Jean Ritchie
& Paul Clayton,
American Folk
Tales & Songs

(Tradition, 1956;
Empire Musicwerks, 2006)

This is another in the highly welcome series of reissues which Empire Musicwerks is rescuing from the catalogue of the long-defunct Tradition label. In 1956 the Clancy Brothers and Guggenheim family heiress Diane Hamilton created Tradition so they could record friends who shared their passion -- in those days an eccentric, even suspect, one in the eyes of not a few of their fellow citizens -- for folk-music performance.

Jean Ritchie, who is still alive if no longer active, is fondly recalled as artist, songwriter and carrier of the musical traditions of her Kentucky family. She had been a New Yorker for some years, though, when her husband George Pickow and Liam Clancy oversaw the recording of American Folk Tales & Songs in the fall of 1956.

Paul Clayton, whose name is less familiar, no doubt entirely obscure to some reading these words, was marginally famous long ago, but now goes unmentioned even in the fat folk-revival encyclopedia I recently pulled off a shelf and consulted. He deserves a whole lot better.

From 1954 until the mid-1960s, Clayton cut numerous albums on nearly as many labels, even journeyed down to Virginia and elsewhere to collect songs personally. "Gotta Travel On," his rewrite of a hoary outlaw lament (sometimes known as "Big Ball in Memphis") from Appalachia, was popular among early revival groups, rockabillies and country singers, and lives on in the present as an often-covered bluegrass tune. In his lifetime, unfortunately, commercial success as a star in his own right eluded him. He hung out with Bob Dylan, who called him "Pablo." Dylan borrowed the melodies for at least two of his songs, the famous "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and the not-so-famous "Percy's Song," from traditional pieces he heard Clayton singing. In April 1966, overwhelmed by a vicious and unshakable drug habit, Clayton killed himself. "He couldn't take it," Liam Clancy told Dylan biographer Howard Sounes. "He got into a bathtub and pulled an electric heater after himself."

Clayton was a few years gone before I came upon his albums in assorted discount bins. I was immediately hooked. He had a smooth tenor voice, but it was an effective one, and it has worn well. It could handle an impressive range of material -- British ballads, mountain tunes, sea chanteys, even Bahamian songs (though his rewrite/rearrangement of "Cecil Gone in the Time of Storm" little resembles any genuine, in-the-tradition version) -- in a way that still sounds distinctive. From Dylan onwards, the notion of how to deliver a folk or folk-based song was altered toward the more rugged and "authentic," and in that regard Clayton is definitely a creature from another era, more Cisco Houston than Woody Guthrie. Still, to my ears, Clayton's way of singing is just fine. In fact, every time I hear him, I am pleasantly reminded of how good he was.

On six of the 15 cuts, Richard Chase, actor and storyteller with genuine Southern roots, tells yarns and jokes, some of them very old indeed. One or two I remember from my youth, including the now hugely politically incorrect "That's Once." Separately or together, Ritchie and Clayton, with simple guitar accompaniment, wrap their voices around old-time tunes that would become revival staples for a short time a few years later before sinking back into obscurity and neglect: "The Devil's Question," "The Old Gray Goose is Dead," "The Swapping Song" (how good to hear that one again!) and more. What's not to like?

by Jerome Clark
10 March 2007

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