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Tom Paley in the Twin Cities - November 5

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 instrumental
Other 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 you
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
Paley'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:
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]

The Harry Smith Project - Thoughts in Advance


In a lot of ways,The Celestial Monochord is a tribute to Harry Smith and the mesmerizing sampler of old recordings he edited in 1952, The Anthology of American Folk Music.

And so, this Tuesday will be an exciting day at Monochord headquarters. Four disks — two audio CDs and two DVDs — intended to pay tribute to Smith and his Anthology will be released on Tuesday (October 24). I don't have a reviewer's copy of the disks (unlike this putz, for example), so I'll anticipate the release by considering what I can tell about it from the label's advertising and what others are saying about it.

As the author of the first (and so far only) blog on the entire internet dedicated to the Anthology, my first comment is ... people! Treat your bloggers a little better!


The bulk of the disks offer audio and video from a series of tribute concerts, called The Harry Smith Project, organized in 1999 and 2001 by a guy named Hal Willner. The performers — about half of whom are big stars like Lou Reed, Wilco, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello — do what might be thought of as "covers" of the songs on Smith's Anthology.

In exactly what sense such performances would constitute a tribute to Harry Smith is unclear to me. I can't get it sorted out in my head.

Smith's Anthology and the lessons it taught shaped the revivals that came after, and it defined the careers of some of the best musicians of the late 20th Century. The Anthology also became a milestone in the history of amateur musicianship in America. Those revivals, those careers, and we amateur musicians have paid tribute to Smith far beyond The Harry Smith Project's poor power to add or detract — the world will little note nor long remember what Sonic Youth says here ...

And there are other problems. Of course, Harry Smith was a mix-master, one of history's great juxtapositionists, so there's no such thing as a Harry Smith cover, per se. Thinking of the Anthology's songs as if they were Smith's babies only perpetuates the worship of the collector over the collected, the Lomaxes over the Leadbellies. Harry Smith himself was markedly dismissive of the Anthology and he considered his other projects, now largely forgotten, to be more important. I wonder how Smith would have felt about Tuesday's release.

In his strange interviews, Smith treats the songs on the Anthology as mere local embodiments of some larger patterns in the human collective unconscious. Although he clearly loved them (no matter what he might have said), he portrays the records in his collection as arbitrary, as if they may as well have been any other records, or even some tangled pieces of string, or some paper airplanes discarded in the gutters of Manhattan.

To me, the most immediately obvious way to pay tribute to Harry Smith is to carry on his work — to go on collecting little bits of culture that embody the most vital meanings animating human life. To work at becoming — ourselves — the embodied examples of such meanings. To investigate and love human culture independently, idiosyncratically.

But then ... what do you expect The Celestial Monochord to say?


I knew about these Harry Smith Project concerts back when they happened, through a Tom Waits discussion list I belonged to. Although none of the list-members who attended the concerts knew or cared much about Harry Smith, their reaction to the concerts was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone seemed to agree something remarkable had happened there. And it's no wonder. Hal Willner seems to be the right man for the job of organizing these tribute concerts.

First, he's one of a smallish tribe of people who've had their lives overturned by this queer, bent little hypnotist, Harry Smith. At times, it seems there's about as many of us in the world as there are people who've walked on the Moon, or who've been struck by lightning more than once.

Willner personally knew Smith well enough to cast him as The King in a production of The Seven Deadly Sins, staged at the Naropa Institute. It was also Hal Willner who put together Allen Ginsberg's introduction to the catastrophically out-of-print collection of interviews with Smith, Think of the Self Speaking.

And very suggestively, Willner has used his time on Earth to collect amazing things and paste them together — giving him roughly as much insight into Smith's mind as we can hope for. The list of Willner's projects is dazzling, but he's best known for gathering together very dissimilar musicians for improbable tribute albums.

He's responsible for tributes to Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill, Charles Mingus, pirate ballads and sea chanteys, and music from Walt Disney's cartoons. Performers he's rangled together for these projects include Bono, Sting, Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright, Dr. John, John Zorn, Sun Ra, Tom Waits, Ringo Starr, Keith Richards, and Elvis Costello. Along the way, he also collaborated with Robert Altman on Short Cuts and Robert Wilson on a show in Copenhagen.

To me, the drama of listening to The Harry Smith Project will be in watching Willner do battle with the poppycocky quality of his own project. He's in the best position anyone can be in to make a "tribute album" to Harry Smith actually pay tribute to Harry Smith. Given who he is, I don't much doubt Willner will succeed in some sense, and on some terms. But in what sense? On what terms?


The fourth disk of The Project's 4-disk set makes easier sense to me. It's the hook that will snag me into plopping down my cash on Tuesday, although I suspect the reverse might be true for most buyers.

The fourth disk is a DVD with a documentary about the creation of the Anthology, along with selections from Smith's abstract films, which were influential in their own right. The documentary is by Rani Singh, the director of the Harry Smith Archives and Smith's friend and assistant in the last years of his life. It'll be interesting to see what kind of documentarian she is, but Singh's previous work perpetuating Smith's memory has been inspiring and important.

This last disk — the one with the best prospects for bringing us into communion with Harry Smith himself — brings me to something called The Harry Smith Connection ...

Willner's inspiration for the concert portion of this Project was, in part, two previous concerts marking the 1997 reissue of The Anthology on CD. From what I'm able to tell, the CD of those performances, The Harry Smith Connection, was widely disliked by critics. But if you judge solely by the "spin test" — how often it's in my player, spinning — it's one of my favorite CD's.

Perhaps my favorite cut is "His Tapes Roll On," which another reviewer has called "excruciating" and "unbelievably egregiously stinkerooin' nonsense." Unlike most of the other songs on the disk, "His Tapes Roll On" is not from the Anthology, but was written by Peter Stampfel, a Wauwautosa-born sometime member of The Fugs, whose first album was recorded by Smith. Stampfel's creaky, amateurish, stitched-together song is about Smith's obsession with recording sound — any, seemingly randomly chosen sound. Stampfel begins:

Harry recorded with a wire recorder
back in World War II
Harry recorded with a reel-to-reel
when the reel-to-reel was new
Harry recorded cassettes by the hundred
as the century rolled on
He even used a telephone answering machine
But Harry Smith is gone

Speed-rapping killers and jump-rope rhymes,
fireworks on the 4th of July
Complete early canon of Gregory Corso,
kittens, snowstorms, airplane trips
What is the sound of one hand clapping?
Where's tomorrow gone?
Most of his tapes are missing in action
And Harry Smith is gone
It's true that Stampfel's voice and guitar-playing will never rocket to the top of the charts, but neither will anything else Harry Smith chose to record — squeaking hinges, squealing brakes, the peyote songs of the Kiowa, or the death-rattles of bowery bums.

It's here, in Stampfel's "egregious nonsense," that we find the gravest contradictions and challenges in the concert recordings of The Harry Smith Project. At least on the face of it — again, sight unseen — the contradiction implied by bringing together popular, professional musicians to work up modernized, financially-viable, critic-pleasing versions of songs that (of all people) Harry Everett Smith collected ... well, that contradiction seems to unravel the very goal of paying tribute to him. That's what I'll be listening for — the drama, inherent in the very idea of the project, of how to resolve, or respond to, or transcend The Harry Smith Project's own contractions.

I'll try to have something written up in the next few months.