Blind Boy Paxton turns back the clock
"I didn't expect to be this comfortable with airline travel," Patton told The Eagle during a telephone interview.
It isn't difficult to understand why. Paxton's sound, aesthetic and stage presence hearken a time long before the Wright brothers were messing around with aircrafts in North Carolina. While the roots music mix that Paxton will bring to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's Club B10 on Saturday night is often deemed an homage to the 1920s and 1930s, that's just because some of the tunes were recorded then. Played on piano, banjo, guitar, fiddle, Cajun accordion, harmonica and the bones, Paxton's songs stem from eras well before that epoch.
"I'm a bit of a throwback," the 29-year-old said. "My folks always said I was born a little old man."
Paxton was raised in Los Angeles, a city that spawned major hip-hop figures in the 1990s but also had a strong roots music culture during that time.
"Most of the black people from the areas I grew up in, around South Central, were all from the deep South — usually Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, and Alabama," Paxton told Justin Hiltner of Bluegrass Situation. "For us, that's the music we listened to at the house. That's just what we called 'down home blues.' You couldn't have a party without down home blues being played."
His late grandmother, Toretear Reed, moved to the city from Louisiana. Her appreciation for music from different generations stuck with Paxton, who listened to ragtime and acoustic blues, among other genres, during his youth. His stage name, Blind Boy Paxton, was originally a nod to the Piedmont blues guitarist Blind Boy Fuller. Some people don't understand the allusion.
"I've been thinking about changing it for years," Paxton said.
He has decided to keep it because he's a "visually impaired fella" who, through performance, wants to bring attention to those who have similar difficulties with their vision.
"It's a big deal," he said.
Onstage, his repertoire has been known to draw from all over the map.
"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," Gili Malinsky writes of a 2014 show for The Village Voice.
Audience members often ask for "the blues." Initially, Paxton said he was "perturbed" by this request.
"Blues is a positive dog whistle for black culture," he said.
But he now views it as a compliment, an appreciation for his authentic renditions of early-20th-century sounds that people associate with that label. His tunes have long been in demand. Paxton began touring the Los Angeles area before Reed's death, which came when Paxton was 16. Reed always wanted to see him play Carnegie Hall and the Grand Ole Opry. In 2016, he accomplished the former, participating in Lead Belly Fest at the New York City venue. The tribute to Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter included Buddy Guy, among others. He later opened for Guy at a New York City, where Paxton is now based. Music — and airplanes — have taken him to places he couldn't conjure when he was a child.
"Growing up," he said, "I didn't think there was too much above the 10 freeway."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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