Tom Paley in 2005
(Detail from photo courtesy Woodland Dunes Concert Series)
Editor's Note (6 September 2007): For my review of Paley's new CD, see Beware Young Ladies!
Tom Paley, a founder of The New Lost City Ramblers, will perform in the Twin Cities on Sunday, November 5. This is a rare opportunity that no fan of old American music should miss. Strangely enough, the concert is from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at the Marriott Minneapolis West located at 9960 Wayzata Blvd. Admission is $15.00 at the door. Please help spread the word.
The Minneapolis concert is part of a small national tour, although few details seem to be available about it. Perhaps check with your local acoustic instrument shop or concert venue, or see if there's a local folk, oldtime, or bluegrass music association. Here's the remaining dates, as published in early October on a fiddle-player's discussion list:
Fri: Nov 3: Duluth, MN
Sun: Nov 5: Minneapolis, MN
Sat: Nov 11: Evanston, IL
Thu: Nov 16: Columbia, MO
Mon: Nov 20: Reeds Spring, MO
Wed: Nov 22: Eureka Springs, AR
Sun: Nov 26: Tampa, FL
Thu: (?)Nov 30: Workshop, Tallahassee, FL(?)
Fri: Dec 1: House-Concert, Tallahassee, FL
Sat: Dec 2: House-Concert, Gainesville, FL
Sun: Dec 3: Workshop, Gainesville, FL
There may also be something coming up in the
Washington, DC area, sometime between Dec 4 and Dec 18.
The Ramblers and Tom Paley
The better I understand the importance of The New Lost City Ramblers, the harder it gets to explain. The band formed in 1958, when folk music had a massive audience in the USA. Unlike other folk groups, the Ramblers didn't make the music slick and simple, but instead focused on getting the sound "right" — on knowing how to play, sing and arrange in the real traditional styles of the Appalachians.
They also understood that playing in an "authentic" and "traditional" way meant constantly experimenting, sometimes "making do," and always having the biggest laughs and the best party you could manage.
The Ramblers were never a commercial hit, really, but they inspired armies of young people to take up the fiddle, banjo, mandolin, autoharp, and guitar, and learn to play them in a dizzying array of formerly obsolete styles. I've heard many stories of people starting out on banjo or fiddle, under the Rambler's influence, and then realizing that their own ethnic heritage — Scottish, Native American, Polish, Jewish from various places, Senegalese, Gambian, whatever — was worth reviving as well. There is no meaningful way to calculate the influence the Ramblers have had on almost every form of traditional music worldwide.
Today, Harry Smith's 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music is usually credited with inspiring the various waves of revivalists to come — and it did deeply inspire the Ramblers themselves. But I find that the Ramblers usually "came first" for people. For many listeners, it was the Ramblers who taught the lessons that the Anthology had to teach. For many, it was the Ramblers who disseminated the varied techniques and rich shades of expression that make the old pre-war Southern recordings such a revelation to people who were familiar with the Anthology.
As just one example, it seems that the Harry Smith Anthology was an important influence on Bob Dylan, as Greil Marcus has famously pointed out. But as I've discussed before (at tedious, bone-crushing length) Dylan heard the Anthology's message mostly second-hand — in translation — most significantly through the Ramblers. Maybe we can think of the Ramblers as a thick pipeline for messages running between Dylan and the Anthology.
Of the three original New Lost City Ramblers, Tom Paley seems to have had the best-developed music career at the time the group formed. Still, he wanted the group to be a part-time pursuit while he held down other positions — teaching mathematics at Rutgers, for example. Paley left for Europe in 1962, ending his work with The New Lost City Ramblers. Tracy Schwarz joined the group shortly thereafter.
After leaving the Ramblers, Paley lived in Sweden until 1965 and has lived in England ever since. From what I can tell, I think he's had a "real life," making good use of his technical training to pursue a career. But he's also continued to work as a musician, making a record with Peggy Seeger, and then working with the Old Reliable String Band, the New Deal String Band, and with probably with masters of the Swedish music Paley loves so well.
What is a Tom Paley concert like today?
The only Tom Paley concert I've seen was on the night Katrina made landfall, August 28th, 2005. It was part of a folk concert series held at a Nature Center outside of Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The concert series features world-class acts playing concerts as intimate as you're ever likely to experience. I drove 350 miles to see Paley and was very glad I did.
The concert venue could seat about 120, I suppose, but was about two-thirds empty. Not far from Paley was the Nature Center's poster about proper tree pruning. Next to that was a stuffed tundra swan shot in 1906. To get from the Center's front door to the concert venue, you walk down the stairs, through the kitchen, and past fish tanks occupied by live turtles. Really, it's a wonderful atmosphere for a concert, but it's truly a pity that any Tom Paley concert could have such a small audience. On the other hand, American culture's loss was definitely the audience's gain — I even got to exchange a few words with him during intermission.
The most recent Tom Paley recordings I'd heard came from his New Lost City Ramblers days. They were nearly 45 years old. But the voice at Woodland Dunes was that same familiar voice — high, tight, unpretentious and capable of surprising changes of expression. One moment, he was singing the oldtime country murder ballad "Down in the Willow Garden (Rose Connelly)" in waltz time, and the next moment, he gave an extremely compelling blues vocal performance of "Sportin' Life Blues." Even with a head cold, Paley was really nailing the high notes.
He played guitar, fiddle, and banjo with all the versatility and power you'd expect from a founder of the New Lost City Ramblers. In "Sportin' Life," he showed himself to be a very sweet, effortless blues guitarist. On "Virginia Girls" (which you may know as "West Virginia Gals" by Al Hopkins) he played dazzlingly, in an oldtime raggy waltz style, in a menacing key, on a small borrowed guitar.
What attention Paley has gotten lately has mostly been for his fiddling. He surprised me deeply by playing a very touching fiddle instrumental solo of — of all things — "Fishing Blues" by Henry Thomas. My notes from that night read:
makes you realize that it really is a blues. Feels to me, now, like a white hillbilly blues. LOVELY as an instrumentalOther fiddle highlights were Paley's playing of Swedish polskas — waltz-time dances with a curious little hopping double accent. He reworked, as a vispolska or a song polska, "The Lazy Farmer" or "The Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn," which you may know from Harry Smith's Anthology. After singing one particularly lovely vispolska, Paley translated the lyrics from their original Swedish:
There's not much booze that I can give to youPaley's word-play and goofy sense of humor have not let up since the days they enlivened concerts by the New Lost City Ramblers. At Woodland Dunes, he apologized for his relentless retuning, and claimed that:
My bottle's nearly empty
If you drink too much
You'll end up on the floor and so will I
Along with all the pastor's servants
Back in the Ramblers days, we would get on stage and then tune for the first 20 minutes. Then when we began playing, a lot of the audience would get up and leave. So we figured they must've showed up just for the tuning. But of course, the joke was on them — there was going to be plenty more tuning later! [quoted from memory]