Fiddle-L Anthology 1999

A Tour 'Round The World Of Fiddling

Performer Bio


Tom Paley, London, England (

Tom was born March 19, 1928, in New York City, New York. He received a Master's degree in Mathematics, and worked toward a doctorate. He was formerly a mathematics teacher and currently is a musician and photographer. He is a member of Sveriges Spelmans Riksförbund (Swedish Fiddlers' Association), and Friends of American Old Time Music and Dance (in England).


Tom's heritage is Jewish (although not necessarily religious). His mother was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and his father in Molodechno, Russia. One of his uncles played the violin, and his son, Ben, also plays. "When I was about 9, my uncle tried to teach me to play (classical) violin but he was so relentlessly determined that I shouldn't learn any bad habits that would have to be unlearned later that I quickly became bored with the concentration on how to hold the violin and bow and quit, after just four or five lessons. All he succeeded in teaching me was that violin was one instrument I didn't want to play... oh yes, I also learned that it was the big end of the violin, not the little end with the pegs, that went under my chin."

Tom began playing the instrument in June of 1975 (age 47), while in London, after his son had been playing for a year and a half. The first tune he played on the fiddle was "probably either Soldier's Joy, Little Brown Jug, or Skip To My Lou. I knew those tunes (and many others) having played banjo and guitar for 30 years when I took up fiddle, so it was just a matter of finding the notes myself (without listening, just then, to any recordings) and scratching them out." In the early 1990's, after he had been playing for 16 years, Tom attended a 15 week course in Swedish fiddle music and associated traditions at Malung, Sweden. He notes he has not been a student at camps or workshops, but has given workshops in Swedish fiddle tunes in various places, including folk festivals in the United States and Canada. He and his son give a Swedish fiddle tune workshop in London every spring (most recently late March 1998). He has also returned several times to Malung to give workshops in American fiddle tunes.

On the subject of a favorite fiddle tune: "I can't really pick just one as my absolute favorite. Among the American tunes that come to mind and that I can play reasonably well are Rufus Rastus, Louis' 1st Tune, Midnight on the Water, Old Christmas, and Bull at the Wagon. Among the Swedish tunes, I have to list Sammeles Annas Brudpolska, A Gånglåt after Lappmyrgubben and Polskas after Timas Hans Hansson, John Andersson and Byss-Kalle (many Swedish tunes aren't known by individual names)." He names favorite renditions of some of the tunes: Louis Riendeau & Family for Louis' 1st Tune; Benny Thomasson for Midnight on the Water; The Lewis Brothers for Bull at the Wagon. Some of his favorite fiddlers include Luther Strong, John Hatcher, W.E. Claunch, Lowe Stokes, Louis Beaudoin, Ted Sharp (of Sharp, Hinman & Sharp), and Benny Thomasson. Among Swedish fiddlers, he names KALLE ALMLÖF, PERS HANS OLSSON, BJÖRN STÅBI, GÖSSA ANDERS ANDERSSON AND HJORT ANDERS OLSSON. (left in caps so characters would remain)


As evidenced above, Tom enjoys playing both American traditional fiddle tunes and Swedish tunes, such as polskas, gånglåtar, schottisches, etc. He enjoys playing tunes in cross tuning, especially EADA, EAEA, and a few in EADD. Tom plays many instruments besides the fiddle, including banjo, guitar, harmonica, and sometimes autoharp, dobro and mandolin. When playing American tunes, Tom likes guitar and banjo for backup; on Swedish tunes he prefers a second fiddle part as accompaniment. He has played for dances and plays in church if there's a dance or folk music club held in one. He performs with his group, New Deal String Band (with Joe Locker, and his son, Ben), with his son, or with other musicians, at folk music festivals and clubs, and he enjoys informal get-togethers and jam sessions. Tom has also played Swedish fiddle music at several weddings.

Tom's discography is too enormous to include here. As a founding member of The New Lost City Ramblers, he is featured on quite a number of their albums (although not on fiddle). The New Deal String Band and The Old Reliable String Band each released an album. He has also recorded several solo (or almost solo) albums, and has been an accompanist to others -- these projects feature his banjo, guitar, and even dobro or mandolin playing, but not fiddle. One recording generally available which does feature his fiddling is "On a Cold Winter Night" (Marimac C-9050). He has recently recorded two CDs for a new folk music label (Wildwood Records, started by the banjo-picking managing director of a successful classical label) -- one features Tom and his son, Ben, playing Swedish tunes; the other is The New Deal String Band playing American Old-Time.


Tom comments that he does enjoy attending fiddle contests "to a degree, though in some ways I don't really like the idea of music being made into a competition." He has entered a few contests, the first being Weiser in 1981. To his memory, he played St. Anne's Reel, Svensk Anna's Vals (i.e., The Peekaboo Waltz), and Sullivan's Hollow. He had a banjo accompanist and believes he was tied for 65th place in the Men's Division. "Although I participated in the contest, I knew I had no chance of placing among the winners and was there mainly for the jam sessions. Besides, I wasn't familiar with the names of most of the contest-fiddlers, so they didn't really register." Tom has judged fiddle contests at Clayville, Illinois (the stipend was $50); Indian Mounds, Illinois (judging fee included in performance fee); Chequamegon Bay in Ashland, Wisconsin (also included in performance fee). He has also judged fiddle, banjo and string-band contests several times at the Annual Festival of FOAOTMAD (Friends of American Old Time Music and Dance) in Gainsborough (Lincolnshire, England), where there was no fee for the judging, but he regarded it as more or less his duty as President of FOAOTMAD. He notes he's not really enthusiastic about judging; good qualities for a judge include a familiarity with a range of fiddle styles (not necessarily from being a fiddler) and the ability to set aside personal preferences in terms of style (within the framework of the particular contest).


Tom calls his fiddling traditional (in both American and Swedish music), "with some (but perhaps not sufficient) attempt to play in the local style associated with the particular tunes. Early influential musicians to forge these styles are noted above (favorite fiddlers). Irish styles dominate where he lives; when asked how many styles there are overall: "Many, many, many, many, many!"


Tom deals ("in a small way") in fiddles and bows: "Though I don't like the idea of great numbers of instruments being tied-up in collections, I guess I do collect them, in a sense, as I deal in them and always have many on hand (and there are some I don't really want to sell)." His favorite, which he plays about 90% of the time, is a good quality German factory-made fiddle from about 1880. "It's been described as 'school of the Wolff Brothers, in Kreuznach', but I find it superior to the genuine Wolff Brothers fiddles (which can be very good, too)." This fiddle is "powerful and penetrating, but with a sweet, even quality; [it is] more or less a Strad copy, and accordingly labeled, but among my other near-favorites, there are copies or imitations of Maggini, Stradivarius and Hopf, as well as some I can't identify." Tom usually plays with a shoulder rest, often a Kun. He uses Prim steel-core strings, usually medium tone, sometimes soft. On a few fiddles, he uses "synthetic" strings by John Pearse, the "Artiste" carbon monofilament ones, or the perlon ones. "I far prefer both of those to Dominants or gut-cores, both of which move around too much with the bow and don't suit my bowing technique." Tom usually prefers a pernambuco bow but also uses a couple of snakewood bows.

Tom practices maintenance and set-up of violins, and does some minor repairs, but he "farms out" the big jobs. So far he has not rehaired a bow "but some day I'll give it a try on a cheapish bow".


"Basically because I love the music."


Tom recorded the following tunes:

Polska after Anders-Gustaf Andersson (Traditional); Tre Strömmingar och ena Kaku Bröd (A Polska from Rättvik and Boda; Traditional); and Old Christmas (Traditional). He learned these either from hearing other people play them or from recordings.