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>Paul "Gay"-Ton

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Paul Clayton was a folk singer who has become more the subject of folklore than a teller of folklore. I’m glad to use the word folklore because I cannot verify any of this information and it is not interesting to me based on the validity of its facts but because it’s a romantic American tale filled with tragedy. Clayton had been an early and well-regarded singer in the Greenwich Village music scene of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. His schtick was singing old, 19th-century sea shanties, of which he recorded a catalogue called “Sailing & Whaling”. When Robert Zimmerman, Bob Dylan, moved to New York, he quickly recognized Clayton’s talent and latched on. In fact, Dylan based “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” off of Paul Clayton’s most well known song, “Gotta Travel On”. Dylan was a serial borrower from his contemporaries, with an eye for styles and personalities he could incorporate into his own in order to advance his career. Clayton and Dylan may or may not have performed together a few times.

The story goes that Paul Clayton became more and more obsessed with Dylan as Dylan’s career and aura progressed. Dylan’s “coolness” seems to have been of the aloofest sort, a mode of personality that is completely seductive and desirable to others while making the “cool guy” simultaneously impossible to attain. And Dylan, based on the stories that have emerged about him and his circle of friends, seems to have had little sympathy for those he seduced. The added twist to this classic Dylan story that makes it interesting to me is that Clayton seems to have been a homosexual. This is purely speculative.

Dylan’s squeamishness about the intensity of their relationship (they may or may not have traveled across the country together which may have led to some uncomfortable intimacy) was soon apparent to Clayton and things heated up. The final straw was the song that Dylan may or may not have written with Clayton in mind, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, which in addition to carrying references to sailors and vagabonds, is amok with unsympathetic and cold goodbye lyrics, something Dylan was famous for. In fact, the song that Dylan based off of a Clayton song, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, is a famous example of Dylan’s harsh goodbyes. Both songs contain a comma separating two phrases. The opening lyrics to “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”:

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last.
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast.

There are no direct references to Clayton in the song. What is known is that a year after the song was released, Clayton committed suicide by bringing an electric heater into the bathtub. The story has a bit more speculative interest for me as well. Joni Mitchell covered “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. In 1971, she released an album entitled “Blue” which had a song called “Blue” that tells the story of a person’s life being written in a song. The title itself might be a reference to “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and some of the lyrics point to this being true.

Hey Blue, there is a song for you
Ink on a pin
Underneath the skin

That lyric refers to how effective a song can be if it’s cruelly objectifies someone. It also contains sea shanty references, which may or may not be a reference to Clayton’s career of sea songs:

Blue, songs are like tattoos
You know I’ve been to sea before
Crown and anchor me
Or let me sail away

And in the last lyric she seems to be sadly attempting to re-write the story of Clayton’s life:

There is your song from me

It seems possible that Mitchell might’ve been as attracted to the sad, folklorish quality of the Clayton story like I am. What is interesting to me is the chain of re-writing that 1960’s folk music allowed. First, Dylan re-wrote a Paul Clayton song into a cruel ode to a woman “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”. Then, Dylan re-wrote the story of his relationship with Clayton into “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. And finally, Mitchell reaches back and attempts to once again, re-write a story of and about Paul Clayton. All of this is complete speculation, but it’s gay folklore and I don’t care. The tragic nature of the story makes it sadly more compelling to me.

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