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Tom Paley - New Found City Rambler

Tom Paley seems to have been suddenly rediscovered. Dave Peabody hears the story of a great old-timey picker in our midst.

Tom Paley likes dim sum. And he knows where to find it. There’s been many a time I’ve passed through Soho on my way to a movie or guitar store and bumped into Tom either about to enter, or leaving a favourite Chinese establishment. He’s always got a smile of anticipation or of satisfaction about him. It’s a smile that’s also present when he’s performing or talking about music. Tom loves music as much as he loves dim sum, especially American Old Time music and his later passion – Swedish fiddling.

Tom based himself in London in the mid-’60s and has been a regular contributor to the British folk scene ever since. There have been times when I’ve thought that his many talents have been overlooked, partly because he’s always been around and partly because of his penchant for turning up to do a floor spot and playing only Swedish fiddle pieces. But, make no mistake, Tom is a truly brilliant guitar and banjo player – as many have recognized. Andy Kershaw, attending a recent Martin Carthy gig, heard Tom doing a spot and promptly started playing him on his Radio One show. And Bob Dylan, on his latest CD World Gone Wrong, names Tom as the source for two of the songs.

Tom centre with John Cohen (l) & Jody Stecher (r) 1980s
Tom centre with John Cohen (l) & Jody Stecher (r) 1980s Photo: Dave Peabody

One of these songs, Jack-A-Roe (or Jackaro), comes from Tom’s very first album Folksongs From The Southern Appalachian Mountains (Tom has always likes to be precise about where his music comes from), which was recorded in New York in 1953 and released on an early (No.12) Elektra 10 inch album. Tom was a fixture of the New York folk scene until he removed himself to Europe in 1963. As a founder member with John Cohen and Mike Seeger of the revered New Lost City Ramblers, Tom helped play a seminal role in the revival of Old Timey and String Band music.

Paley was born in New York in 1928 and attended the City College of New York from 1945 to 1950 where he took an undergraduate degree in mathematics before going up to Yale. In this period New York was the seed-bed for the folk revival via the likes of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly and the roots were beginning to spread.

“I met John Cohen in New York before going up to Yale. One of the interesting things about the maths department at Yale (actually most maths departments) is that an awful lot of mathematicians are also musicians, just amateur musicians, and the ones who aren’t actually players of anything tend to be very much caught up in listening to music. We had a department string band there, the only string band on the campus at Yale, and one of our Professors, Professor Beagle, liked to call square dances so we had department square dances. The fiddle player knew the standard fiddle tunes, our mandolin player was from Tennessee and knew the stuff from down there. John Cohen wasn’t really part of the band but he did sometimes play with us even though he was from the Arts school. But we didn’t mind a non-mathematician come along and do some playing. And I had listened to loads of records (right off 42nd street and 6th Avenue in N.Y. there were a few used record shops I used to prowl around looking for some of the old recordings) and also other people I had met. So I had a large store of tunes that I was familiar with.”

“Interesting thing is how I got interested in old time country string band music as opposed to what most of the people were doing in the so called ‘Folk Revival’ in New York (It wasn’t being called that, back then). I didn’t have a record player at one point but I was already playing guitar. I did have a radio. One time it was on and I was turning it down and suddenly I heard Pete Seeger doing Cindy. It was one of the 78s in the album Folksay which was on Asch records. I was familiar with that album as I had heard it at various friends’ houses. So I listened to that and then they they played another one from that – I think it was Woody Guthrie doing something… and wow!! So I started listening into the programme a little bit more which was called David Miller’s Hometown Frollick, I may have got his name wrong but it was something like that on W.A.A.P. or W.P.A.T. a Jersey station. I found there were a number of these country music record programmes and began listening to these as much as I could in hopes I’d hear Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie ’cause they were the ones I was familiar with. Then I also began to hear some other people I’d never heard of before; The Carter Family, Wade Mainer, Uncle Dave Macon and some of the more old time country players. There were loads of them, then, more modern country music performers and I’d listen through hours of stuff that I didn’t really care for in order to hear a few of the older things. Gradually it got so I was really more interested in hearing Uncle Dave Macon and the others than in Pete or Woody or Josh White or Leadbelly or those people. I was interested in them too but this old timey country music I was beginning to hear was what really began to excite me.”

“And then somewhere I discovered the Library Of Congress recordings and there were a few things – it wasn’t so much the unaccompanied ballads that interested me right at the beginning – there was one album that had several fiddle tunes at the beginning and then it had some banjo tunes. (At that time I was nearly as interested in fiddle as I was in banjo). It had Pete Steel doing Coal Creek March, it had Wade Ward doing Old Joe Clark and Chilly Winds. And so I listened to that stuff and other singers and players. I really began to go after that stuff and that’s why I started haunting those record shops.”

Photo: Tom Frank
Tom centre in the New Lost City Ramblers
“There were a number of musicians that were very influential I heard through recordings. Apart from Uncle Dave Macon and The Carter Family (especially Maybelle Carter) there was Clarence Ashley, Sam McGee, Wade Mainer and his group The Mountaineers, and Doc Watson, to some extent. Specifically on the guitar was Roy Harvey and Norman Woodlieff from Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers. They had this interesting syncopated way of playing those runs… and The Ramblers’ whole approach to a string band, the way the fiddle took the melody, the banjo plucking a brittle rhythm, and those runs going off the bass strings of the guitar. It worked together so beautifully. That’s one of the approaches to a string band that I like and the other one is Riley Puckett in the Skillet Lickers. Riley Puckett’s playing was influential on my backup playing – not so much my solo playing – but when I backup other musicians.”

“It was early in 1945 when I got my first guitar. I had already joined an organisation called A.Y.D. (American Youth for Democracy) which was a left wing youth group and one of the groups ran square dances. It was a group called ‘Folksay’, it sort of used the name that had been used on that album as the club name. It was Club Folksay A.Y.D. I had joined that branch of the club because I was more interested in the music and the square dancing. Some people in the club would sing and play a little bit of guitar and banjo, and then there were concerts given by our idols Pete and Woody, Leadbelly and Josh White were probably the main ones. And then Pete started having what he called ‘Hootenannys’, which were kind of informal folk concerts in small halls or function rooms- like in a union hall – a ‘Wingding’ was even more informal with a lot of audience participation. I used to go to a lot of those and I would get to play on them. There were two songs where Pete would call on me. It was always for one, or both, of these two songs; Old Tom Moore and Dark As A Dungeon. They were two songs that I liked and did reasonably well but, eventually, I got pretty tired of just being called up for those two songs.”

Well, of course. Human love is the greatest thing there is and the most affecting thing there is. The effect it has on people’s lives is extraordinary, and you get into all sorts of situations because of it.

From Folk Roots 131, May 1994


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