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Tom Paley - 1928-2017

The veteran guitarist, banjo and fiddle player Tom Paley passed away in Brighton on 30th September at the age of 89. Born in New York in 1928, he moved to California during his teenage years. But the draw of New York was too much for Tom, so after studying mathematics at Yale University, he returned to his home town.

Back in New York he began performing, solo and with other musicians, in clubs around the city. In 1952 he released his debut recording, Folk Songs From the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Over the following years, he performed with various other musicians including Woody Guthrie. In 1958 Tom formed The New Lost City Ramblers with Mike Seeger and John Cohen. In 1962 he left the band, but continued to perform in folk clubs. It was in one of these clubs he met a young Bob Dylan. Years later, Dylan cited Tom as a great influence during those heady days of the early 1960s. Other musicians who were influenced by Tom were Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia – to whom he taught guitar - and Ry Cooder.

In 1963, Tom and his then wife Claudia moved to Sweden where they lived for a couple of years before moving to London. Helped by his friend Ewan MacColl, Tom and Claudia soon settled into life in London where Tom performed and recorded with MacColl’s wife, Peggy Seeger. Peggy recalled Tom as a “brilliant guitar and banjo player” who had “rock-solid rhythm”. Remaining in London for the rest of his life, Tom continued to perform, write and record, with occasional tours of the UK, Scandinavia and USA. Many albums and collaborations were recorded in these intervening years, including recording with his fiddle player son, Ben Paley. Tom’s last recording was a collaboration with Ben entitled Paley & Son which was released in 2015. This album also included Tom singing a duet with Welsh singer Cerys Matthews. But Tom never strayed far from the roots of folk music - he could often be found playing in sessions at Shakespeare’s Head pub in Islington and at Sharp’s Folk Club in Cecil Sharp House.

A passionate supporter of left wing politics and civil rights, Tom was a modest giant of the folk music world. His death marks the passing of one of the last of the folk music revivalists. He leaves his sister Maggie, his son Ben, and three grandchildren: Max, Isaac and Joy.

Jed Mugford