Famous musicians can become increasingly reclusive and recalcitrant as they progress through their careers. Few continue to make (good) records passed retirement age, and fewer still use their free bus pass to gig around town. Not our favourite local legend though: eighty-three year old Tom Paley, who is at his happiest hanging out with the folk crowd. A crowd inspired by his recordings with the New Lost City Rambler’s of forty and fifty years ago. You may actually find Tom hard to avoid if you fancy yourself as a bit of a folk musician – be it English, American or even Swedish folk you’re into. He’ll be there jamming with the best, and worst, at sessions across London. And if you ask nicely he’ll play some tunes at your birthday party (thanks again Tom).

I first encountered Tom at the Shakespeare’s Head in Angel where a Sunday night old-time session has been going on since longer than anyone cares to remember. Sitting in his favourite seat by the radiator, with the pub’s big tabby and white cat snaking around his ankles, Tom props up his fiddle on his shoulder, and occasionally uses its chin rest for a nap. He’s now a regular feature at the newest jam session in town at Gray’s Inn Road’s Blue Lion. Many casual spectators and newcomers to the scene are unaware of his associations back to folk royalty like Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Pete and Peggy Seeger. And Tom is not one to brag or be bothered by such facts. He’s just content to still be making music, and to pose for a photo now and then.

Tom with New York’s The Dust Busters at Willesden Folk Union, playing one of our favourite tunes, Little Rabbit

Q: Tom, are you first and foremost a guitarist? When did you first start playing guitar? And banjo?

A: I’d say I’m about equally a banjoist and a guitarist. I got my first guitar back in 1945, on January 19th (exactly 2 months before I turned 17.) I got my first banjo a few months later. I was a high school senior at the time. As a fiddler, I’m a relative newcomer, having begun in 1975, at age 47.

Q: How did you come to change career from college Maths tutor to New Lost City Rambler?

A: Throughout my subsequent academic career (undergraduate student, graduate student and math instructor at various colleges and universities) I was seriously involved in folk music. Even when we formed the New Lost City Ramblers, I didn’t drop out of teaching, but continued pursuing two simultaneous careers, with the musical career being only part-time.

Q: With such a vast canon of folk music to draw from, how did you choose your songs? How did you learn?

A: The canon of what’s called “folk music” wasn’t nearly as vast back then, as it has now become. The category of “singer-songwriters” hadn’t reached the gigantic size it now has in the folk music scene. There were singers who wrote some of their own songs, but they were mostly considered to be in the “popular-music” field. The exceptions, such as Woody Guthrie, mostly wrote left-wing political songs and used tunes drawn from or based on traditional tunes. I’d never really cared much for pop-music, which felt a bit phoney to me, but was drawn to the genuineness of folk music (and the largely political newer songs). In the “country music” field, there were also people writing new songs, which seemed to fall into two classes: pop songs with a country accent and songs based on the older, traditional-sounding songs. (The former, I didn’t like much and the latter I really DID like.) The end result was that I mostly concentrated on playing what we now call “old-time country music”. I’d had only limited contact with the folk music of a few other countries, like England, Scotland and Ireland.

Trailer for a documentary on the New Lost City Ramblers with some old footage of Tom on guitar and banjo

Q: Would you mind sharing some recollections of the great and good?

A: I have to reckon among the “great and good” with whom I had some contact, people like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Reverend Gary Davis, Sam & Kirk McGee, Brownie McGhee and Ewan McColl. There were others whom I met only very briefly but admired a great deal, like Josh White, but I’ll limit myself, here, to people with whom I actually interacted to some degree.

Pete Seeger used to hold Wingdings (very informal music sessions) in his downstairs room and was very encouraging to those of us who were relatively inexperienced but were trying to develop our instrumental and singing skills. He was (and presumably still is) a very nice and generous-hearted person.

I met Woody Guthrie through a friend, Vic Traibush. After visiting him several times, I was delighted when he asked me if I’d like to do some gigs with him. I was a relative novice and Woody was one of the singers I most admired (not for his technical skills, but for his genuine, unpolished style and the sincerity of the opinions he expressed).

I was at a number of sessions at Leadbelly’s flat. What an amazing performer he was! He was also a very good host, but there was an odd quality to the way he received us, in that he was always elegantly dressed (his trousers with knife-edge creases, a matching waistcoat, a white shirt and a bow-tie) while we were a fairly scruffy lot. Also, when he did a song, he always did the entire presentation he would have used on stage. I believe this was because he was never fully comfortable with white people that he didn’t know very well (not surprising for a black man raised in the deep south, back when he was young). He probably wouldn’t have been so formal had it only been Woody who was visiting.

Reverend Davis (known as ‘Blind Gary’ on his early recordings) was one of the most phenomenal guitarists I ever heard. The only one who may have topped him was Blind Blake, whom I heard only on old recordings. I also had some old records of ‘Blind Gary’ but only met him at the Memorial Concert for Leadbelly (where I was playing together with Woody).

Among white guitarists, I reckon Sam McGee and Doc Watson as my very favourites. There have been plenty of other excellent ones, like Merle Travis, but those two really had something very special! I met Doc quite a few times . . . the first few times together with Clarence Ashley, the wonderful old singer and banjo-picker. (Not that he was technically superior to most other banjoists, but there was a special, intimate quality to his singing and picking style.)

I knew Sam McGee’s playing from his work with Uncle Dave Macon and from a few old solo recordings. I met him with his brother, Kirk, only once, at a Country-Music park near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. They were there as part of Charlie Monroe’s band, but there was such a demand from the crowd for the McGees to do a set together that they were given an extra set. Later, I chatted with them backstage and even got to try playing Sam’s guitar. The action was set so high, though, that I couldn’t do much more than hold down a couple of simple chords in the first position. Sam agreed that it needed “adjustment”, but that didn’t stop him from doing fancy stuff on it. Luckily, I had my own guitar with me and was able to show that I could manage some pretty decent picking, too, but couldn’t imagine how he could do what he did on his guitar!

I met Brownie McGhee many times and always found him a very pleasant and friendly fellow, as well as a fine blues singer and guitarist. I once got to play banjo in a little band he put together for the Herald Tribune Forum (Brownie and his brother, ‘Sticks’ McGhee, Sonny Terry, ‘Washboard Jimmy’ Brazzle, ‘Tub-Bass Bob’ Harris and Me!) I was very flattered to be picked for that gig!

Ewan McColl was, of course, not American, but I originally met him when he was on tour, in the USA, together with Peggy Seeger, and I did a few gigs with them. (I had met Peggy previously.) I saw a great deal of Ewan and Peggy, years later, over here, and was always very impressed with their performances and with Ewan’s songwriting!

Tom Paley and Peggy Seeger

Q: What would you say your musical highlights have been?

A: I think that the previous question covers most of my musical highlights, but there were also some when the New Lost City Ramblers was very well received at various clubs and festivals, as well as a later one after I took up fiddling and, specifically, Swedish fiddling when I was awarded the Zorn Medal (Zornmärke) for my playing (only the bronze medal, not the silver), but I was delighted with that!

Q: And low points?

A: The two main low points were 1: the unpleasantness when a fellow, Harvey Matusow, who used to do volunteer work at the People’s Songs office, turned out to be a damned stoolpigeon for the FBI and began naming everybody even vaguely associated with the organization as Communist Party members. My name was one of the ones he gave (though I never was a member of the Communist Party). And 2: the break-up of the original New Lost City Ramblers and the unpleasant wrangling that went with it. *By the way, some years later, after all the money Matusow had earned as a stoolpigeon had run out, he wrote a book, “False Witness” about how he had lied and been paid so much for each name he gave. He went to jail, not for having lied, but for writing the book and discrediting the FBI! Actually one of the reasons for the break-up of the New Lost City Ramblers was that when I refused to testify for the FBI and answer the charge of being a Communist (on the grounds that my political views and membership was none of their business) we were blacklisted on TV. Mike (Seeger) and John (Cohen) said that I was making them suffer for my principles.

Tom Paley – Sue Cow

Q: You’ve mentioned to me before that you thought about moving to Russia at some point?

A: No, it wasn’t that I ever thought about moving to Russia. It was my parents’ idea, due to the level of anti-semitism that was so prevalent in the US in the 1930s and 1940s.

Q: When is the new album coming out? What can we expect?

A: The new album should, probably, come out in the spring of 2012, but that’s only likely, not certain. There should be a combination of solo numbers and some with me and one or more of these others: Ben Paley, bassist Johnny Bridgewood, Peggy Seeger, Robin Gillan & Rhys Jenkins.

Tom with son Ben Paley and Joe Locker