250. R. Dixon Smith: Sherlockian, Cinéaste, Bluegrass Musician & Peterson Lover

This week I’m very pleased to present, in his own words,
a little about Pete Geek Dixon Smith’s extraordinarily varied & rich life,
in his own words.

Sherlock Holmes and Basil Rathbone were major influences in how I came to smoke a pipe.  I read a lot of the Holmes stories when I was twelve, but during the summer of 1965 I read all sixty stories back to back.  When I bought my first pipe in the spring of 1967, I was aware of the fact that Holmes and Rathbone had whetted my appetite for pipes and pipe smoking. I bought it from a tobacconist in New Haven, Connecticut. It was a bent Dublin with a dark, Heritage-like stain, which I selected from a basket.  I still have the pipe, but apart from its shape and coloration I know nothing about it, for it is, alas, unbranded.  A pity, for I believe it to be of fine quality, as it has always delivered a dry, cool, sweet smoke.

Most of my first pipes came out of baskets, so I was not particularly aware of the aesthetics of pipe smoking until the 1980s. By 1968 I was living in Minnesota and buying the occasional pipe from the Tobak Shop in St. Paul.  Some were from baskets, others weren’t.  Throughout the ’70s I smoked pipes with an old friend named Tom Tietze, who owned what seemed to me to be a lot of pipes, including many Petersons.  I came to appreciate the aesthetics of Peterson pipes through exposure to Tom’s pipes.  This led me to purchase my first Peterson, a De Luxe System (20S), in 1981.

Peterson pipes were more attractive than other pipes, and they were sweeter and cooler as well.  In the 1980s and ’90s, I had another friend—another book collector—who had about two-hundred Peterson pipes, and it was at this time, and because of examining many of Peder Wagtskjold’s finest Petersons, that my appreciation of their design aesthetics took hold.  I’ve never bought a non-Peterson pipe since.

My favorite Peterson shapes include the pub pipe, churchwardens (124, D16), tankards, Kapp Royals (106, B11, 221), straight apples, bent Dublins, and bent calabashes.  My current favorite line is the Summertime 2018 / Buren line. I smoke four System pipes: my 1981 De Luxe System (20S), a 1986 System Standard (305) and two Pub pipes, one smooth and one rustic—which is my single favorite shape.

As for tobacco, I enjoy IQ Blend (a mild, lightly vanilla-coated aromatic) and My Mixture 965, a full-bodied latakia blend that reminds me of the Balkan Sobranie I used to smoke in the ’70s and ’80s.

There is another connection for me between Sherlock Holmes and Peterson pipes that illuminates my love of the marque.  Sherlock Holmes is even more popular in Japan than he is in England or America.  I’ve met a number of Japanese Sherlockians, and they all explain the fascination in similar terms.  They are devoted to the Sherlock Holmes stories because the world of Holmes suggests order, structure, tradition, continuity, and longevity.  The great detective’s abilities are reassuring and comforting to us in the same way that the British Empire, which was at its apex during the period of Holmes’ career, reassured the English.  (I might add that these are the qualities that attract so many to the British monarchy.)  As I came to associate pipe smoking exclusively with Peterson pipes, I realized that Peterson had become important to me not merely because of quality and aesthetics, but also for its traditions, its continuity, and its longevity as well.  If Dr. Watson was for Holmes “the fixed point in a changing world”, then K&P has come to represent to me a similarly fixed point in an ever-more-changing age.  This is why I celebrate the functional aesthetics of Peterson pipes.

The Secret of Sherlock Holmes

(Jeremy Brett is acting for the camera in the photo of the two of us on the mantel.  The poster is from The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, the two-man play—a two-hander—that JB and Edward Hardwicke starred in every night for more than a year at Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End in 1988 and 1989.  It was a huge hit.  They took more than a year off from filming the Granada series in order to do the play.  Jeremy commissioned Jeremy Paul, who adapted many of the scripts for the television series, to write it for him.)

I’ve found pipe smoking to be extremely relaxing, and I always associated pipes with old books—the walls of one’s study lined in books (one envisions brown, tan, and burgundy colors), in close companionship with numerous pipe racks (again being comforted by the pleasant aroma of old books intermingled with the aroma of good pipe tobacco).  Books, pipes, pocket watches, silent films—all cherished because they have stood the test of time.

I started collecting L&H, Keaton, and Chaplin on 8mm from Blackhawk in the autumn of 1969.  Murnau’s Sunrise and Abel Gance’s Napoleon are two of my favorites. I’ve always specialized in silent cinema, early talkies, and early German cinema.  My favorite directors include F. W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Buster Keaton, Josef von Sternberg, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Jacques Tati, Akira Kurosawa and Leni Riefenstahl, the famous German film director, actress and photographer who achieved world acclaim with Olympia and Triumph des Willens. *

I met Leni late in her life, at a time when she was deeply appreciative of those who admired her work, rather than ranting about fascist aesthetics or that she had been a Nazi pin-up girl (that was what Budd Shulberg claimed; he was the son of B. P. Shulberg, who ran Paramount in the 1920s). Susan Sontag criticized Olympia, one of the most beautiful films ever made, for its supposed fascist aesthetics. Riefenstahl asked me what I thought of Sontag’s criticism. I told her that if the cult of the body was a fascist aesthetic, it was also as old as the Greeks. She laughed and agreed. When she turned 100 she threw a huge birthday celebration in Munich, centered around the world premiere of Impressionen unter Wasser, the first film she’d released since Tiefland in 1954. A lot of celebrities, mainly members of foreign film industries, were there. Kevin Brownlow was a very close friend of hers, and he attended. When he got back to London he called me and told me all about it. I was lucky enough, you see, to be able to show my admiration for one of the most gifted artists the cinema has ever produced.

I’m also a big fan of Kevin Brownlow, the silent-film documentary film maker who created the Hollywood silent film series as well as definitive documentaries about Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd.  Kevin and I have been good friends for more than thirty years.  During the years I lived in England, I realized a lifelong ambition by having a small—very small—private cinema built onto the side of my home, the “Ronald Colman Theatre.”  The floor was properly raked, and three of the walls were decorated with framed one-sheets and a few window cards (including Sunrise).  There were three rows with only three seats per row; the red-and-gold tip-up seats came from London’s oldest theatre, Sadler’s Wells, where they had been installed in 1932.  I projected DVDs onto a 5-foot, glass-beaded screen.  I mention my theatre, which “opened” in 1997 and lasted until I left England at the end of 2007, because on opening day my two favorite film friends, Kevin Brownlow and Barry Morse, came up from London on the train to cut the ribbon.  Do I ever miss my little cinema!

Barry Morse was one of the best friends I’ve ever had.  You may remember him as Lt. Philip Gerard, who pursued David Janssen’s Dr. Richard Kimble for four years on ABC-TV’s The Fugitive.  We had so many adventures in London during those years.  Barry died in 2008; he was 89.  Had he lived just a bit longer, he would have been my daughter’s godfather.  Instead, she bears his name:  Angelina Morse Smith.

Look at this photo of Barry, which I took in my conservatory in Cambridge in 2007. Remove the beard and you find . . . Lt. Gerard!

The Gibson Mastertone and the Master himself!

I was a bluegrass musician for fifty years.  I played the five-string banjo.  Thirty of those years were more or less full time, from 1977 through 2007.  The three most dynamic forms of American popular music are the blues, bluegrass, and rock ‘n’ roll, all of them indigenous, American forms of musical expression.  In 1963 I heard a recording of Flatt & Scruggs at the Newport Folk Festival.  All it took for me to become a lifelong devotee of the banjo was hearing Earl Scruggs’ opening banjo break.  That solo spoke to me; it was dynamic, powerful, and dramatic.  I knew that I had to learn to play like that, with plenty of drive and punch.  In 1964 I bought a Gibson Mastertone banjo, the finest bluegrass banjo in the world at the time.  I’ve played it ever since.

The banjo players who have influenced me the most as I developed my own style are Allen Shelton, Bill Emerson, Eddie Adcock, and Sammy Shelor.  During the ‘60s I saw all of the great first-generation bluegrass bands that ventured into New England—Flatt & Scruggs, Don Reno, Jim & Jesse, Red Allen, and The Country Gentlemen—and I began attending bluegrass festivals in Virginia, where I saw the rest of the great bluegrass stars—Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Jimmy Martin, and The Osborne Brothers.  I should mention, of course, that bluegrass music has evolved, and current headliners such as Lonesome River Band and Blue Highway are even more dynamic and exciting than when Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s band in 1945.

In 1965, while still an undergraduate, I played in my first bluegrass band, whose bandleader was a graduate student at Yale University.  From 1966 through 1968 I was in a band at the University of Connecticut.  Its guitar player, Dick Fegy, went full time long before I did; he spent the decade of the 1970s touring with The David Bromberg Band.  After earning my Master’s Degree in modern European history in 1968, I moved to the University of Minnesota, where I spent the next four years doing Ph.D. course work.

In late 1968 I met a fine bluegrass guitarist, Rod Bellville.  He and I formed a band that worked for a couple of years.  Finally, in 1977, Rod Bellville put together a band called The String Drifters.  He called me and asked if I was interested in playing full time.  I was.  My previous bands had been four-piece outfits; The String Drifters was a five-piece group—guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and bass.  In the summer of 1977 Garrison Keillor hired The String Drifters to make appearances on his celebrated radio variety show, A Prairie Home Companion.  For the next thirty years music became my main occupation.  I was in several different bluegrass bands during the next fifteen years, including Haywire (1980-1984), whose fine lead singer was guitarist Sherry Minnick.

 At the end of that time, having been friends for a long while with the horror and fantasy writer Carl Jacobi—who was himself a friend of such notable pulp writers as H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard—I approached him about donating his papers to the University of Minnesota. He readily agreed, and as we went through them I knew that I needed to write about his life and his work. The result was Lost in the Rentharpian Hills: Spanning the Decades with Carl Jacobi, which came out in 1985.

Dixon with the New Essex Bluegrass Band

Now we come to my move from St. Paul to Cambridge, England, where I lived for thirteen years.  I’d been tempted by Europe, as I was aware that American bluegrass artists sometimes make a better living in Europe than in the States.  I was hired by England’s best bluegrass group, The New Essex Bluegrass Band.  We traveled throughout England, Scotland, and Wales, and we made trips across the continent to appear at bluegrass festivals in Holland.  The New Essex Bluegrass Band, recently retired after twenty-five years, was a great band—tight, polished, with plenty of punch, drive, and fine trio and quartet vocal harmonies.  They made albums before me and after me, but the CD I was on, Hot Off the Press, remains one of my favorites of those I’ve recorded.

Red Dog Ash during Dixon’s tenure

At the end of 2007 I returned to America, settling in California.  For about a year I was in a band that didn’t work often enough, but then I got a call and was asked to join Red Dog Ash, another tight, polished band that features a lot of original material in its shows and CDs.  Guitarist Jason Winfree, mandolin player Gary Vessel, and bassist Eli Arrigotti are all fine songwriters.  I was with Red Dog Ash for almost six years, during which time we released two CDs. **

I wrote a song and a banjo instrumental that appeared on the second CD, Thin Red Line.  During the last couple of years that I was in Red Dog Ash, we did shows in Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado, which means that we were traveling extensively.  I was starting to weary of that part of the music business, mainly, I think, because I’d become a first-time daddy at the age of 65 and missed being with my little girl, Angelina, every day.  So I retired in the latter part of 2015.  I’d had a pretty good run—eleven bands in fifty years, with many wonderful, lasting friendships formed along the way.  Music brings joy.  It’s that simple.  I’ve spent my life putting smiles on people’s faces.

I enjoyed my life on the road—always a new stage, a new audience.  When you’re doing clubs or college concerts, you stay in motels, but a big part of the bluegrass scene is big festivals.  The tradition there is that everyone camps out—campers, tents, late-night campfires, plenty of jamming.  I enjoyed that a lot.  I remember the first time I started to really enjoy working full time.  It was not long after we’d started appearing on A Prairie Home Companion.  We had an agent who sent us out to do shows on university campuses.  We arrived at one campus—it was in Wisconsin—and were met by our hosts, who took us to the auditorium for a sound check and then to the motel where we’d be spending the night.  A few hours later they picked us up and drove us to the venue, where, just before we walked out onto the stage, we were each handed our instruments, all of which had been expertly tuned for us.  All we had to do was show up and play.  It doesn’t get much better than that.


* Per the International Historic Film website, Dixon “has written essays and documentaries for numerous DVD releases, including The Golem, The Thief of Bagdad, The Last Laugh, The Lost World, The Phantom of the Opera, Tartuffe, Faust, Sunrise, Asphalt, Diary of a Lost Girl, The Blue Angel, M, Der Rebell, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Hans Westmar, Gold, Der alte und der junge König, Das Mädchen Johanna, Friesennot, Ewiger Wald, Fridericus, Robert und Bertram, DIII88, Wunschkonzert, Mein Leben für Irland, U-Boote westwärts, Ich klage an, Die Entlassung, Münchhausen, and Paracelsus. He wrote and directed Faust: The Different Versions, and his commentary tracks accompany Nosferatu and Tabu.

** YouTube is a goldmine of tracks by Red Dog Ash. You can begin anywhere, but here’s one I like with Dixon’s work featured prominently at the beginning.


Many thanks to Dixon
for sharing the story of his amazing life, adventures
and love of Peterson pipes

Continue Reading250. R. Dixon Smith: Sherlockian, Cinéaste, Bluegrass Musician & Peterson Lover