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Tom Paley - New Found City Rambler

“After moving to England I got together with Joe Locker and, at first, Bobby Campbell, and then Janet Kerr as The New Deal String Band. When we made Down In The Willow for Argo (Argo ZDA 104) Janet was fairly new to the fiddle. She had only been playing a year or so, so that her fiddling a year later was a good deal better. But it wasn’t that bad on the record either. She also said she was nervous about it because she was not that experienced. But she was a good musician! In 1975 I started playing the fiddle myself.”

Tom centre in the New Deal String Band
Tom centre in the New Deal String Band Photo: John Bryan

“At first I played American music, the same kind of tunes I play on the banjo. Then I became interested in Swedish fiddle music. When I lived in Sweden, in the early ’60s, I heard very little of it. It really didn’t connect with me. Then in ’71, when I started going back to play at festivals, there had been a revival of interest in Swedish fiddle music. So I was able to hear some of the very good fiddlers there playing this strange music. I began to hear it and thought ‘God! That’s beautiful.’ There are some of the tunes that won’t sound strange, some are rather ordinary, but when you get (particularly) some of the exotic polskas and they have a funny way of twisting time, so it doesn’t sound much like a waltz – on some of them you can listen and really have trouble trying to find the beat. And yet, people who are used to it, dance to it, have no problem with it. And I just love the melodies, they are just so beautiful. It’s a very sensual sort of music.”

“Fiddle is that kind of instrument that can really take you over… and it has taken me over. I haven’t stopped playing guitar or banjo – I still do them when I perform. The bulk of a performance is still guitar and banjo, American music, and there’d be a few fiddle tunes in there both American and Swedish. But when I’m playing for the fun of it I mainly play fiddle. It’s no longer the new toy – it’s been nineteen years – but it’s still the relatively new toy. It’s newer than the guitar and banjo. It’s also a tougher instrument to play. I mean, there’s plenty of complicated stuff on the other instruments, but fiddle is a hard instrument. I started late and so for me, even now, there’s always this element of danger that I’m gonna screw it up. Even on your best instrument you can screw things up, but there’s more chance of me doing it on the fiddle than on the banjo or guitar.”

“I’ve now got a pretty regular work pattern. I’ve been making a tour each year to America and one to Sweden and I alternate summers and falls. It makes sense to do it that way. It doesn’t have to go in strict alternation except that it means I get chances of two different categories of jobs in each country. If you go back at the same time each year then a place might put you on two years in a row but then they might not want the same people all the time. So I figured this way makes more sense, going every other year. So even number of years I’ve been in Scandinavia every summer and in America, the fall. Odd number of years I’m in America in the summer and Scandinavia in the fall.”

“While Claudia and I were still together we did things together. Claudia basically sung. We would go around and do gigs at some of the clubs in England or in Sweden and basically I would do the evening then Claudia would get up and join me for a few numbers. Claudia could play a little bit of dulcimer and a little bit of guitar but she never recorded with them.”

Tom with son Ben, 1994
Tom with son Ben, 1994 Photo: Dave Peabody

“In more recent years my son Ben has become a really accomplished fiddler. We’ve done some performing together with fiddle and guitar, and fiddle and banjo. It’s sort of like a small string band already. Then my friend and partner Barbara Lester, from North Carolina, has been living over here. She worked a bit with Peggy Seeger in Peggy’s group Jade. We got together and do a lot. She produced a cassette with herself and me and Ben. I hope I get plenty more chances to play with both Ben and Barbara. I tell you, it was a real kick getting to play together with my own son, and it worked out well. And playing with my sweetheart was also a big thing. It’s a terrifically good feeling, you know.”

So, if you are ever in Soho and you see a cheery looking man with a fiddle case slung over one shoulder and a battered metallic camera case over the other (Tom carries his fiddle and his camera everywhere) – if he enters a Chinese restaurant you can be sure they serve the finest dim sum.

From Folk Roots 131, May 1994


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