovering sonic achievements of the past and reviving their place in music history is only done with an open mind.
Shuffling through his collection he unearthed two more for us - The New Hovering Dog, a solo venture by pedal steel guitarist, B.J. Cole, and the Folkways original release of Kentucky banjo player Rufus Crisp. The two albums are mostly instrumental and highlight the idiosyncratic playing styles of both performers.
“[Recorded music] is almost like a bottomless pit,” Josh stated with a sense of awe. As anyone with record envy will confirm, collections are always in a perpetual state of incompleteness, daring you to follow rabbit hole after rabbit hole. In response to our final question (what advice would you give to a new record collector?) he suggested that one start by listening to everything he/she owns. Listen to what you have and realize that what makes a collection incomplete is the failure to sit and appreciate it.
Thanks again to Josh Rosenthal for interviewing with us. Check out tompkinssquare.com for their latest releases and info.
--- Jonathan Shifflett