Tom Paley - 2 April 2005


Tom Paley once performed alongside Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. One of the founder members of the "New Lost City Ramblers", Tom Paley performed these tunes in Harlow in 2005 with his son Ben Paley, and with Joe Locker, under the name of the"New Deal String Band".

Tom sings "Sporting Life Blues," which he learned from Brownie McGhee, accompanying himself on guitar.




Learn to play some of Tom Paley's banjo tunes. Download free banjo tablature in the Old Time Music style.

Tom sings "When first unto this country" accompanying himself on autoharp.

What characterised Tom, what above all else is a rare quality is that whoever he met he gave them his time willingly and his friendship openly, whether over a period of years, a few days or only moments, he treated all humanity with equal kindness, grace and sometimes bemusement.

Like many others I cherished the private times he gave me banjo lessons at his London flat and the easy chat over supper before heading out to a session at the Harlequin.

The music defined us bringing us together. Tom cared about the here and now. He cared about you in that moment you were with him. It mattered to him what you thought and how you felt. It felt great to be with Tom. It was a lesson in life as well as music.

With the same grace with which he would lend you his guitar and banjo, his life long possessions, he would tell you anything, show you anything he could remember. Nobody could forget a meetings with him. Thank you Tom, for crossing my path in life.

I first met Tom Paley when I was 12 year's old. It was 1979, the same year Ry Cooder came to the UK.

At the age of 12 a bootleg of Cooder's Cambridge set and Tom's LP Hard Luck Papa came to define the very essence of my aspirations. Peggy Seeger also often came to Harlow. As she put it: with his mathematical mind and classical background (like her) Tom played Old Time and Blues with an awesome speed and precision. This was matched only by Joe's unique banjo arrangements.

Year's went by. Some of these old friends were no longer with us. I had my own young family and I was no nearer matching the skill and ability of these great bluesmen. Til one day I decided to search the Internet for Tom's phone number. How would you like to come back and play in Harlow? Sure he said.

With the help of Cliff and Richard and Paul, we put on a series of gigs featuring Joe, Tom and his son Ben. The club in Harlow where we played no longer stands but my Dad's YouTube recording has since had 38 thousand views around the world. Tom was a master of the big stage and the small club. When Fergie barged up and insisted he accompany him on a Ewan McColl number somehow Tom remembered the chords. When Cliff offered him an autoharp Tom played "First unto this country" as well as any member of the Seeger family.

There followed a wonderful friendship in which I would call for Tom at his flat in Angel take in a few banjo or guitar lessons and then after a two for one deal at Weatherspoons (he liked a bargin), pop round the corner for a jam session at the Harlequin. Always Tom would lend me his own instruments so I didn't have to lug mine about on the train. I had one of those new inventions: an mp3 recorder so Tom would dig out the LP of what he was trying to teach me and I would quickly record the track. (Tom loved a bit of technology although he didn't really own any). He lived in two rooms and one was lined floor to ceiling with dozens of cases of violins. He used to joke that he had no money but paid people in fiddles.

Many can testify better than I what a wonderful open and generous being Tom was. Happy to laugh and chat about anything and with always a story to spin. Thankfully you can judge this for yourself from the lovely radio recordings of Cerys Matthews.

Tom had friends and admirers in every generation. Right up until the last few months he was gigging and recording with a new young band. Not bad for 89. When we were rehearsing for the Harlow gigs or when he stopped over he struck up a great rapport with Della and my mum. He was always very greatful if anyone cooked him food and responded with much warmth and many personal stories.

Over such a long life Tom had known thousands of people. From Brownie McGhee and Woody Guthrie to simple like minded fans like me. He connected directly with everyone and gave them his time and honest friendship. For a while, moving in his circle opened a window to an amazing diverse group of musicians and American friends. With his great modesty I'm sure Tom treated everyone exactly the same, whether me or Ry Cooder.

Although he could play piano and fiddle and autoharp, all his life Tom played the same two instruments. A Martin parlour guitar and a Bacon Silverbell banjo. I'd hazard a pretty good guess that Cooder would recognise that same guitar Tom taught me on, which is quite a thought. And Jerry Garcia probably learned on the same banjo.

Of course I did not become a musician. Certainly not like some of Tom's better students, but for a while I could play the tunes well enough. More importantly no one ever forgot an encounter with Tom. It was always a fond memory. In 2017 at the BBC Folk awards Cooder was presented with a life time achievement. After a short talk about how he was inspired by the New Lost City Ramblers the camera cut to Tom in the audience. Cooder pointed him out and said "those were some lessons."

What's good enough for Cooder can't be said any better by me. Lessons in music. Lessons in a life well lived.

Thank you Tom.