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Tom Paley - New Found City Rambler

“Now I had a friend, a guy called Victor Traibush, who lived out in Brooklyn. Vic played guitar and he went one day, with his guitar, to 3520 Mermaid Avenue which he had discovered was Woody Guthrie’s address out in Coney Island. He knocked on the.door and when Woody answered said “Hi! My name’s Vic Traibush and I like your music.’ And Woody says ‘Ah ha! Come on in.’ He went in and they played a few tunes, had a little something to drink and talked. And Vic started going back there and maybe the third or fourth time he went he took me along. Guess I went back a number of times with Vic and sometimes without Vic. Meanwhile, Vic did pretty much the same thing with Leadbelly and then I started going up with Vic, and sometimes with Woody, to Leadbelly’s. Leadbelly was funny in a way that, even in his house when guests were there, he always would be dressed up very nattily in a suit with perfectly creased trousers, a shirt with a bow tie and suspenders and waistcoat. When he’d do a song he would always do it as if he were on stage with all the patter that goes along with it. And it was all very formal. Now, maybe if it had just been Woody there, he wouldn’t have been, ’cause they were old friends.”

“I got to know Woody fairly well and we started playing together. When we’d sit around in the house he would play a little more cleanly than he would on his records and performances. He was never really concerned with playing very elegantly – at least he never seemed to be. He also played a little bit of fiddle and a bit of mandolin but he was a pretty decent guitarist. He would generally play the right chords but, some how, when he played wrong chords, they’d still not really sound very wrong.”

“But, anyway, we did a bit of performing together but, sometimes, Woody wouldn’t show up. We’d have a gig and I’d show up… no sign of Woody. And I’d ring back to Marge, his wife, and she’d say ‘Oh, did you have a job tonight?’ and I’d say ‘Yeah. Where’s Woody?’ And it would be something like ‘Oh, I don’t know. He went out on Tuesday to get some cigarettes and probably be back in a couple of weeks.’ That’s the way he would just wander off. So I’d be there and Woody wouldn’t and people would feel a bit annoyed about it, obviously. I was just a kid coming along with Woody, I was probably twenty, something like that. People had no objection to me coming along with Woody, and they liked my playing pretty well, but Woody was really the one they were booking, he was the one that they wanted. So, eventually we just, sort of, stopped getting jobs, I guess. Also then I was going off to graduate school at Yale so I was only around in New York part of the time.”

After Yale Tom Paley moved on to the University of Maryland where he could simultaneously be a full time faculty member and a graduate student. At Maryland he met Claudia, who later became his wife, and started to play with Mike Seeger. “I first met Mike at one of the Hoots that John Cohen and I ran up at Yale. Peggy Seeger came down sometimes from Cambridge, Boston where she was and, once or twice, she brought Mike with her. He was living in Baltimore later when I was in the Washington area in Maryland, College Park, and there’d be parties and things in the area there or get-togethers when I’d be up in Baltimore. Mike and I would get together at these parties, pickin’ partners really, and usually it would be that I’d play guitar and he’d play mandolin or I’d play banjo and he’d play fiddle. So we started doing stuff together. And with John Cohen and me it was either two guitars, two banjos or a guitar and a banjo, one way or the other.”

“Then one time in about ’58 John was down visiting me and we had a phone call from a guy who had a radio programme, a folk music programme on a little local station and he said ‘Hey Tom, as John’s there with you would you guys like to come down to do some numbers on my programme? I know Mike is also in town and I bet I can get him to come along too. I’m pretty sure he’d like to come.’ And I said ‘Sure’.”

Tom Paley & Dave Peabody 1981
Tom Paley & Dave Peabody 1981 Photo: Ian Anderson

‘So we did it… and it was pretty rough but, yet, there was something there that sounded pretty good. So we thought about doing some more of this together ’cause John and I had often thought about having a regular fiddle player. John said ‘Hey, you know, I bet I could get Izzy Young (of the Folklore Centre in New York) to put us on in a little concert and I bet Moe Asch would like to record us’. John spoke to Izzy and he spoke to Moe and Moe agreed and Izzy agreed and said he’d put us on at Carnegie Hall. Izzy booked us for the smaller of the two small halls, but then later he had sold so many tickets he changed it over to the middle sized one. The place was packed with about four hundred seats.”

“It went very nicely even though, as yet, we had no group name. Izzy had billed us by our names. The concert was on a Saturday night and on the Sunday we practised up, and on the Monday we went to Moe Asch and started recording the album right there in the offices of Folkways with Moe doing the engineering. We did the album in two or three night sessions. In the middle of one session we went down to get a bite to eat at a little greasy spoon downstairs. We were sitting there eating and Moe says ‘What are you guys going to call yourselves? Let’s see… you could just use your names but it would be better to have a group name.’ And so we started thinking about it and corning up with various words and somehow, eventually, we came out with ‘New’ and ‘Lost’ and with ‘City’ and with ‘Ramblers’. I don’t remember who contributed which words… it could have been all four of us… there were four words. Now I know John has actually claimed that he made up the name but it’s simply not so. He was part of the process, we all were.”

“The string band sound was something that people weren’t doing. We’d been listening to a lot of those old recordings by real country performers, both Library of Congress recordings and commercial recordings, and wanted to follow that style. We wanted to stick very closely to real traditional styles and have a string band sound. We were kind of new doing that, we were a new factor in the folk song revival as such.”

Tom Paley was a member of The New Lost City Ramblers from 1958 to 1962, and played on the first eight Ramblers albums for Folkways. Though influential they weren’t a full time band; a fact that eventually caused friction within the group. When personality problems finally brought about a split, Cohen and Seeger recruited Tracy Schwarz while Tom got together with Artie Rose and Roy Berkeley. After a tussle, Cohen and Seeger retained the use of the group name so Tom’s aggregation recorded a Folkways album as The Old Reliable String Band. Tom then carne to Europe.

“When Claudia and I came over we didn’t know we were going to stay in Europe. We thought we’d like to travel for a year or so – easier to do it before you didn’t have kids if you don’t have a lot of money. We liked it when we got to Sweden and we decided to stay on. It’s so nice living in Europe and so we lived in Sweden ’63, ’64 and ’65, and learned to speak Swedish. Then we moved to England, later part of ’65, partly because there were a lot more folk clubs. We first visited England in ’63. We went to a folk club and met Ewan (MacColl) and Peggy (Seeger) and they said ‘How long are you gonna be around? We’ll fix a tour for you.’ So we got to go to Liverpool, Manchester, Brighton, Birtley – the Elliots of Birtley, their club – and one or two other things… they had it all fixed up in a week or so. That was my first introduction to playing around the folk clubs in Britain. We came back a number of times and they did arrange some other jobs for us. I also had some contacts of my own by then. Then Peggy and I recorded an album for Topic records.” (Who’s Going To Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot? Who’s Going To Glove Your Hand? Topic 12T113)

From Folk Roots 131, May 1994


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