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Remembering the Songman of New Bedford

“The only guy I know that can really do (folk music) is a guy named Paul Clayton, he’s the only guy I’ve ever heard or seen who can sing songs like this, because he’s a medium, he’s not trying to personalize it, he’s bringing it to you.”

Bob Dylan, in 1964 interview in Gargoyle magazine

Almost 60 years after his tragic death, Paul Clayton’s ghost continues to hover over American folk music.

The man whom Bob Dylan once described as a “medium” that channeled the very essence of traditional songs from the sea and the mountains, and whom Dave Van Ronk acknowledged was an important “influence” on both Dylan and himself, was born right down the road in New Bedford in 1931.

Paul Clayton Worthington was the only child of the short and combustible marriage of Adah Hardy and Clayton Worthington. He grew up in a single-family cottage on Summer Street with his mother and her parents.

It was his grandparents who seemed to have brought the joy to the young Clayton’s life, surrounding him with the traditionalist songs of their own youths, and setting him on the road to becoming one of the most respected folk singers of the 1950s, and an even more respected folklore authority in the Greenwich Village music scene of the early 1960s.

That Greenwich Village folk culture eventually blossomed out into folk rock, becoming one of the seminal influences in the America of the anti-Vietnam War generation and ever since.

But Paul Clayton’s metaphorical and spectacular death stalks the history of folk music to this day. A little over a year after Dylan took the acoustic folk songs he learned in Greenwich toward the electrified music of rock-and-roll, Clayton electrocuted himself in the bathtub of his humble New York apartment.

Almost 60 years after that death, those who love folk music still struggle to understand Clayton’s important place in its history. It all started here in New Bedford.

Charles Hardy, Clayton’s grandfather, was a whaling ship outfitter, and his grandmother Lizzie, a native of Prince Edward Island in Canada. They were both steeped in the music of their youths and schooled their grandson early on in the songs of the ocean and the land, but especially the New Bedford sea shanties.

Clayton’s mother, by the time he was 4, was divorced and a single mother living with her parents in the middle-class single family home in the city’s West End. She worked in a downtown New Bedford dress shop and reportedly doted on her only son.

The family purchased the young Paul a guitar, and under the tutelage of Charles and Lizzie, by the time he was a young teenager, he had become a prodigy. He had a 15-minute radio show on the old WFMR that was so successful it later expanded to an hour on WBSM, including a spot with legendary local host Stan Lipp.

After graduating from New Bedford High School in 1949, the young Paul Clayton Worthington already had a successful enough music career and academic success to be accepted to the prestigious University of Virginia, where he eventually studied with the famous folklorist A.K. Davis.

Paul Clayton, 1953. Credit: Clayton Estate

Paul at this time had already begun collecting the sea shanties, and a few years later, in 1956, was enough of a local celebrity that New Bedford put the 25-year-old Worthington on a float in a big city parade, along with the actor Gregory Peck, for the celebration of the debut of the movie Moby Dick.

When you listen to the recordings of Clayton singing the sea shanties, of these early years, you hear in his light baritone voice the sounds of an old seafarer. Clayton’s phrases and cadences, perhaps learned from his grandfather, are the cadences of New England 19th and early 20th century sailors. It’s New England and the sea in his songs, not the later commercially-oriented and stylized folk music of the early 1960s. As Dylan said of  Clayton, “he’s not trying to personalize, he’s bringing it to you.”

He was, as the long recognized great folk poet of the last half century said, “a medium.”

College, mountain music and travel

At the University of Virginia, the young Worthington began to explore the folk songs of the mountain peoples of Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina. He became at this time acquainted with the Appalachian dulcimer and sought out players among the rural peoples of the area, eventually becoming an even more accomplished musician on the dulcimer, and in a variety of dulcimer styles, than he was on the guitar.

At the end of his freshman year, while back home in New Bedford, Clayton was visited by Helen Hartness Flanders, the wife of Vermont Sen. Ralph Flanders. She was an authority on American folk music, and showed up one day at the Hardy household with a tape recorder. She recorded Paul singing 11 songs. His reputation was growing.

Back at UVA, Paul’s sea shanty collections had expanded into Appalachian Mountain collections. He traveled the Southern countryside seeking out traditional players and songs. To help finance his field trips, he performed at colleges, schools, bars and coffeehouses and during these years began using his father’s first name as his stage name, Paul Clayton. He eventually bought an old rustic cabin in the Virginia woods as a home base as he traveled these mountains, but it was unheated and remote and he more often lived in Charlottesville during these years, when he wasn’t using summer vacations to travel. Like a genuine folk vagabond, he traveled to the West Coast, to Europe, and especially to England, where he collected a large number of traditional broadside ballads.

Clayton also continued to assist Professor Davis’ well-respected research, and according to some, did most of the documentation for Davis’ book “More Traditional Ballads of Virginia,” which was eventually published in 1960.

Davis around this time is said to have given Clayton a French pamphlet containing a song that began with the verse “Done laid around and stayed around this old town too long.” Paul eventually expanded that fragment into a version of the song “Gotta Travel On.” There’s also said to be a version of the same ballad in poet Carl Sandberg’s The American Songbook under the title “Yonder comes the high sheriff,” and several versions are said to have been recorded in the 1920s.

But Clayton’s version became a million selling pop-music hit for country singer Billy Grammer in 1959. Clayton himself had recorded it a year earlier, and many others have covered it since, including Dylan in 1970 and Arthur Fielder, of all people, with the Boston Pops.

It’s worth sequentially listening to the versions recorded by Grammer, Clayton and Dylan, all of them done for commercial labels. Grammer’s is uptempo and pop; Clayton’s is contemplative, like an echo of simple mountain singers; Dylan’s is idiosyncratic, poetic and very contemporary in its sensibility. 

Clayton from an early age had begun collecting and copyrighting the songs he discovered. He was able to convince a variety of obscure companies, including Stinson Records (jointly with the New Bedford Whaling Museum) to record an album toward the end of his University of Virginia years. He also made a tape with folk singer Bill Clifton and had hoped to record a commercial album with him, but it never came to fruition. Concerned about the draft during the Korean War, he considered going to UCLA for graduate school, near where his father now lived in Malibu, but never got there.

Encouraged by Clifton, Clayton traveled to pre-Castro Cuba. There, and also in England — foreign lands where no one knew him — his homosexuality began to emerge. All the while, he was broadening his performance repertoire and song collections.

Clayton was also proud of his New Bedford roots, and regularly worked the Whaling Museum and New Bedford Free Public Library, when he was home, for more seamen and whaling songs.

After college, Clayton had a hard time breaking into the Greenwich Village music scene at first.

That was until he was discovered by Kenneth Goldstein, a New York City producer dedicated to recording as much original folk music as possible.

Paul Clayton found success in New York City but also met with obstacles and challenges. Credit: Wikipedia

Goldstein and Moe Asch of Folkways Records recorded a whole series of Clayton albums for Folkways, a label specializing in documenting folk music, as opposed to recording aimed at the commercial market. Clayton had a big collection of songs and he did albums on sea shanties and  folk-bluegrass and the broadside British ballads and more. Goldstein couldn’t get enough of him.

Clayton in the 1950s began billing himself as “the most recorded young folk singer in America.” That was clever marketing as it avoided the fact that the elder Pete Seeger certainly had more recordings by that time.  

If Dylan liked Clayton because he was a “medium” to what traditional folk music actually sounded like, and Dave Van Ronk liked Clayton’s singing because of “his very personal way of reading a lyric,” Goldstein liked him because the voice was “bland,” or perhaps nondescript is a better term. His singing while haunting for its echoes of the past, had little to none of Clayton’s own personality. The actual traditional music could come through, unlike say renditions done by bigger, more expressive personalities like Dylan or Van Ronk. Neither was Clayton’s singing commercial in the manner of the emerging pop music success of folks groups like the Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul and Mary.

Greenwich Village, Dylan and decline

With the help of the Folkways records, Clayton began to be a sought after commodity in the Village. Van Ronk, in the “Mayor of MacDougal Street,” described him as the kind of singer who in his early years there could draw a crowd to the coffeehouses. His reputation as an authority on folklore gave him street cred on those stages. His longtime roommate, Stephen Wilson, talks of him as a commanding personality who could hold a room in his hand with his stories and charisma. 

But Van Ronk alternately would describe Clayton as “one of the most delightful human beings I have ever met” and also “that incredibly pigheaded man.” And Wilson talks of a gay militancy in Clayton that could put people off. He died, after all, two years before the Stonewall riots.

All these takes on Clayton were evidently true. By now, he had a master’s degree from UVA and was a credentially-educated folklorist but he was also a working musician. He had little tolerance for most of the new-on-the-scene folk-music wannabes in Greenwich who were co-opting the scene he had already been a big deal in. He viewed himself as the real thing and others as novices.

Clayton, according to some who knew him at the time, had two big impediments to his ultimate success. One was that he was gay. 

Though he kept his sexuality hidden from his family, those who knew him personally in both Virginia and New York City were well aware of it. And in the closeted 1950s and ‘60s, it was not a time when Clayton could have incorporated a gay life into the emerging confessional brand of folk music that folks like Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell eventually did, and he resisted for philosophical reasons, transforming traditional folk songs to political anthems like Seeger or early Dylan.

Perhaps an even greater challenge was Clayton’s early success as a folk music prodigy and his encyclopedic knowledge of what traditional folk music actually was. His knowledge and singing experience may have made him a sought-after act in the specialized New York City and Charlottesville scenes, but he was also a purist trying to recreate the actual styles and cadences of historic music that he himself had painstakingly personally researched or discovered. That was hardly a recipe for commercial success.

Still, by the time that Dylan and Joan Baez were percolating in Greenwich Village in 1961, they came looking to be immersed in Clayton’s songbooks. Dylan may have first traveled to New York to pay homage to his idol, the dying Woody Guthrie, but the bard of pre-World War II political folk music was not long for this world; meanwhile, Clayton was the younger man who held the keys to an authentic folk style kingdom Dylan needed.

Dylan and Baez in 1961 traveled to visit Clayton in Charlottesville in search of material for their songs. They performed at the Gaslight there with Clayton and soaked up some of the mountain music that he was an authority on.

So influential was Clayton on Dylan that one of his first big early songs, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” in 1962 was directly based on an adaptation of a song that Clayton had written “Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I’m gone)?” Clayton, in turn, had himself taken the melody and lyrical basis for his song from a traditional folk song “Who’s Gonna Buy You Chickens When I’m Gone?” As was his practice, he had copyrighted it.

According to folk singer Barry Kornfeld, he was with Clayton one day when Dylan walked in and said he was going to rewrite the song that Clayton himself had already adapted and recorded two years earlier. Adapting songs is what folk musicians did in the day, and copyrighted or not, a lot of the music was in the public domain.

Dylan even lifted most of two lines directly from Clayton’s lyrics: “T’aint no use to sit and wonder why now” and “I’m walkin’ down that long, lonesome road.”

Clayton, who is said to have idolized Dylan’s emerging genius for popularizing folk music, nevertheless later sued him over the song. But he settled out of court for a paltry sum. A judge had ruled that the song was already in the public domain when Clayton wrote his version and thus it was not original to the author.

Many in Greenwich Village at the time were appalled, writes Bob Colton in “Paul Clayton and the Folksong Revival.”

They believed that Dylan, who was emerging as a national star, had an ethical responsibility to share authorship with Clayton, who had been his mentor.

Clayton at the time was almost destitute but it did not fit in with Dylan’s image of receiving his creative inspiration directly from the artistic gods.

“Some thought Dylan had substantially swiped Paul’s song. The dispute raged in Village flats and on street corners,” Coltman writes.

“Everyone who knew about it felt that Bob was making enough money by the time the album started selling big that he could have given Clayton some royalties.”  The song made even more money when Peter, Paul and Mary had a hit with it.

Clayton wasn’t the only folk singer whose work Dylan transmogrified. “Dylan, some argued, had cultivated the folk scene, then sold it out.”

Music law attorney William Krasilovsky, who was involved in the litigation, rebuked Dylan’s treatment of Clayton even though he said Dylan was technically right. In Coltman’s biography, Krasilovsky talks of Dylan refusing to give Clayton a co-composer credit or royalties and eventually brushing him off altogether: “Paul Clayton was a vital part of Dylan’s life, and it’s not mentioned anywhere. I think it’s disgusting. … They were practically roommates. They traveled together.”

Although Dylan had also had high praise for Clayton both early on and later, he did exile him from his inner circle soon after a 1964 cross-country trek with him. The tour, ostensibly an opportunity for the now increasingly popular Dylan to see the real America, was also a last hurrah for Dylan and Clayton. Some say it was conceived as a make-up for the “Don’t Think Twice” cribbing but it went badly.

Long a heavy user of marijuana, Clayton at this point was now also addicted to Dexamyl (a mixture of amphetamines and barbiturates sold at the time on the street as an upper). For part of the trip, Clayton served as Dylan’s driver, while the latter wrote “Mr. Tambourine Man” in a back seat. They did dilettantish things like pick up a West Virginia miner hitchhiking and visit the elderly Carl Sandburg (author of The American Songbook), who seems to have tried to get them off his front porch as quickly as possible.

The trip culminated at Joan Baez’s Malibu home where she and Dylan talked about her recording an album solely devoted to his music. Clayton, once the teacher, was now an afterthought.

Coltman writes of Dylan that he discarded Clayton when he was no longer of use, the same way he later discarded Baez and others. “Dylan had outgrown Paul, moved beyond him, left him behind as he eventually left everyone behind.”

Some say Dylan had one last betrayal in a line from “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” released the following year, 1965.

The song is a meditation on the end of an era, saying farewell to one world as another is born. In that sense, it fits neatly into an interpretation of the old world of folk music dying and the new one of folk rock being born. Both Dylan himself and Clayton had blue eyes, but more to the point there’s the line “All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home.” It’s hard to imagine anyone who that would reference more than Paul Clayton.

Coltman himself remarked on the talk about the song, and the brusque advice Dylan seems to be giving to someone, whose problems echoed Clayton’s:

“The vagabond who’s rapping at your door/
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore/
Strike another match, go start anew/
It’s all over now, Baby Blue.”

That same year, Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, and permanently distanced himself from his Greenwich Village mentor, who to be fair was increasingly mentally unstable and difficult for people to be around. At the time, Clayton was even banned from some of The Gaslight because of obscene and in-your-face jokes related to sexuality.

Clayton electrocuted himself two years later in his New York City apartment. His last attempt at songwriting was an incomprehensible collage of music and sounds called “Gingerbreadd Mindd.” It seems like an  effort reflecting psychosis, if not literally there. The drugs, especially the dexies, had taken their toll.

It would not have been lost on Clayton, who had once been the century’s most prolific collector of acoustic folk songs, that he was not a part of the new world of electric folk rock. This even though he himself had purchased an electric guitar, according to a 1971 inventory of his goods when he died.

Legacy

Almost immediately, the regret and homages about Paul Clayton began. The first was from his folklore mentor, A.K. Davis in a Charlottesville newspaper, soon after his death. Months before he died, Clayton had beaten marijuana and Dexamyl charges in Charlottesville and Davis stood up to defend his reputation.

In an incredibly heartfelt testimony to his former student as “a man of character as well as talent” whom the university should be proud of, he wrote, “he has left his mark on the contemporary field of folk recordings, and he might, if he had lived, have contributed a good deal to the scholarly study of folk songs.”

Adah Clayton, before her death 10 years later in 1977, gave what she had of her son’s possessions to the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Since that time, the Paul Clayton Papers, originally a collection of some photographs and newspaper articles, has grown to include a vast compilation of lyrics to folk songs, Bob Dylan song sheets and numerous reel recordings and commercial recordings.

The headstone of folk singer and collector Paul Clayton Worthington sits at Oak Grove Cemetery in the West End of New Bedford. It is covered with lichen. Someone has left figurines of trolls some 55 years after his untimely death. This week, local musicians will hold an appreciation at the Mattapoisett Museum for the New Bedford musician who is said to have greatly influenced Bob Dylan. Credit: Jack Spillane The New Bedford Light

Under the guardianship of Clayton’s cousins, led by Barbara Souza, the family has resisted attempts to commercialize the music Clayton copyrighted. They have preferred instead to wait for a time when it could be used as part of serious presentations of historic folk songs.

In 2008, Bob Coltman, in that compelling and exhaustively researched biography heavily relied on by this author, documented the importance of Clayton’s career in transmitting authentic, previously unrecorded folk music to the pop musicians who transmitted it to the folk-rock era begun in the 1960s. He refers to the folk music collectors George and Jean Foss as the type of people who best understood the historic importance of Clayton’s collecting and documenting of original traditional music. Without him, much of that music might have been lost forever. Others, Coltman said, talk of Clayton’s key role in bridging that traditionalist world to the coming folk rock era.

In 2013, music writer Ricco Cleffi of The Standard-Times and the Boston Globe’s James Sullivan further memorialized Clayton in fine newspaper articles, written at the time when the Coen Brothers haunting movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” came out. The movie strongly echoed Clayton’s life in the grief of the main character, a fictional folk singer of 1960s Greenwich Village, over his partner’s suicide and the lack of commercial appeal in his own talent.

Thursday, through the efforts of local musicians Gary Brown and Seth Asser, is the latest homage to the legacy of Paul Clayton. This important son of the South Coast and the history of folk music revives at a special sold-out concert and documentary at 7 p.m. at the Mattapoisett Museum.

Email Jack Spillane at [email protected].

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