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Village People: Paul Clayton

Paul Clayton
Paul Clayton

(This post is part of a series called Village People: A Who’s Who of Greenwich Village, which will explore some of this intern’s favorite Village people and stories.)

Paul Clayton was a mentor and friend to Dave Van Ronk, a friend to Liam Clancy, and later a mentor to Bob Dylan. (It is said that both ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ and ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ were written about him, in reference to his infatuation with Dylan.) He established a home base at Brown’s Cove, Virginia, and made frequent trips around Appalachia to collect folk music. Whenever he came to the Village, he brought the music he’d discovered along with him.

Clayton was born in a whaling town in Massachusetts during the Great Depression, and grew up with traditional songs from New England and Prince Edward Island, where his mother’s family came from. He expanded his knowledge even further, taking it upon himself as a child to do his own research: one unexpected landfall was when he came upon a collection of original manuscripts of seafaring songs at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

He was playing guitar by the time he was a teenager. While still in high school, he began hosting a weekly series of folk programs on New Bedford’s local radio channel, and later on WBSM. His program, for which he wrote and announced his own material and played live music, was successful enough to be expanded from a few minutes to one hour per week.

He went to the University of Virginia to study folklore and music, where he was mentored by highly-regarded folklorist Arthur Kyle Davis, Jr. He transcribed songs, wrote commentary, and assisted on taping the university’s collection of rapidly deteriorating aluminum recordings. In 1950, meanwhile, international folk music authority Helen Hartness Flanders arrived at his house to record him. That same year, he began traveling to North Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia to learn different styles of dulcimer playing from traditional musicians. He published a booklet, The Appalachian Dulcimer, on the subject. He also assisted in editing Davis’s More Traditional Ballads of Virginia, and published in Southern Folklore academic journal. Meanwhile, in order to finance his travel and research, he began performing at colleges, schools, bars, and coffeehouses.

Clayton came to Greenwich Village around 1953. The 1950s were difficult for folk musicians: Pete Seeger had been blacklisted and was being watched by the FBI, along with many other leaders of the folk revival. Even folk musicians who were not blacklisted were considered dangerous for their leftist leanings. There was no reliable market for folk music, and the folk club scene that would make Peter, Paul, and Mary, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and many others household names was not there yet. Clayton participated in the Sunday afternoon sings in Washington Square Park, but didn’t manage to find many paying gigs. Despite this, he recorded nearly twenty full-length albums, making him the most-recorded young American folk artist of the time by 1961. He also continued to record with other folk artists: Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians included field recordings of Etta Baker and Hobart Smith among others, and Clayton also made tapes of Rev. Gary Davis, Pink Anderson, and many more for the Library of Congress.

Between his trips to Appalachia, he brought his discoveries to his fellow musicians in the Village, allowing them to expand their repertoire. He and Van Ronk, as well as Luke Faust, Len Chandler, and others performed at the Gaslight Café at 116 MacDougal Street in the early 1960s. He met Bob Dylan downstairs at the Kettle of Fish, at 114 MacDougal Street, where performers often hung out between sets. He kept an apartment in the Village, but the address could not be found by the time of this posting. (Do any our readers have any clues?)

Image from bostonglobe.com
Image from bostonglobe.com

Meanwhile, Clayton became addicted to Dexamyl, and began using acid. For a time, he seemed to begin losing touch with reality. Then, on 30 March 1967, he committed suicide in New York. The purported cause of death varies depending on the source: one version says that he took a heater into the bathtub with him, and electrocuted himself (this is the most often repeated story). Another version says that he went to a party that Bob Dylan was attending, and threw himself out of a window, believing that he could fly. Others say he simply died of a drug overdose. Many sources point to the anxieties of being in the closet, in addition to drug use, as leading to his death.

Paul Clayton is now remembered outside the folk community as the person who got into a legal battle with Bob Dylan over ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,’ if he is remembered at all. But he deserves to be remembered as a part of the Village’s music history, part of its LGBTQ history, and as a contributor to the revival of American folk music.

Sources used for this post can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

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