In 1962 in the Western States Folklore Society's journal Western Folklore the critic John Greenaway declared Sandy Paton to be "the best interpreter of traditional singing in the English-speaking world, with the possible but not probable exception of Ewan MacColl." The American folklorist, folksinger and Folk-Legacy founder's dedication to traditional music played a vital role in the post-war upswing of folk music in both North America and Britain.
Sandy Paton was born in Florida, but large parts of his childhood, adolescence and early adulthood were spent travelling, initially because his father worked for the US National Geodetic Survey and he went where the work was. Paton's early story is a blur of temporary roots, hitch-hiking, making connections, acting and painting. By the first half of the 1950s he was playing hootenannies – "hoots" for short – in which amateur musicians and semi-professionals sang or played informally on open stages or parks for the fun of it.
While in Berkeley, California in 1957 he met his life-long partner Caroline. That November, the couple travelled to Britain, where they fell into the emerging folk scene, playing the Troubadour in Earl's Court and Twickenham's Eel Pie Island, and, more importantly, tape-recording traditional musicians. Over the course of their stay, during which their first son, David, was born, Paton made three EPs for the Collector label while the couple also recorded their Hush Little Baby EP for Topic Records, held back until Topic had sufficient funds for its release in 1960.
In September 1958 the Patons, with their six-month-old son and two friends from Chicago, hitched from London to Edinburgh, where they met the Scots poet-folklorist Hamish Henderson of the School of Scottish Studies. With an introduction and a borrowed tape recorder "the cowboy from Chicago" went to Aberdeen to record Jeannie Robertson – the kingdom's greatest ballad singer – and her daughter Lizzie Higgins. Together they recorded the "Scots Traveller" material currently available on Ballads and Songs of Tradition (2000).
Back in the US, Paton recorded for Elektra, still largely a folk- and ethnic-orientated label though not long from branching out with Love, the Doors and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Paton's repertoire on his 1958 LP The Many Sides of Sandy Paton exposed his debt to Britain. His repertoire was miles ahead of that of most US – and most British – folk acts with its splendid mixture of "Byker Hill", "The Overgate" and "Wild Mountain Thyme".
In 1961 the Patons and Lee and Mary Haggerty founded Folk-Legacy Records in Huntington, Vermont. Folk-Legacy declared its mission to make "available to the discerning public good field recordings of authentic traditional artists" leavened with recordings of "exceptional interpreters of traditional folk music and tales". The first release, Frank Proffitt of Reese, NC, was made at Proffitt's home that winter. Proffitt had earlier been the source of "Tom Dooley", which had been a hit for the Kingston Trio and Lonnie Donegan.
By December 1964 Folk-Legacy had released 18 records of traditional and contemporary folk music; 48 years later the catalogue had crept to over 120 releases. Its acts included Gordon Bok, East Anglia's Harry Cox, the complete set of Glasgow's Fishers (individually, Archie, Cilla and Ray), David Paton, Sandy and Caroline Paton, Jim Ringer, Edna Ritchie (Jean Ritchie's older sister), Hobart Smith, Rosalie Sorrels, Art Thieme and Hedy West. The majority of these had Paton's fingerprints all over them, whether from him working the microphone or taking photographs.
Charles Alexander Paton: folklorist, folk singer and record label owner: born Florida 22 January 1929; married Caroline (two sons); died Sharon, Connecticut 26 July 2009.