Today's featured artist had released 20 albums in his brief lifetime, yet he is recognized only by a few. Those who knew him, however, were enthusiastic. Dylan said in an 1964 interview:
“(Folk music) goes deeper than just myself singing it, it goes into legends and Bibles, it goes into curses and myths, it goes into plagues, it goes into all kinds of weird things that I don’t even know about, can’t pretend to know about. The only guy I know that can really do it 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.”
When the Coen Brothers made Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), a film about the folk scene of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, loosely based on Dave Van Ronk’s posthumous memoir “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” they cast Justin Timberlake in a role inspired by Paul Clayton. In the photo below, with the two of them side by side, you can see that the transformation was successful.
Paul Clayton Worthington was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1931, during the early years of the Great Depression. His parents, Clayton Worthington and Adah (Hardy), were married four years before, and Paul was to be their only child. Despite the hard economic times, his father was comfortably employed as a salesman with a national company, where he eventually would become an executive. The Worthingtons lived with Adah's parents in the West End of New Bedford, a prosperous New England seaport. Paul's parents, however, were both highly charged, Adah especially, and they fought whenever her husband returned home after days on the road. Less than four years following Paul's birth, they divorced.
Clayton and his mother continued to live with her parents, Charles and Elizabeth Hardy, and his introduction to music came early. His parents both played musical instruments, though casually, his father the banjo and his mother the piano. His grandparents would be an even greater influence. Charles Hardy, a whaling outfitter, sang songs he had picked up from seafarers and landlubbers alike, while Elizabeth contributed songs she grew up with in Canada's Prince Edward Island. By his teen years, in the mid-1940s, Paul had learned to play guitar, performing traditional songs he learned from his grandparents as well as from folk music programs on the radio. He also hunted down standards from collections available at school and in his explorations, chanced upon a trove of original manuscripts of seafaring songs on a visit one day to the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Intrigued by the possibilities of using radio to bring traditional music to larger audiences, Clayton landed a weekly series of 15-minute folk programs on New Bedford's WFMR and later on WBSM. Besides writing and announcing his own material, he performed live, singing the traditional songs he had been collecting to his own guitar accompaniment. He was successful enough that the program was expanded to an hour per week. He was still only in high school.
After graduating in 1949, Clayton attended the University of Virginia, where hoped to gain a better grounding in musical scholarship. One of his professors was Arthur Kyle Davis, Jr., an eminent folklorist. Davis took three students under his wing, including Clayton, encouraging them to transcribe songs, write commentary and tape the university's collection of deteriorating aluminum recordings. In 1950, Clayton's unusual musical background caught the attention of Helen Hartness Flanders, the wife of U.S. Senator Ralph E. Flanders of Vermont and an internationally recognized folk music authority. Flanders showed up at Clayton's house one day with a tape recorder while he was home from college, and she recorded 11 of his songs. The roles had reversed. Now Clayton was the one being collected.
That same year he discovered a new instrument, the Appalachian dulcimer. Seeking out traditional players in North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia, he learned a variety of styles, becoming more proficient on dulcimer than he was on guitar. Through the knowledge he had gathered on the instrument, he collaborated on a booklet, The Appalachian Dulcimer, writing authoritatively on the subject. Meanwhile, he scoured the countryside for traditional players and songs. To help finance his field trips, he performed at colleges, schools, bars and coffeehouses along the way. Around this time, Paul dropped the "Worthington" and assumed "Paul Clayton" as his stage name.
Another side of Clayton's personality emerged during college. The university had an almost entirely male student body, and a gay subculture had existed there for many years. Because of the times and the university's conservative traditions, it all remained closeted. Clayton immediately felt that he belonged. Free of his home ties, he had an active if private romantic life and sought liaisons whenever and wherever he could.
Another thing that surfaced soon after was his bipolar disorder. He dealt with it by taking Dexamyl, a combined amphetamine and barbiturate that was marketed as a mood elevator and to combat anxiety, and was soon addicted to it.
After college, Stinson Records put out Clayton's first album, Whaling Songs & Ballads, which was released in 1954 in cooperation with the New Bedford Whaling Museum. To listen to Paul Clayton sing Spanish Ladies feels like listening to the sailors themselves.
Same goes for The Dying Sailor To His Shipmates:
The album also contains a haunting version of Shenandoah:
The album closes with Santy Anna:
Another Stinson release, Waters of Tyne, followed, and over the next few years he recorded for a series of other relatively obscure labels, releasing Whaling and Sailing Songs on Tradition Records and Wanted for Murder: Songs of Outlaws and Desperados and Bloody Ballads: British and American Murder Ballads on Riverside Records, among others. Unfortunately, none of the songs from these three albums were available on youtube. Hopefully you'll have better luck if you search for them from another country.
Refocusing his attentions on the basics, he issued a series of albums for Folkways that brought together his grandfather's ballads and shanties with the rarities uncovered through his scholarly pursuits in Virginia. Four Clayton albums were released by Folkways in 1956 alone: his first, Bay State Ballads, followed by Folk Songs and Ballads of Virginia, Cumberland Mountain Folksongs and The Folkways-Viking Record of Folk Ballads of the English Speaking World.
From Folk Songs and Ballads of Virginia, here's Wild Rover:
In 1958, Clayton switched labels again, moving over to Elektra, an eclectic label that also specialized in folk music. He recorded Unholy Matrimony that year with Bob Yellin backing him on banjo and the next year released Bobby Burns' Merry Muses of Caledonia.
From the former, here's Stay Away From The Girls:
... Also The Butcher And The Tailor's Wife:
... And here's Dirty Wife:
From the latter, here's Nine Inch Will Please A Lady:
... Also John Anderson, My Jo:
He then joined Monument Records, a smaller outfit, where he recorded the first nationally charted version of Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land. The record entered the Music Vendor pop chart 4/5/60, reaching #79 in a 4-week chart stay. Unfortunately, it's not available on youtube. The B-side, however, Who's Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I'm Gone), is; and it makes for an interesting story:
Bob Dylan's friendship with Clayton dated back to 1961, Dylan's first year in New York City. Dylan traveled cross-country with Clayton and two other friends in 1963, during which they visited poet Carl Sandburg in North Carolina, attended Mardi Gras in New Orleans and met with Joan Baez in California.
In an interview, folk singer Barry Kornfeld described how Clayton's Who's Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I'm Gone) morphed into one of Dylan's best, Don't Think Twice, It's All Right:
"I was with Paul one day, and Dylan wanders by and says, 'Hey, man, that's a great song. I'm going to use that song.' And he wrote a far better song, a much more interesting song - Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."
Dylan's and Clayton's publishing companies sued each other over the alleged plagiarism. As it turned out, Clayton's song was derived from an earlier folk song entitled Who's Gonna Buy You Chickens When I'm Gone?, which was in the public domain. The lawsuits, which were settled out of court, had no effect on the friendship between the two songwriters.
Also, Dylan’s Percy’s Song is based on the old English folk ballad Lord Franklin, which he said he learned from Clayton. Clayton's version is not on youtube, so here's a good version by Pentangle instead:
His next record was Paul Clayton Sings Home-Made Songs & Ballads (1961). Last Cigarette was released as a single:
Who's Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I'm Gone) was also included here, as well as Peggy O, which would later be performed by acts as important as Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and the Grateful Dead.
Clayton busked all over the globe, collecting and learning tunes. When he wasn’t traveling, Clayton hung around Greenwich Village or retreated to his remote cabin on a Virginia mountainside. Dylan writes about Clayton’s cabin, “The place had no electricity or plumbing or anything; kerosene lamps lit up the place at night with reflective mirrors.”
The 1960s folk music revival in America eventually grew into a different incarnation of folk music. Under gifted artists like Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen that music became a sort of confessional contemporary balladry of youth. It was not a bad thing certainly, and confessional folk was undeniably a seminal cultural development in late 20th century America, but contemporary folk music is something different than what Paul Clayton was hearkening back to.
While Clayton, as Dylan pointed out, was a wonderful medium — “he’s a trance” — for traditional ballads, he had little success in personalizing folk music in the confessional mode. Perhaps because of his personal characteristics — he was a gay man in the closeted 1960s and was addicted to drugs at a time when little was understood about that — Clayton was irrevocably set apart from popular themes. If he were only born a few years later...
He did make one last album, simply called Folk Singer!, in 1965. From that album, here's Green Rocky Road:
Also from that album, here's Wild Mountain Thyme:
Another song that appears in this album, Gotta Travel On, became a hit for Grand Ole Opry star Billy Grammer, who had a million-selling single with it. The Weavers, Harry Belafonte, Dylan and Burl Ives also recorded Clayton’s songs. Here's Billy Grammer's version of Gotta Travel On:
As the ’60s wore on, however, Clayton even though he was only in his mid-thirties, was already a man beyond his time. His long struggles with drugs had begun to take their ransom. Bob Coltman, in his 2008 biography of Clayton, writes that the singer’s good friend Stephen Wilson said the folklorist had drifted a bit into acid when his system was already weakened by Dexamyl and had a tenuous grip on reality at the end.
Clayton committed suicide on March 30, 1967, by pulling an electric heater into the bathtub of his New York City apartment. He was 35 years old.
The electrocution took place two years after Dylan “went electric” in 1965 and Clayton’s chosen manner of death would not have been lost on a mind as keen as his. The acoustic folk music era in which he had thrived had been killed by electricity — he seems to have used his own suicide as metaphor.