Tom Paley, a guitar and banjo virtuoso who was an original member of the New Lost City Ramblers, a group that helped spur the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s and influenced Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, died Sept. 30 at a nursing center in Brighton, England. He was 89.
The death was confirmed by his sister, writer Maggie Paley. She said did not know the cause.
Paley began performing traditional folk music and blues in the 1940s, becoming a stellar banjo picker and singer of traditional tunes associated with mountain people and Southern mill workers and farm hands.
While pursuing an advanced degree in mathematics at Yale University, he was part of a burgeoning folk music scene and performed in the early 1950s with the seminal singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie.
Paley’s first album, “Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachian Mountains” (1953), included the traditional tune “Jack-a-Roe,” which became a staple of the folk repertoire and was later recorded by Dylan and the Grateful Dead.
After recording albums with folk musician and radio host Oscar Brand and singer Jean Ritchie, Paley was teaching at the University of Maryland in 1958, when he joined two other like-minded musicians for a live performance at Washington, D.C., radio station WASH-FM.
He had a hasty rehearsal with John Cohen, a former musical collaborator from Yale, and Washingtonian Mike Seeger — the half-brother of folk music performer and activist Pete Seeger. They didn’t yet have a name, but there was an immediate rapport, and in short order the three musicians formed a group they called the New Lost City Ramblers. (If there was an “old” or “original” Lost City Ramblers, it has been lost to history.)
Paley, Seeger and Cohen all played multiple instruments and traded off lead vocal duties as they performed forgotten folk music from the rural South. They revived tunes by real-life ensembles as Ernest Stoneman and his Blue Ridge Corn Shuckers, Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers, Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers and Fisher Hendley and his Arisocratic Pigs.
The Ramblers began appearing in coffeehouses and on college campuses around the country. Their first album came out in 1958 on the Smithsonian Folkways label, featuring such tunes as “Tom Cat Blues,” “Railroading and Rambling,” and “Battleship Maine,” which had Paley on lead vocal:
McKinley called for volunteers. I went and got my gun.
First Spaniard I saw coming, I dropped my gun and run . . .
Why are you running? Are you afraid to die?
The reason that I’m running is because I cannot fly.
Dylan later praised the Ramblers in his 2004 memoir “Chronicles,” writing that “all their songs vibrated with some dizzy, portentous truth.”
During their first four years together, the Ramblers recorded six albums and became a sensation among folk musicians.
“They have absorbed the content, meaning and the instrumental and vocal styles of the country masters, and bring the music alive with wit and honesty,” critic Robert Shelton wrote in the New York Times. “They sing in twangy, nasal upper-register voices that evocatively re-create a far-off time and place.”
The three members of the Ramblers “possessed magnetic, individually distinctive personalities,” folk historian John Pankake wrote in a 1990 essay for Smithsonian Folkways.
“Tom Paley was the group’s Puck, quintessentially witty, thoroughly urban and intellectual, given to outrageous puns and wordplay, a master teller of jokes, and a breathtaking showman on fingerpicked guitar and banjo.”
By 1962, artistic and political disagreements began to divide the group. A television appearance was canceled when Paley refused to sign a statement attesting that he had never been communist.
“I was never a member of the Communist Party,” he later said, “but it was none of the network’s business.”
He left the Ramblers and was replaced by Tony Shwarz. The split became more acrimonious when Paley threatened to form a new group called the New Lost City Ramblers unless the other members compensated him for use of the name.
“I can’t avoid a feeling of outrage whenever I see a reference to you three as the NLCR,” he wrote in a letter to Seeger, quoted in music historian Ray Allen’s 2010 book “Gone to the Country: The New Lost City Ramblers and the Folk Music Revival.”
A financial settlement was reached, as Paley moved to Europe, and the New Lost City Rambles went on without him.
Allan Thomas Paley was born March 19, 1928, in the Bronx. His father was a newspaper editor, his mother a physician assistant. He became interested in folk music from attending left-leaning summer camps and learned to play guitar in his teens. He became fascinated by what was then called “hillbilly” music and by “race” music, or recordings of the blues by black performers.
He graduated in 1950 from City College of New York and received a master’s degree in mathematics from Yale in 1953. He taught at U-Maryland, the University of Connecticut and Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.
In 1959, Paley married a former student, Claudia Lingafelt. They moved to Sweden in 1963, he later said, “to escape from the Vietnam War and because we liked Ingmar Bergman’s films,” before settling in London three years later. They were later divorced.
Paley taught mathematics for several years, while continuing to perform American roots music and Swedish folk songs. He added the violin to his instrumental repertoire in the 1970s. In recent years, he often performed with his son, fiddler Ben Paley.
“It s funny,” Paley told the Glasgow Herald in 2013. “All these years after I got interested in folk music because the pop music of the day felt phony, people much the same age as I was are doing much the same thing for much the same reason. They want something real that they can relate to.”
Survivors include his son, of London; his sister, Maggie Paley, of New York; and three grandchildren.
Paley’s most recent recording, “Paley & Son,” featuring his son, was released in 2015. He appeared at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2016 in a celebration of the music of Huddie Ledbetter, the blues musician better known as Lead Belly. Paley is believed to have been the last living person to have performed with Lead Belly, who died in 1949.
Paley’s sister said nephew placed his father in a nursing center in Brighton last week. When Ben Paley said he was canceling a performance in China to look after his father, Paley rose up from his sick bed and said, “For God’s sake, don’t that get in the way of a gig!”