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Tom Paley, folk legend who inspired Bob Dylan

New Yorker Tom Paley, a founding member of The New Lost City Ramblers, lived in relative obscurity in Angel

13 October, 2017 — By Emily Finch

Tom Paley was a regular at Sunday night music sessions at the Shakespeare’s Head behind Sadler’s Wells Theatre. PHOTO: HORNBEAM RECORDS

UNKNOWN to customers at Angel’s Wetherspoon’s, a folk music legend who inspired Bob Dylan and played with Lead Belly would, up until recently, sit in their midst enjoying fish and chips on Fridays.

Tom Paley, a pioneer of modern American folk music, died on September 30. He was 89 years old.

The multi-instrumentalist and singer had lived in a flat in Angel for the past 45 years after moving from his native New York where he was a founding member of The New Lost City Ramblers – a band credited with reviving the traditional Southern string band music of the Depression era.

Of the Ramblers, Bob Dylan wrote in his autobiography: “For me, they had originality in spades, were men of mystery on all counts. I couldn’t listen to them enough.”

But Tom Paley lived in relative obscurity in London and his existence was only known to those who were fans of folk music.

He was a regular at Sunday night music sessions at the Shakespeare’s Head behind Sadler’s Wells Theatre. With a fiddle, of which he had more than a hundred stored in his flat, he would play “old-time” songs alongside others on banjos and guitars.

He was also a regular fixture at the Islington Folk Club in Clerkenwell, where he most recently played in June and the folk club at Camden’s Cecil Sharp House.

“He had a style of playing and picking – I’ve never seen anybody who could play like him,” said his friend and guitarist Norman Elvin.

Mr Paley was born to left-wing journalist David Paley and physician’s assistant Sylvia Leichtling in 1928. At 17, he enrolled at the City College of New York to study mathematics and later at Yale University but music was his calling.

Mr Paley with Billy Bragg

The New Lost City Ramblers began in the 1950s at Yale when Mr Paley played hillbilly music with fellow student John Cohen – the final founding member Mike Seeger would join them in 1958 after hearing the two play on the radio.

Their music covered topics ranging from the moral pitfalls of selling whiskey to rising grocery bills during the Great Depression.

Around that time, he also played with folk musician Woody Guthrie, famous for This Land is Your Land, which criticised America’s treatment of its poor alongside Blues musician Lead Belly. But Mr Paley would depart The New Lost City Ramblers just four years later during the height of the McCarthy witch hunts when he says he was asked to spy on fellow musicians.

He left America for good and moved to Stockholm, Sweden, for a few years in 1962 before moving to London due to a fondness for Ingmar Bergman films and a desire to escape the Vietnam War.

A staunch anti-racist and anti-segregationist throughout his life, he was also no fan of the US president Donald Trump.

“Tom was a little bit of a devil – he will pull your leg, if you leave your leg out he will pull it,” said friend Mr Elvin.

He was not only witty and generous but a modest man, more interested in playing along with others than becoming a celebrity.

“He appreciated the ballad side of things and how an awful lot of American songs have roots in Britain and Ireland,” said his son Ben Paley, who also plays the fiddle. “He really appreciated all kinds of traditional music.”

Tom Paley is survived by Ben, his sister Maggie and grandchildren Max, Isaac and Joy.

A funeral service will take place at Golders Green Crematorium on October 24 from 3pm, with a celebration of his life taking place at Cecil Sharp House in Regent’s Park Road from 5pm.


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