‘Blind Boy’ Paxton Lecture and Concert Bring the Blues to Life

When the musician walks in carrying four instrumentstwo banjos, one guitar, and one fiddle– and takes a seat at the piano and then proceeds to pull out four more instruments (three harmonicas and a pair of bones), you know you’re in for something special.

Through a rather circuitous route, I’m sitting in the small but impressively bright, sunny, and modern space of a place called Bagaduce Music, located in the idyllic and bucolic town of Blue Hill, Maine in mid-August, waiting for the start of a ragtime piano demonstration and lecture by an artist known as “Blind Boy Paxton” (his given name is Jerron).

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As I study the brightly-colored artwork on the pristinely-white walls and admire the skylights set into the sloped and vaulted ceiling that lets in copious amounts of natural light, my curiosity grows. Paxton is a New York City-based artist (originally from California) who I had not previously heard of. I’d only recently discovered Bagaduce Music, and I’d come across the listing for Paxton’s two shows (one on Friday and one on Saturday) on their event calendar. Not knowing much about Paxton, I bought two tickets to the “lecture and demonstration,” rather than his evening concert, which was held the day before—a choice I came to regret within two minutes of the opening notes of Paxton’s blistering, mesmerizing, pick-my-jaw-up-off-the-floor performance. Folks, if you get a chance to see Jerron Paxton perform live, take it. Skip-your-beloved-grandmother’s-funeral, crawl-over-broken-glass-on-your-hands-and-knees, stay-home-from-an-all-expenses-paid-dream-vacation level of take it!

The two-hour event, a masterful combination of lecture and performance woven tightly together, was outstanding. Paxon was charming and funny, entertaining the packed (80-seat) audience with jokes, history, and lore and his blistering playing. This was no dry college lecture about the history of ragtime; it was some kind of alchemical magic that took us all back in time and made the history and context of the music so visceral and real, it all felt like we were living it in the moment. The wounds of the past that led to the rise of this music felt fresh and immediate and real—which, for Black and African American folks in this country, still are. He masterfully delivered some hard and painful truths about slavery and poignantly told the story of the origins of this music from the African American perspective. All too often the history of ragtime and trad jazz is told from a white and/or middle-class point of view, glossing over the real pain that gave birth to this music. Paxton gently and disarmingly contextualized both the music and the time periods, and it was that gentle and disarming delivery that made it all the more poignant. Take, for instance, this quote from a 2018 performance (via YouTube) of “Old Dog Blues” in Ann Arbor, Michigan:

“I’m sorry but there’s more depression at hand [audience laughs]. When you’re dealing with history. History is tough. So, we deal with it. Getting over it is tough, but it’s necessary. Making up for it is tough, but it’s necessary… All these songs come out [in the 1800s] about motherless child. They don’t talk about why the child is motherless.”

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Or this introduction to “No More the Moon Shines on Lorena” from 2018: “Well, you see, the blues is a meditation, you understand. And it’s been around for a long time. It don’t make you feel better; it makes you understand truth. That’s how you use it. It’s the medicine of my people. We went through a lot, you understand.”

Paxton is only thirty-four years old (he was born in 1989) and yet, it’s clear he’s received a deep and personal education on the history of the mistreatment of all his peoples (he’s descended both from black slaves and Choctaw Indians, and, according to his Wikipedia page, he’s Jewish; during his performance, he frequently referenced history and stories from the time of slavery passed to him by his grandmother who was from Louisiana). His grandmother was also a singer and clearly passed a deep love and understanding of American folk music and spirituals to him, as well.

He started off the concert-lecture in the era of slave songs and spirituals, demonstrating on an 1848 banjo, and the way he played… well, I have no words to describe his playing. He played a version of “Jim Along Josie” (one of the later, more sanitized versions, rather than the original Edward Harper minstrelsy one) followed by “Bound to Go.” While hardly even moving his hands, he had the banjo emitting this deep-throated “ha-UMMM” buzzing/humming sound underneath / behind the melody that filled the room and that I can only liken to the lowdown guttural tone of Mongolian throat-singing rock band The Hu (ha! I bet that’s not a sentence you thought you’d read in TST, huh?). You’ll hear the humming/buzzing sound I’m referring to in a video of Paxton playing “Bound to Go” which may be found on YouTube. He sounded like an entire band with just the one instrument, and my jaw was on the floor from the first notes, and it stayed there for the entire two hours.

Then he switched to the bones (literally, a set of polished ivory “sticks”) played a tune I haven’t been able to identify; the chorus included the line “the rattlin’ of the bones takes me home,” and then he switched to the fiddle and played a lively bluegrass-esque tune. Then it was on to the guitar with a Johnny St. Cyr “rag that has no name” (according to Paxton), adding that “Johnny said his teachers played it on Sundays.”

He then switched to the harmonica and started off playing train sounds, mimicking a steam engine leaving the station, getting up to speed, barreling by at full speed, and then slowing down again. Honestly, if I hadn’t been watching the sounds come out of a harmonica, I would have thought it was a real train. He switched to a different, newer banjo (he noted this one, unlike the 1848 banjo, has frets. To a non-musician like myself, that didn’t mean much; I was much more interested in the fancy metal work around the head—the head looked almost like a hubcap, there was so much metal).


He played “Maple Leaf Rag” and another song I can’t identify (it included the lyric “you in a canoe”). He then switched to the piano (which he referred to as “the starvation box”) and played a ragged version of “The Thought of You.” That brought us to intermission where the audience had the opportunity to speak with Paxton and buy the records and CDs he had for sale (the mister and I grabbed one each of the four albums he had with him, we were that enthralled with his playing).

After intermission, he took us through all the instruments again: guitar for “Mississippi Bottom” (see a recording of his performance of this song from 2016 on YouTube), the 1840s banjo for an Irish tune “Bully for You / Leg of a Duck,” a demonstration of playing the harmonica and the bones simultaneously (quite the feat when both instruments generally require two hands!), and the newer banjo for “NOLA”/”Banjo Dance,” and then concluding on the piano (and having us in stitches) with a combination of “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and “When an Ugly Woman Tells You No.”

His singing voice is of a kind that one just falls into; it wraps around you, cradles you, and doesn’t let go, and his delivery is what I would call “singing storytelling” (in the true tradition of the blues). The absolute highlight of the performance we attended was a gut-wrenching rendition of “No More Will The Moon Shine on Lorena.” If you want to see a recording of one of his performances of this song from 2018, check out his video on YouTube, but have the tissues ready. Watch the faces of the band as they listen to him play (especially the young violinist to Paxton’s left)—is there any higher praise than the rapt attention of one’s peers? You’ll hear a lot of that “harrooming” sound from his banjo that I mentioned earlier in the recorded performance as well.

If you have a chance to see Paxton in concert, grab it with both hands. In the meantime, you can find out more about him on his website at www.blindboypaxton.net. The links on the website to buy his music are a bit outdatedyou can find most of his music that’s on CD and record on Amazon and he also has a Bandcamp page. And, of course, you can find quite a few videos of him performing on YouTube—I particularly recommend this four-song set at Paste Studio NYC from 2019.

By day, Terri Bruce works in the government and nonprofit sector, helping to eradicate poverty. By night, she’s a science fiction and fantasy author. In between, she’s a trad jazz fan. 

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