The Recipe is an interview series that aims to familiarize listeners and readers with the artists behind the songs.
Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton is a peculiar talent. The 31 year old legally-blind musician has made a name for himself by performing hundred year old songs and personifying the byegone charm, wit and Blackbelt Southern dialect of an old-timey blues singer. And though Paxton has built a reputation out of transporting his audiences back to the1920s, make no mistake, he is not a caricature of the past — he’s the real deal.
Born in South Central Los Angeles, Paxton was raised by his grandparents, who had relocated from Louisiana in the 1950s and carried a wealth of Southern history and culture along with them. From his earliest days in the cradle and throughout his childhood, Paxton was exposed to hundreds of pre-World War II era folk songs casually sung by his family and other Southern-transplants that lived nextdoor. Unlike other unruly teens, Paxton took a strong interest in this music and the history behind it. He picked up the fiddle to further explore old jazz, blues, ragtime and cajun songs, and learned banjo shortly after. And as his vision began to fade he added piano, harmonica, accordion, and many other traditional and historical folk instruments to his repertoire. Since then, the young prodigy has grown into a human encyclopedia of Black Folk Music, an unintentional conservator-restorer of the music that America’s whitewashed history books painted over, and a whip smart, wisecracking, virtuosic multi-instrumentalist and storyteller.
We were lucky enough to bring Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton to Vermont for two sold-out shows (with prohibition-inspired cocktails powered by our friends at Hudson Whiskey) at Light Club Lamp Shop this winter. We caught up with him after the shows to discuss his life, culture and the music that he lives through for this installment of The Recipe.
Enjoy this Spotify playlist, specially curated by Blind Boy Paxton.
So, why Old Time Music?
I don’t really play “Old Time Music”. I play “Black Folk Music” and for lack of a better term or lack of a better category, it gets thrown into what we call “Old Time Music”. I find that most “Old Time” tends to be a copy of “Black Folk Music”, ya understand? Even the songs that come from Europe, like “Lord MacDonald’s Reel”, if you play them one way, it’s close to Irish music, but if you play them like a black man it comes out like “Leather Britches”, and that’s what people call “Old Time Music” nowadays.
Do I play “Old Time” or “Bluegrass”? Neither motherfucker! I play “Ragtime!”
So is this type of music a family tradition of yours? How’d you get involved?
I suppose it’s a cultural tradition. Every culture has it’s music and I just latched onto my people’s.
Did you start playing when you were pretty young?
About 12 years old.
What was it like going down this path? How did you connect with your peers?
Where I was born in South Central Los Angeles, everyone mostly was from The Black Belts, ya understand? So our grandparents would play and listen to similar type music. They were all from Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi so we played that sort of music — or listened to it at least. Nowadays I still believe it’s true with the youth that you can sing the words of any Jimmy Reed song and most of the people in South Central will know it.
Who inspired you to do what you do? Any specific artists or songs?
No, not any one person, per se. Heck, I didn’t even know I was going to do it myself. I was always looking for something else to do! Although life was pushing me in the direction of music, and it took me a couple of years, I decided it’s best to just listen to life.
Do you consider your art to be a reflection of the past? Or are you sort of bringing back these old songs and old music back to life again?
Ah, with me I don’t know if they went anywhere. I was born and raised playing them. It was nothing foreign for me, it was nothing I had to reach far back to get. The lady who rocked me in the cradle would sing me these songs. To me it’s not a part it’s just a part of culture. Everyone has their own culture, and things that they get from their culture. I’m just somebody who picked it up.
So it’s extremely normal for you, your family, and your surroundings.
My folks couldn’t imagine me singing or playing any other kind of music!
What is the artist’s role in inspiring social change? Is it their duty to use their platform for the bigger picture?
I believe that artists, first and foremost, should be dedicated to their art and their politics should come far beyond that. I think politics is like football, ya know? My team is great and your team sucks! And that’s it. I don’t think that has much of a place in music. Although, to be my own devil’s advocate, plenty of people from my culture make music that is about social change, and inspired by wanting to change social injustice. But as a part of my culture, because of the prejudices we face here in the most powerful country in the world, we have to do it covertly, so we wouldn’t be killed. That’s a part of my art form and a culture’s art form, and whenever things about social change come up, I tend to lean that way.
Is there any sort of agenda that you like to attach to your music or performance?
Yeah, suck less.
People suck a lot these days. People make a lot of money doing shitty things. Music, art and poetry can be pretty shitty. And the people who are good at social media and all sorts of other things in the music business — 90% of which has nothing to do with playing music — tend to have the biggest audiences. While there are great artists who prefer to practice and get better, but are pretty impoverished and nobody hears from too much — only a select few people who dig enough are aware of their worth and greatness. So my platform has always been to suck less, because I know people who can kick your ass musically, artistically and otherwise.
How are you getting a foot ahead in “sucking less”?
By giving straight excellence, constantly.
You seem to have two separate audiences. The quiet, attentive type and the raunchy, raucous type. How do you navigate and play to your audience on a set-by-set basis?
I think that comes in handy by me not making a setlist. That allows me to be a bit more flexible and play whatever comes to mind. And just so that way, when the audience is quiet and attentive, I play the quiet and attentive music. I seem to like the quiet and attentive audience because I can play the music that means a bit more to me.
You probably saw it when I played in Burlington last. The quieter audience gets the songs that make me cry. Songs about the things that are deep to me, that connect deep, the things that I learned from my forbearers, the things that touch me in the heart. But you can’t do that for an audience that loves to chatter and sometimes makes you feel like your presence is impeding their fun. So they get the dirty songs and the different kind of crowd pleasers. Every person gets their worth and some people ain’t worth shit, so that’s what I play for em. I have a bare minimum of professionalism that means I have to enjoy myself. And if I enjoy myself, the audience sees it, and they see that I’m giving them what I got. So the ones that do pay attention, get a good show, and the ones that don’t are just like the kids in the back of the class who grow up not to be shit — but these people grow up to be middle-aged shit. I can spot a loser from a mile away, you know!
I’m sure you’re quite good at it after all of these years. But have you had any instances of maybe offending folks and then being confronted?
The only people I find that get offended are the people who lack the ability to dig deeper past the surface area. Which is the nicest, most diplomatic way I can say that there are some dumbass people who don’t know shit from Shinola. I’ve heard people get more offended from things that are offensive to nobody than some of those dirty songs. I’ve heard a lot of people get offended by simple misunderstandings, and 99% of the audience is just like “What is their problem?” Including me. I think that’s happened maybe all of once in half a lifetime of playing music publicly.
Photography by Luke Awtry.
“A recipe is a story that ends with a good meal.” — Pat Conroy