London-based American folk legend Tom Paley has died, he was 89 years old.
When Tom released his album with son Ben (who plays a great fiddle) in 2015 (Paley & Son) the Folk Radio UK review by Paul Woodgate nailed what made Tom such a towering figure in folk and roots music to many.
“There’s authentic, and there’s Tom Paley. In a lifetime dedicated to ensuring that generations of traditional music is available for our listening pleasure, it would be easier to list the artists Tom Paley hasn’t played with or influenced. Sharing the stage with Woody Guthrie and Ledbetter, traversing the States on Lomax-like forays into the heart and soul of American roots music and capturing some of the most essential recordings on County Records in the ‘50s would be enough for anyone but the most vaunted of artists, but this just about breaks the surface of his tireless journey and incredible achievements.
“Tom Paley’s vigour and fine voice throughout puts men half his age to shame. It must be very satisfying to be able to play alongside your son and have the material recorded for posterity, and we as listeners are fortunate that a lifetime of picking and playing is captured for our enjoyment. The valedictory Louis Collins, a Mississippi John Hurt number, reunites the cast of album guests and centres around Tom’s banjo work – a fitting end to an album that, commercial success aside, will remain a mark of the Paley family’s love of roots music for a long time to come.”
Despite flying under the radar of many, his longevity is sealed, you only need to read reviews like the one above to realise how well respected he was within the folk circle, especially in this country, he moved to Britain in 1965 where he formed the New Deal String Band.
One of the beautiful things about Folk Music (the real deal, not that pop-stuff people call folk these days) is there wasn’t this chasm between the artist and audience. A lot of that magic is captured in JP Bean’s ‘Singing from the Floor – A History of British Folk Clubs’. The likes of Billy Connolly, Clive Palmer and Dave Burland shared their fond memories of Paley and the influence he had on their playing. Tom played guitar, fiddle and banjo so I’m guessing if you were able to sit down and map out that influence it would stretch well beyond anyone’s expectations. Bean also interviewed Paley in the book in which he recalls some great memories including meeting Leadbelly while in the company of Woody Guthrie and Vic Trailbush; of trying to hunt down one of his heroes, Uncle Dave Macon, with John Cohen – “he must have heard us coming – he died”; and how a sixteen-year-old Ry Cooder approached him for some blues lessons. You can imagine the joy he must have brought to folks telling these stories.
Hornbeam records captured some of that collective love on “Roll On, Roll On” – Tom Paley’s Old-Time Moonshine Revue…
Cast your eye further back down his timeline and the stature of the man rises still further. His parents were left-wing political activists so he was no stranger to political songs from a young age. He went on to become a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers. A search around the internet reveals a man who was humble about his background. He’s often quoted when talking about his time with the New Lost City Ramblers from 1958-1962 during which time he recorded nine albums: “When we formed The New Lost City Ramblers it was the kind of thing I’d been doing for quite a few years…. It didn’t feel particularly revolutionary to me but I understood we had quite an impact on young people like Dylan.”
A glance down Tom’s facebook page today will reveal a lot of photos from artists and lovers of his music sat in his company, sharing with others how they met Tom. What a beautiful response to such sad news – celebrating what made him great. Despite an incredible history, it was his warm character, openness – and not forgetting his incredible playing that drew people in.
He’ll be fondly remembered, that’s for sure.
March 19, 1928 – September 30, 2017