DARTMOUTH — Barbara Souza’s family sure loved their stories about the world premiere of the feature film “Moby Dick” in New Bedford, in 1956. A child at the time, she was in awe, because her cousin was part of the parade.
“He was up there on the float with the actors,” including leading man Gregory Peck, she said recently. Her cousin, a young folk singer named Paul Clayton, was known for his recordings of traditional music, including the sea chanties and whaling songs of his native New Bedford.
Though Clayton would become a key figure in the folk revival of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, he is not well remembered today. Yet almost 50 years after his death, he’s up there with the actors again. There are strong hints of Clayton’s colorful (and ultimately tragic) story in the new Coen brothers film about the Village folk scene, “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
Bits and pieces of the directors’ loose, darkly comic interpretation of the folk scene have been traced to various real-life characters. Llewyn’s story borrows liberally from the late Dave Van Ronk’s memoir, “The Mayor of MacDougal Street.” There’s a trio that mimicks Peter, Paul and Mary, an urban cowboy who’s a ringer for Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and an elfin newcomer unmistakably sitting in for a certain singer called Dylan.
Though his name doesn’t carry the same weight, Clayton’s story is distinctly represented, too. Justin Timberlake, who plays one-half of the square-ish folk duo Jim and Jean, has said the chinstrap-style beard he wore on camera was inspired by a photo he and the Coen brothers found of Clayton.
More meaningfully, Clayton’s death – he died by an apparent suicide, electrocuted in a bathtub in 1967 – most likely inspired the loss that gives Llewyn his underlying sense of grief. In the film, the singer’s former duo partner is a ghostly presence, having jumped off the George Washington Bridge.
In his day, Clayton assumed an important role in the Village folk scene. Often billing himself as “the most recorded young folk singer in America,” his thematic collections of songs for Folkways, Elektra, and other labels included mountain folk tunes, British “broadside” songs, and one album called “Bay State Ballads.” He wrote one of the biggest hits of 1959, “Gotta Travel On,” a million-selling single for country crossover star Billy Grammer.
Clayton was unique, Bob Dylan would recall in his 2004 memoir: “elegiac, very princely – part Yankee gentleman and part Southern rakish dandy. He dressed in black from head to foot and would quote Shakespeare.”
Van Ronk, in his own memoir, called his friend Clayton “one of the most delightful human beings I have ever met” (and also “that incredibly pigheaded man”). Serious about folklore – Clayton discovered and recorded several folk and blues musicians, including Etta Baker and Pink Anderson, whose name would inspire Pink Floyd – he was decidedly less so in his approach to the world.
“We had quite a few drinks together at the Kettle of Fish,” said Patrick Sky, a folk contemporary now all but retired from the music industry in North Carolina. “We called him ‘Pablo,’ you know.”
Clayton was often on the move, staying for weeks at a stretch in his unheated cabin in Virginia (he’d studied folklore at the University of Virginia) and traveling to Europe “on the banana boat,” said another cousin, Paul Hardy. In the ’50s, Clayton got around in a Model T with a rumble seat.
“He’d tell the wildest stories about motoring through the Midwest, and monsters jumping on the car,” said Hardy, who was a boy at the time. “He was quite the storyteller.”
Not long after Dylan arrived in New York, he and Clayton drove cross-country together, attending Mardi Gras in New Orleans and meeting up with Joan Baez in California. Dylan and Clayton eventually had a falling-out, after Clayton sued the young star for borrowing heavily from Clayton’s song “Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone)” for “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right.” The two settled out of court when it became clear that Clayton’s song owed a significant debt of its own to an earlier folk song.
“That’s what everybody did before the copyright laws came in,” said Sky. “You lifted stuff from other people.”
The library at UMass Dartmouth has held Clayton’s archives – clippings, photos, hundreds of song transcriptions and reel-to-reel recordings, including some of Dylan – since 1969, when the singer’s mother, Adah Worthington, donated them. She never recovered from her son’s suicide, said Souza, who was visiting the collection for the first time.
By most accounts, Clayton struggled with his homosexuality. Though he kept it from the family, his folk-singing friends were well aware.
“His biggest problem was that he was gay at a time when it was pretty much illegal,” said Sky.
There’s also some indication that Clayton may have been dealing with mental imbalance. At the time of his death, he was working on a bizarre, experimental new album called “Gingerbreadd Mindd”; it was never released.
“I always thought he was 20 years ahead of his time,” said Hardy.
Even before seeing “Llewyn Davis,” Souza recognized her cousin in promotional photos of Timberlake, the pop star-actor: “Just the way he dressed, I could see it. Paul used to have this green sweater with a moth hole that he always wore.”
Some Dylanologists have suggested that Clayton, who had notably blue eyes, may have been Dylan’s subject for his song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.”
“He was a little obsessed with Dylan,” said Souza, leafing through a folder of newspaper clippings. As “Inside Llewyn Davis” reconfirms, he wasn’t the only one.James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com.