When Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton sits in for a set at the Jalopy Theatre in Red Hook, Brooklyn, it is a raucous affair. It’s not uncommon for his audiences to whoop, holler, and stomp in unison — hard enough to shake the floor. Paxton shifts from piano to guitar to fiddle to a five-string banjo that looks like he time-traveled to the 1920s, stole it from a juke joint, and dropped it on the ground a few times on the way back. His repertoire of old-timey music is vast — altogether, he says, he can play two or three thousand songs.
On this particular autumn night, his set includes Irish jigs, a pop song from the 1930s called “The Very Thought of You” (recorded by Al Bowlly, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, and Elvis Costello, among many others), and bluegrass favorite “Old Johnny Booker” from the early 1900s.
He also throws in an obscure spoken-word number from the mid 1960s (and from deep in the well of the black oral tradition), a story of doomed lust entitled “ ’Flicted Arm Pete” that he recites while accompanying himself on the piano.
It was way down in this little town that they call Louisville,
There once lived a fast-fucking whore by the name of Lil.
Now Lil had nipples on her titties just about as thick as your thumb,
Lil had jaws on her pussy that would make a dead man come.
But one day out of the mountains came a long-dicked creep,
That was a sonofabitch that we all call ‘Flicted Arm Pete.
Paxton can get away with even the dirtiest verse. “He’s — pardon the expression — a magic negro,” says Los Angeles–based musician and performer Brad Kay, a longtime friend and mentor. “I think he could walk into a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan and have them all singing along.” Paxton’s grandfatherly bluesman bearing, which one woman in the audience describes as “adorable,” doesn’t hurt. Kay compares his friend’s build to a refrigerator. He has an unfocused gaze, the result of a congenital condition that has rendered him legally blind.
Tonight he’s dressed in a blue button-up shirt, navy slacks, a gray sweater-vest, and a black yarmulke. Part African American, part Native American, and of Cajun descent, Paxton is an Orthodox Jew.
He’s also 25 years old.
Throughout his set, he carries on a patter both between and during songs. He’d apologized at the outset for being under the weather. There would be little singing, he said, owing to a bout of bronchitis. “I feel like a sweaty, sexy beast,” he says later, moving heavily under the hot stage lights.
Last year was a big one for Paxton. He traveled to New Orleans, France, and Israel, and — closer to home but veritably out of this world, symbolically — played his first set at the Newport Folk Festival, the granddaddy of them all.
The coming year promises to be just as eventful, if not more so. More traveling, more festivals, an album in the works. And, most important to him, more music. “There is so much work to be done,” he says.
Blind Boy Paxton is six-foot-two, but he only stands to get bigger.
Jerron Paxton was born and reared in South Central Los Angeles, a neighborhood that in 2003 the city renamed “South L.A.” in an effort to distance it from its infamous drug- and violence-ridden past. Whatever you call it, South Central L.A. was and is home to large, often poverty-stricken black and Latino communities. It was, famously, the site of the Watts riots of 1965, and of the uprising that followed the police-inflicted beating of Rodney King in the early 1990s. Not coincidentally, the area also played a part in spawning the West Coast hip-hop scene, along with musical acts ranging from Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy to Barry White, Keb’ Mo’, and Montell Jordan.
Further back, the area was a mecca for blacks in search of better lives. In the early decades of the 20th century, South Central was home to a bustling jazz scene. Legendary New Orleans trombonist Kid Ory moved there after the First World War; iconic pianist Jelly Roll Morton, another New Orleans legend, came through regularly. Also among the influx of black Americans were sharecroppers from the Deep South. Many were Louisianans like Paxton’s forebears. When they moved, they brought with them the country they knew.
“Cowboy hats and cowboy boots and gumbo suppers and barbecues and Hank Williams and George Jones and Hank Snow,” Paxton says in his light drawl. The walls of his small apartment in Ridgewood, Queens, are covered with wood paintings by his roommate, Jacqueline J. Rodriguez, and various tapestries he’s bought. Wearing overalls, as he often does, Paxton sits with a guitar in his lap, strumming at times as he speaks.
Paxton enjoys telling stories about his childhood.
“I was raised up singing while you work,” he says of how music came into his life. The jazz and blues of radio station KLON (now KKJZ) contributed heavily to the soundtrack, as did Seventies pop and soul hits and PBS television programs about classical music. His grandmother’s “ghetto blaster” played a crucial role as well.
“Saturday morning, after everybody in the house got up, she’d turn it as loud as it would go,” Paxton says. “And the whole house — you know little [shotgun]-style houses, music just runs through ’em — all the music would shoot out the back door, and we’d be in the backyard just having a good time.”
When it came to the violence nearby, Paxton says, “You just had a bunch of country people with shotguns and rifles that said, ‘Not here, baby.’ ”
He means his relatives.
South Central by birth, Paxton nonetheless grew up surrounded by Louisiana: four generations of his family on a single block. He lived with his mother, one set of grandparents, an uncle and aunt. His great-grandmother, born in 1906, lived across the street. The family was poor, he says, but never in want. There were barbecues and big home-cooked dinners — chicken and yams and cornbread and greens — a garden out back, fishing at El Dorado Park in Long Beach and up north on Lake Piru.
“I was just gardening, hunting, fishing — learning how to be a good young man,” he says.
LaSundra Reed met Larry Paxton during jury duty in the mid 1980s. The elder Paxton was a session drummer, Reed an accountant. Jerron was born in 1989 (“the Year of Our Lord 57 and 49,” he says, referencing the Hebrew calendar). His parents never married and eventually split up, but Reed says they remain good friends. Larry Paxton lived in southwestern L.A. County, in Inglewood, and Jerron recalls being taken for spins in his father’s lowrider, “bouncing up and down with funk music playing.”
And so he got his father’s last name and his mother’s upbringing.
Among all the older generations that surrounded him, he shared the tightest bond with his mother’s mother, Toretear (pronounced TORE-ee-uh-tur) Reed. She and Jerron’s grandfather, Clifton Willie Reed, moved from Louisiana to L.A. in 1956, then beckoned the others to join them. (Clifton Reed died in 2003 at the age of 73, Toretear two years later at 76.) “She was happy-go-lucky, she would help everyone and anyone she could,” LaSundra Reed says.
Paxton found Toretear Reed entertaining. “I was playing on my grandma’s blaster and she was playing video poker,” he recounts. “I’m in the kitchen, and I come back where she was and I see her legs jumping and not keeping time frantically. I was, like, ‘Oh shit, Granny’s having one!’ I’m like, ‘Granny, you all right?’ And she said, ‘Yeah baby, I’m just dancing.’ ” The two would spend hours together, talking, listening and dancing to old records — blues, ragtime, jazz. Paxton remembers her singing. Always singing — often not knowing an entire song but remembering just a few lines: “Take off your coat and throw it in the corner/Don’t see why you don’t stay a little longer,” he sings, laughing. He discovered Ray Charles’s “I Got a Woman” that way, his grandmother singing a snippet of the r&b legend’s first hit — in a manner a bit more bluesy than the original, he’d later learn.
Each family member veered toward a different kind of music, combining to fill Paxton’s days with sounds from generations past. Ultimately the music that struck him most was country blues: men singing narratives, accompanying themselves on guitar. It was music meant for small audiences, before the advent of amplified Chicago blues and larger rooms.
Lightnin’ Hopkins. Jimmy Reed. Bukka White. “I realized when I heard it,” Paxton says. “That’s the sound my people make.”
“When he was a young kid, maybe three or four, I would be in the kitchen cooking and he would grab a pot from under the cabinet and start beating on it and I would put it back and he’d cry,” LaSundra Reed recalls.
Paxton picked up his first traditional instrument at age twelve, purely out of functional curiosity — “mechanics,” in his words. It was the violin, and he wanted to understand how it worked. “I didn’t know how you pull a bow across the strings and have that make music,” he says. The piano he understood, having looked inside one. Guitar too. But the violin was a mystery. So he asked for one. His aunt obliged, and for the next several years he took lessons at school on Saturdays. The violin didn’t come easy, but the banjo, which he took up two years later (amid the bluegrass resurgence that accompanied the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?), proved a more natural fit. Two more years hence, the guitar was the clincher. “I had the guitar about fifteen or sixteen hours and had about seven or eight tunes. It felt like something I’d been doing my whole life,” Paxton says.
“Maybe it took a month for him to get it down pat, but he would practice every day,” LaSundra Reed says, describing how her son learned to play. He was a shy boy, but “he always had at least two instruments with him everywhere he’d go,” his mother says, whether to family gatherings where he’d take requests (if he forgot to bring something to play, they’d send him home to get it) or to pickup basketball games, where he’d pick his banjo courtside while his friends played.
At sixteen he played his first official concert, a $100 solo gig at the William Grant Still Arts Center in South Central’s West Adams neighborhood. He played songs by Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lightnin’ Hopkins, accompanying himself on banjo and guitar.
“The most fun I’d ever had in the world,” he says, “was seeing this 90-year-old woman, just shaking her shit with her grandchildren.”
Around that time, Paxton’s eyesight began to fail him. At seventeen it got so bad he went to the doctor and discovered he was, in fact, legally blind. He’d be diagnosed with congenital retinal deterioration and cone dystrophy, a hereditary condition that eventually causes blindness. Today he describes having lost his peripheral vision completely and at times seeing things that aren’t there.
Wandering around Santa Monica one Sunday in 2007, eighteen-year-old Jerron Paxton stopped in to a small, colorful venue called the UnUrban Coffee House. He’d recently begun teaching himself piano and knew there was one at the café on which anyone was welcome to practice.
Jazz and ragtime pianist Kay, who’d been performing around L.A. since the mid Sixties, was performing when Paxton walked in. That first encounter, Kay says, was unforgettable.
“There was hardly anybody in the joint. I looked up and I saw standing in the doorway a very large, very black person in overalls. He was looking straight at me, and he had this look: like Stanley had found Livingstone or something. I kept playing, and he kept staring. He had a guitar by his side and a little washboard tie. When I finished I got down from the stage and I went over to him. He was apparently blind — he had shades and a white cane. I said, ‘So, you look like a musician.’ He said, ‘I am.’ I said, ‘Yeah? Well, what kind of music do you play?’ ‘Oh, I like them ragtimes.’ ”
That’s when it hit Kay: The kid was a dead ringer for legendary fingerpicking guitarist Blind Blake, who’d moved from Florida to Chicago in the mid 1920s, recorded a trove of singular ragtime-influenced blues sides, then disappeared. (Blake is said to have died from tuberculosis in 1934 in Milwaukee.) Intrigued, Kay invited the young man to sit in.
“I never ask anybody to sit in that I don’t know, but I made an exception. I said, ‘Well, what do you know?’ He says, ‘Oh, how about the “Southern Rag”?’ Now, I knew this was a piece by Blind Blake, so I said, ‘OK, have at it.’ So I played and he played — and goddamn if it wasn’t the ‘Southern Rag’ played by Blind Blake! It didn’t sound something like Blind Blake, a guy imitating Blind Blake. It fucking was Blind Blake!”
Paxton began spending time with Kay. For hours they’d listen to Kay’s huge record collection, talk about music, and play. Paxton had never taken piano lessons, and as he figured out the songs he liked, Kay would give him pointers. One song that struck Paxton in particular was Sugar Underwood’s “Davis Street Blues,” an intricate piano piece recorded in 1927.
“I think that was the one time I got him to slow down and look at something,” Kay, now 63, recalls by phone from L.A. “He wanted to play just like Sugar Underwood.”
College was a given for Paxton — he would be the first in his family to attend. Grandma Reed had been set on it, having herself attended only through grade school.
“She would say from the time she could lift a skillet, she had to work,” Paxton says. “From seven years old, she was a part of the workforce.”
He can’t remember where else he applied, but Marist College, on the banks of the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, offered a scholarship. It was his first time so far away from home. He tried classes in philosophy and history but found himself escaping to the music room at every opportunity. “I was cutting classes to spend the majority of my time practicing piano,” he says.
Sometimes that too was a struggle.
“He called me up sometimes at four in the morning, all suicidal and saying, ‘I’m never gonna get this piece,’ ” Kay says. “He just could never get over his impatience, the inconvenience of actually having to practice the thing.”
Paxton describes the experience of learning new tunes in a more visceral way: “I really believe you never really learn anything. You just learn how to keep out of your way. Your body knows what to do, but for some reason you kinda freak out — I guess your body gets nervous.”
Whenever he could, he found a way to get to the city, where he began to explore the folk scene. He discovered the Jalopy one weekend when C.W. Stoneking, an Australian blues guitarist with whom Paxton had struck up an online friendship a few years earlier, was slated to play a set at the Brooklyn folk club. Stoneking generously offered to split his set with Paxton.
With a hand-built stage, church-pew seating, and a husband-and-wife ownership team, Geoff and Lynette Wiley, dedicated to the music, the Jalopy was a magnet for the folk crowd in Brooklyn and beyond. Paxton instantly found himself pulled into its force field. He met the Wileys; folksinger Feral Foster, at whose Wednesday night “Roots and Ruckus” hootenannies Paxton performs regularly; Eli Smith, the host of the online Down Home Radio Show who’d go on to co-found the Brooklyn Folk Festival in 2009; and banjo player Hubby Jenkins, now a member of the Grammy-winning old-time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops.
“For me it was almost like when Clapton and the Who and everybody went to go see Jimi Hendrix in London for the first time and they were, like, crying,” Jenkins says of seeing Paxton play that first time. “It was just so good.”
Not long after that first trip to the Jalopy, Paxton made a decision: He wanted to be a professional musician. In 2010 he transferred to the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in Greenwich Village, crashing on friends’ couches while he looked for a place of his own. One sometime roommate, fellow Jalopy-goer Horatio Baltz, is a graphic designer and photographer by trade but had recently started a jazz band, the Bill Murray Experience. Paxton began filling in, playing piano or banjo.
He was already fiddling around with various aliases. There was Jerron Paxton, of course, but in his teens he’d created MySpace pages — one for J-Dog (“just for being a teenager”), and another, blues-centric one called “Blind Boy” Paxton. The latter relic, along with a Blind Boy Gmail account, had been drawing other musicians and circulating around the folk universe, leading to requests to play solo.
Composer, pianist, and ragtime expert Terry Waldo remembers inviting Paxton up to sing when the latter came to hear Waldo play at Fat Cat, a pool hall that features live jazz and blues in the West Village.
“I never thought I’d hear anybody sing like this,” Waldo says. “There’s something primordial about the way he sings. He has a real depth to what he’s doing and a sensitivity to the music.” Waldo would invite Paxton to join him at gigs around the city and, in one instance, the two shared a stage at a show in Trenton, New Jersey, dedicated to “whorehouse music.” One of Waldo’s friends bought Paxton a piano that now sits in his living room.
Next came more far-flung gigs — at the Port Townsend Acoustic Blues Festival in Washington State, and at the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. He honed his solo act, realizing that playing alone was more lucrative than performing in a group. He found a manager, Steve Fugett of the Road Warrior Agency.
After two semesters, he dropped out of the New School. The focus on contemporary work and not the early jazz he was drawn to made for a bad fit, he says.
Onstage or off-, Paxton possesses the same soft-spoken, friendly manner. He is equally excited to meet people he doesn’t know and to see those he has known his whole life. He insists on bear hugs (“hug my neck” or “hug me, bitch”) and seems to regard every new face as a potential new friend.
During a set he shifts from instrument to instrument, picking up the guitar, moving to the piano, sitting down with his banjo. He berates his guitar (“Oh, fuck you”) when it refuses to stay in tune, takes requests, tells dirty jokes, dances while he plays. “We’re all in this together,” he seems to be saying.
He now can count among his fans Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna founding member Jorma Kaukonen. The two met this past fall at Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio. “He brings a joie de vivre to his performances that is sure to infect any listener. Not just lovers of ‘old timey’ stuff,” Kaukonen — a Blind Blake devotee himself — writes in an email. “Jerron is a master of styles that were old (but never out of date) when I was born in 1940. He brings a traditional style to life without coming off as an ‘archivist.’ He does it his way without relinquishing the immediacy of a bygone era.”
John Cohen of the old-time string band New Lost City Ramblers, a crucial player in the folk revival of the Sixties and hugely influential to subsequent musicians, tells of watching his fifteen-year-old granddaughter hear Paxton play in Baltimore. “She was totally taken in by him, and I think that’s so important — that he can reach a teenage girl,” Cohen says. “She just heard him as a fascinating, wonderful musician who’s absorbed in what he’s doing.”
Miles Spicer, who sits on the board of the Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Foundation outside Washington, D.C., had a similar experience when his son, then eleven years old, caught a recent Paxton solo performance there. “He’s funny,” young Nick Spicer said. “He could make Jimmy Fallon laugh.”
This year Paxton will serve as artistic director of the Port Townsend festival, where he’ll play and teach in late July and August. On February 21 the BBC will air a program about music from the South, which includes a Paxton performance shot in June 2014 at Dockery’s Plantation in Mississippi. And he’ll soon release his first album, which he recorded in Venice, California, with the help of fiddle player Frank Fairfield. Paxton says he and Fairfield recorded more than forty songs, from which they chose the best ten, including the Appalachian classic “Poor Benny” and the old standard “Motherless Child Blues.” (Also, a song about a chicken. “Gotta have a song about a chicken,” Paxton says.) He plans to sell the album, Recorded Music for Your Entertainment, to audiences at his shows, and hopes to land it on iTunes.
He no longer uses his cane, having decided to lose it soon after moving to New York.
“After about a night or two of using it, I was like: Somebody sees a dude with a cane walking around at three o’clock in the morning, that might be asking for trouble. So I put it in my bag, and that was about it.”
At home, Paxton keeps his days simple. He calls his mother several times a week. Evenings he’ll take in a show, stop by the Jalopy, or put on Netflix, where he gravitates to the westerns he used to watch with his grandfather. Habitually up until past sunrise, he arises at noon to daven Shacharit, or say the morning Jewish prayer. He cooks breakfast (he’s partial to kosher Creole gumbo and dirty rice, or Creole matzo-ball soup), and hurries out — “still knocking the cobwebs” — to Mincha, the afternoon prayer service, at his local temple, Beit Aharon.
“Instead of having this great story where we had Judaism through slavery and kept it for so long, it’s just that one of my grandmothers [Toretear Reed] was a Sephardic woman,” Paxton says, explaining his heritage. Most of his family is Baptist, and he was brought up going to church. As he learned about Judaism from Reed in his mid teens, he began feeling closer to the religion. He’s the only practicing Jew in the family.
Orthodox Jews in particular place a high value on marriage and family. But Paxton says he has other priorities right now and couldn’t envision being a good father, husband, and traveling musician.
“I wanna do right by my kids and be there as much as possible,” he says. “And as a person who has a visual impairment and limited ways of earning an income, the best way to earn my income is being a traveling musician.
“I’m also not finished with my fast living.”