Features

Tom Paley, At The Root Of It All

The Legendary Musician Recalls Lead Belly, Guthrie and Seeger

Tom Paley by Les Ong
Tom Paley by Les Ong

 

By Iain Patience 

 

[W]hen Veteran musician Tom Paley took to the stage at New York’s Carnegie Hall in February 2016, he was in reality completing an extraordinary musical circle, a journey that has taken him from his native New York to London via Scandinavia and Sweden, but which in a way was significantly symbolized by his return to that New York stage as a leading part of the Lead Belly Festival.

Also on the New York bill in February was Eric Burden, a guy with a firm footing in the music, likewise another elder statesman of the blues, Buddy Guy. Both musicians with a blues pedigree and impressive history to match.

But with Paley, you had the real deal. Now eighty-eight years old, Paley actually played with Lead Belly himself, and was the sole performer who had such a claim to fame, being the last remaining musician alive to have actually played with the legendary, towering twelve-string bluesman, Huddie Ledbetter. Few, if any, could stake a greater claim to take the stage given this remarkable fact.

Now based in London, where he has lived and played since the mid-60s, Paley remains undimmed in his passion for roots and acoustic music generally, popping up around the capital to play gigs and take-part in open mic-type sessions in many London folk clubs. I caught up with him at one of his favorite haunts, Sharp’s Folk Club, held each Tuesday evening in what is probably the UK’s foremost folk-music resource centre, Cecil Sharp House in London’s Regents Park area. Here, Paley was clearly a much admired and well-known figure with an acknowledged mastery of roots music.

Asked if he still enjoyed the life of a gigging musician, he confirmed: “I still enjoy it, getting out and about. I love music, so it’s always an interesting pleasure,” he says. “At these kind of clubs, you never know who might turn up, good or bad.”

Now nearing ninety, Paley is happy to reminisce about his time in 1950s and early-60s New York where he rubbed shoulders with many genuinely legendary figures as both an equal and a tutor-mentor.

“I got to know Lead Belly because a buddy of mine looked him up in the local phone directory. So we went along to his place and he was friendly and happy to let us play alongside him. He clearly understood racial issues even back then, which was understandable, I suppose, given his background. And he always dressed real smart, creased trousers/pants, shirt and waistcoat. It made him a bit of an exception at that time,” Paley jokes.

But to have both met and played with Lead Belly is barely the beginning of Paley’s extraordinary musical journey. The same buddy who tracked down the great bluesman also traced another legendary roots music figure – Woody Guthrie.

“I got on real well with Woody. I’d go over to his place regularly on Mermaid Avenue – never forgotten the address – and we’d play together, laugh and talk. Eventually, Woody asked if I’d like to go out and play with him. I did, of course. Woody was great fun, a real easy-going sort of guy, though he could be a bit abrasive at times. And he could be unreliable, if he’d been drinking,” he recalls with a roll of the shoulders and a chuckle.

“Pete Seeger was also around,” he adds. “Pete had a sort of basement apartment in the Village, and I’d often end up there playing with him. Politics was often a topic, too. And many others would pass through Pete’s place when in town.”

 

At the Royal Albert Hall for Leadbelly Fest 2015 by Les Ong
At the Royal Albert Hall for Leadbelly Fest 2015 by Les Ong

 

Paley also remembers meeting up with North Carolina’s country-cross-picking master, Doc Watson: “I remember Doc coming up to play in New York. He was a real nice guy. And, boy, could he pick a guitar.”

He met Dylan just as his career was about to take-off: “I was introduced to Bob by the guy who was running the Folklore Centre in the Village, Izzy Young, or as I know him ‘Young Izzy’ – he’s a week younger than me and we went to school together. I remember he introduced Bob as being a guy who had either just cut, or was about to cut, his first album. I think I wished him good luck, but I never met him again,” he says. Dylan is, in fact, an admirer of Paley and mentions this in his autobiographical memoir, Chronicle.

Another guy Paley knew when he was in New York back then developed into possibly one of the greatest guitarists – and certainly slide guitarists ever: “I gave guitar lessons to a young kid, Ry Cooder, back then. I didn’t do any of that slide stuff, though I sometimes played a Dobro. I taught him the basic picking stuff. He was a real eager learner, another nice guy. We had some good times together.” Paley also taught Happy Traum his version of “Railroad Bill”, a version Traum still admires and plays today, while helping Jerry Garcia get to grips with the guitar and the music.

Paley also played the famed Lead Belly Memorial Concert in New York’s Town Hall. Held in January 1950, following Lead Belly’s death, Paley recalls many unexpected musicians also turned up to take part in the tribute event. “It was one of those bills that kept changing. In truth, you never knew who was actually going to be there on the night and some simply turned up to do a spot.  I remember the Reverend being one of those (Reverend Gary Davis),” he smiles, before adding that he personally considers Gary Davis – whom he always refers to by his full title, ‘The Reverend’ – and Blind Blake to have been the two greatest acoustic pickers ever. Others on the bill that evening included Brownie McGhee, Woody Guthrie, WC Handy and Pete Seeger, in an event initially organized by blues music recorder-historian Alan Lomax.

Paley, who first recorded in 1953, moved to Stockholm for a few years in around 1962, leaving the USA on the brink of the Vietnam years and partly, at least, due to pressure from one of his oldest musical partners, Mike Seeger: “I was playing with the New Lost City Ramblers then. We were pretty successful, with a few records cut and plenty of gigs, though we didn’t call them gigs back then, we called them ‘bookings.’ I was always left-wing and the band was viewed as a radical outfit, I guess. The CIA/FBI approached me. At that time the Senator Joseph McCarthy witch-hunts were underway and I was asked to ‘help’, in other words to ‘spy’ on my fellow musicians for them. I refused. I was then threatened basically, and told I’d have to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee and give evidence. Again, I refused.”

“Slowly, over the next year or so, many of our gigs dried up. It became more and more difficult to find work. Eventually, Mike Seeger, who had no political affiliation in reality, blamed me for this and more or less asked me to leave. So I did. We moved to Stockholm, which was welcome and open at the time. But after a few years, we moved to London. That would have been around 1965. I already knew Peggy Seeger having met her a few times in New York. She was then married to one of the leading folk musicians and songwriters in the UK, Ewan McColl. Peggy suggested there would be some work for me in the UK, so I moved over and met up with her and Ewan.”

 

Paley & Son by Laurie Lewis
Paley & Son by Laurie Lewis

 

Nowadays, Paley is an elderly statesman of roots music in general with a lifelong love of old-fashioned folk music. He plays guitar, banjo and fiddle with equal ease and confidence, though finds arthritis is becoming a limiting factor.  When time allows, he also plays with his son, Ben Paley; the pair have a recently released album – Paley & Son out – which also features Welsh singer Cerys Matthews on a couple of tracks. When I joke about Cerys coming to his album as Wales via Nashville, Paley laughs at the thought and hints at knowing little about her, in reality.

Turning once more to his gig at New York’s Lead Belly Fest in February, he was clearly perplexed by some of the guys on the bill, none of whom worked with or personally knew Lead Belly himself. Eric Burden merits a mere nod of the head, a minor acknowledgement. But Buddy Guy – an electric player with more than a few years on the clock, like Paley himself – receives a mere shrug of the shoulders and raised eyebrows. I have to explain who Buddy Guy is to Paley, his involvement with blues music and friendship/links with B.B. King, before it even seems to register. “I couldn’t figure out who these guys were and why they were there. They didn’t seem to have much connection to Lead Belly, far as I could see,” he laughs, sharing a strangely self-evident truth.

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