The Story of Paul Clayton: the Origins of Modern Folk Music

inUncategorizedon August 14, 2017

Imagine this…

It’s 1966 and a group of American musicians have traveled across time and space to form an impromptu band. They’re hometown music-makers, no professionals: kids from New Orleans with horns, an upper-middle-class mother from her 19th century parlor, a 60s garage rocker with his cheap electric guitar, a Piedmont blues picker with some ragtime-flavored licks, an Irish immigrant piper, a Civil War drummer boy, a church organist, some hipster freak-folkies from the future, and a host of others. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters show up and dose them all with the special Kool-Aid.

After a while, a song materializes; a simple, lilting, 3-chord tune with different instrumentalists coming in and out as they please, every player following the ebbs and flows of the moment. It’s chaos. But it sounds joyful. At its center is a pleasant, fairly non-descript voice singing a sweet folk melody. The words are all about gingerbread, and, somehow, this voice holds it all together.

Paul Clayton c. 1940s

The scene above is what I heard the first time I listened to Paul Clayton’s “Gingerbreadd Mindd” demos. Music Maker is now making these fascinating musical documents publicly available for the first time. The recordings take us directly into a moment when Clayton’s life and the folk music world he had helped build were both crumbling. They’re aural postcards from the ruins. Ultimately, though, I believe that they point us to hope rather than despair.

A decade earlier, in 1956, Paul Clayton was a central figure in the burgeoning folk music scene. He released Sailing and Whaling Songs of the 19th Century that year, featuring his versions of maritime classics, many of which he had learned as a child in New Bedford, MA. It became essential listening for folkies everywhere. The year also saw the release of Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians; a collection of field recordings Clayton helped make and compile that would become a foundational document in American folk music. It was the record that introduced folk innovator and future Music Maker artist Etta Baker to the world.

Around that time, Clayton began taking regular trips from his cabin outside of Charlottesville, VA up to New York’s Greenwich Village. He liked the scene: the music, the pot, the pills, the open-mindedness about sexuality. Clayton’s Village friends affectionately called him Pablo, and he became a stand-out among stand-outs. He was funny, charismatic, good-looking, highly intelligent, and an extraordinary conversationalist.

Bob Dylan and Clayton became close around 1961. Clayton was instantly enamored with the younger man and his songs. And, for Dylan, Clayton was the only singer whose performances could believably inhabit the strange world of the ancient ballads, what Dylan called a world of “legends and Bibles…curses and myths [and] plagues.” “He’s a medium,” Dylan said in a 1964 interview, “he’s not trying to personalize it, he’s bringing it to you.” Years later, in Chronicles, Vol. 1, Dylan remembered Clayton as, “Unique—elegiac, very princely—part Yankee gentleman and part Southern rakish dandy. He dressed in black from head to foot and would quote Shakespeare.”

Clayton, who studied under the renowned folklorist Arthur Kyle Davis at UVA, had an encyclopedic knowledge of balladry that was a fount from which Dylan drank heavily. In fact, several of Dylan’s most enduring compositions—such as “With God on Our Side” and “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall”—are derived from ballads and date to the time when his relationship with Clayton was at its closest. Some people have speculated that the “blue-eyed son” protagonist of “Hard Rain” was inspired by the strikingly blue-eyed Clayton. Given Dylan’s comments above about Clayton’s ability to inhabit a ballad, the speculation does not seem far-fetched.

Clayton and Dylan’s relationship, however, was not fated to last. There were legal squabbles. Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” borrows the melody and a few lines from Clayton’s “Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone” (a melody Clayton had adapted from a folk tune). And there was a crazy, drug-fueled, cross-country road trip in 1964. After that trip, the mercurial Dylan simply moved on from Clayton, like he moved on from so many others around this time, and like he moved on from the folk scene in general.

It was a heartbreaking time for Clayton. Not only did he have deep feelings for Dylan, but the separation highlighted a growing sense within Clayton and those around him that, although barely in his mid-30s, he was becoming a relic. By the mid-60s, folk music had been dolled up for the pop mainstream, the British invasion had taken hold, and the music media was presenting “folk-rock” as the next new thing. Clayton’s world of balladry, whaling songs, and field recordings seemed quaint by comparison. Additionally, Clayton’s drug addiction was out of control, exacerbating the decline of his mental health. When Dylan went electric in 1965, Clayton was likely beginning to be plagued by his own thoughts of “going electric.” Less than two years after Dylan’s amplified Newport appearance, Clayton would commit suicide by electrocuting himself in a bathtub.

Amid the deterioration in the last year or so of his life, Clayton became obsessed with “Gingerbreadd.” Bob Coltman, in his exquisite and thoroughly-researched biography of Clayton, writes, “This quirky concept seems born of Paul’s desperation, a kind of last laugh to cushion the final short days of his life.” Clayton talked to his friends about his vision of a Gingerbreadd Worldd, a kind of psychedelic utopia where everyone shared what they had and cared for one another. Part of his vision included the creation of his own gingerbreadd-themed songs, band, and record label. Clayton got as far as recording two tracks—“Gingerbreadd Mindd” parts 1 and 2.


Original Cover Art for Gingerbreadd Mindd by: Paul Clayton

These are the tracks that we have here. They went unheard for about 40 years. In 2005, Bob Coltman found out that the masters were among a collection of Clayton’s things kept by his cousin, Barbara Souza. Coltman devotes a chapter to the recordings in his biography, and makes a strong case that they show Clayton attempting, in his own way, to break into the growing folk-rock scene.

Of course, as Coltman points out, much about “Gingerbreadd Mindd” remains a mystery, including Clayton’s true thoughts and intentions. And maybe it doesn’t matter anyway. Maybe what he was trying to do is less important than what he did do. Now that Music Maker—with the consent of Barbara Souza—is making these recordings public, we can all listen and interpret for ourselves.

In my own hearing, there is really something special about these tracks, messy as they are. During his short life, Clayton had soaked up so much music—from upper-crust New England to Appalachian shacks; from the ancient to the modern; from the amateur to the professional. Clayton was filled with a vast diversity of sounds, and they all come swirling out in “Gingerbreadd Mindd.” It’s folk music—not some kind of tightly-policed, folk-revival representation of the “the music of the people,” but an open embrace of the wild untamed diversity of American music, as mediated through Clayton’s own deteriorating mindd. It’s a chaotic presentation of unrestrained Americana. But, amid the chaos, there is one thing that sounds peaceful—Clayton himself.

Whether Clayton experienced any actual peace as a result of “Gingerbreadd Mindd” we cannot know. But I like to imagine these recordings as a sonic home that Clayton built for himself; a Gingerbreadd Worldd where he didn’t have to be a stranger; a place where his homosexuality, his mental illness, and all his other eccentricities were not liabilities, but just part of the fabric of experience. It’s as close to a realization of Clayton’s utopia as there will ever be. And now we have the opportunity to—just for a moment—join him there.

— Will Boone Phd

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