Peter Frost pays tribute to the radical and hugely influential folk musician TOM PALEY
IN THE late 1950s, the Vietnam war presented a moral dilemma to many left-wing folk singers in the US. Should they stay and campaign for peace only to eventually be drafted or take avoiding action and dodge the draft as political exiles in Europe?
One such was Allan Thomas Paley, who died at the end of last month in Brighton at the age of 89.
Tom Paley, as he was known, was a singer and musician with a lifelong love of country music and old-time instrumental styles. Best known perhaps for his work with the New Lost City Ramblers, he had in his time played with such legends as Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and influenced and provided songs for Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder and even Jerry Garcia of Grateful Dead.
Born in New York and educated in mathematics at Yale University, he would teach maths for much of his life.
He became interested in both politics and traditional music when his parents took him to Communist Party gatherings in upstate New York. Among the most famous of these events was the open-air Paul Robeson concerts at Peekskill in 1949 when the Ku Klux Klan attacked both performers and audience while local police looked on and did nothing.
Despite, or perhaps because of, this early political education the young Paley developed a taste for radical, protest and workers’ songs. When his mother split from her husband and took son Tom with her to California he began to discover West Coast folk and country music too.
Returning to New York, he learned guitar and then banjo and joined the American Youth for Democracy which was in fact the reformed post-war Young Communist League. Paley started to play for the organisation’s socials and square dances. He also started performing on stage and radio alongside Pete Seeger and Oscar Brand during the early days of the New York folk scene.
Paley met Woody Guthrie who, after a while, asked Tom to join him on gigs and they played together in schools or at union meetings and at a New York memorial concert for Leadbelly in 1950.
Juggling his two careers — maths teacher and folk musician — he recorded his first album Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachian Mountains in 1953 and five years later, with Pete Seeger’s half-brother Mike and John Cohen, founded the New Lost City Ramblers. The group searched out early recordings made by blues and country music stars but bought a fresh sound to this old-time music.
In 1962 CBS offered the Ramblers TV work but only if they would sign a McCarthyite letter saying they weren’t communists. Paley told the company to mind their own business. Seeger and Cohen signed but never got the TV booking.
Paley left the Ramblers and played for many other groups before leaving the US for Sweden in 1963. He lived in Sweden for nearly three years, falling in love with the traditional fiddle music of that part of the world as well as making occasional trips to Britain.
In 1965 he and wife Claudia moved to London where their son Ben was born in 1967. The marriage ended the following year.
Paley, helped by Ewan McColl and his old friend from the US folk scene Peggy Seeger, kept performing and recording and he released two albums with Seeger in the mid-’60s.
In the last few years, performances and recordings have added two albums with younger Paley-inspired fiddlers to his already impressive discography. Almost right up to his death he could be seen modestly doing a floor spot in London folk clubs and festivals.