‘Blind Boy’ Paxton will enliven festival

Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton is a raconteur, using music to shares tales of how things were in the old days.

He uses any instrument he can get his hands on—guitar, banjo, piano, fiddle, harmonica and accordion among them—to play jazz and blues dating back to the years before World War II, crooning the words in a southern drawl.

Mr. Paxton’s speciality is idiosyncratic jewels in danger of being lost to posterity. When onstage, he’ll trot out weepers like “Broke and Hungry” and funny tunes like “When An Ugly Woman Tells You No,” making them his own.

From the sounds of it, you would think he was a New Orleans blues cat, and an elderly one at that. Sounds can be deceiving, though. The vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, who rose to prominence after a multitude of YouTube clicks, is actually 26.

He’s also Los-Angeles born, his Louisiana-bred grandparents having settled amid Watts’ little-known but sizeable Creole community in the 1950s. Mr. Paxton’s grandmother used to sing old Cajun and country blues songs to him when he was growing up and soon he was tuning into the local blues station.

He picked the fiddle at 12 and picked up the banjo at 14. As his musical prowess grew, his eyesight began to deteriorate, rendering him blind by the age of 16. It’s enough to make you sing the blues, which is just fine with Mr. Paxton since he likes the genre so well.

Over the years he has blossomed, becoming what Will Friedwald of the Wall Street Journal has called “virtually the only music-maker of his generation to fully assimilate the blues idiom of the 1920s and ‘30s, the blues of Bessie Smith and Lonnie Johnson.”

“Blind Boy” Paxton will be one of the headliners for the upcoming Claremont Folk Festival, set for Saturday, May 30 at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. As he gears up for the show, the COURIER took a few minutes to speak with a young musician who’s keeping the past alive.

COURIER: I came across one of the tunes you perform, “Soldier’s Joy,” where you sing, “Twenty-five cents for whiskey, 25 cents for beer. Twenty-five cents for morphine, get me out of here.” I think sometimes we are surprised people sang about things like that back in the day.

Blind Boy: “There’s always been vice and sin in the world, since the end of day-one. People like to think they invent everything in their generation, and it’s just not true.”

COURIER: Would you say you’re an old soul?

Blind Boy: “I never had to say that, because other people have said it for me.”

COURIER: Why did you get into all this old-timey music?

Blind Boy: “I grew up listening to the period music that was available to me, which was just about every kind of music. Mostly what I stuck to was the old blues and things, because that’s what I heard the most and loved the most.”

COURIER: Some people say when you lose one sense, like sight, that your other senses like hearing get stronger. Does that make for a better musician?

Blind Boy: “That’s totally a stereotype. I was doing good things with my music when I had full vision, because I put time and practice into it.”

COURIER: What’s your favorite instrument?

Blind Boy: “They’re all about the same. Some are more tedious than others. Lately, I’ve been spending more time playing strings, and my piano playing has tended to suffer. I’ve been on a bit of vacation in New Orleans, trying to remedy the situation.”

COURIER: Is there new blues out there? Is the genre still vital?

Blind Boy: “Blues is a present sort of thing. It was present when it was written. That’s why it’s so good, because it’s told very well. Long as people keep living, there’s always going to be a good representation of music.”

“There’s always somebody who plays the blues. It’s not in vogue, and people aren’t doing it as much. But there are still people with taste and appreciation for the older things and older styles. They like what they think is good, like woods and trees and all these sorts of things—these natural things.”

COURIER: You’re a YouTube sensation. Will you ever release a studio album?

Blind Boy: “I love live music. It’s my passion, and it’s something I’ll always do as long as I’m able. But I have to come out with a record because people want to take my music home with them. So I’ve got a record out, some recorded music for your entertainment, which will be available online shortly and available at the Folk Music Festival.

COURIER: What’s it called?

Blind Boy: “Recorded Music For Your Entertainment.”

 For tickets and information on the 32nd annual Claremont Folk Festival, visit folkmusiccenter.com.

—Sarah Torribio



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