Love and plagiarism: The story of Dylan’s mentor

Bob Dylan, performing at New York City's Bitter End. — Photo courtesy of Larry Mollin

Before there was Bob Dylan, there was Paul Clayton. Clayton was a folk song scholar and singer/songwriter who not only befriended and influenced Dylan, but helped pave the way for the folk music explosion of the 1960s.

The story of this all-but-forgotten pioneer of the folk revival will be told through the vehicle of a new musical by former TV and movie producer Larry Mollin. “Search: Paul Clayton” will be presented by The Vineyard Playhouse as a reading, with music performed by an all-star lineup of local musicians on Monday, July 29, at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center.

Mr. Mollin refered to his play as a Wiki folk musical. “I structured the play like a Wikipedia page — sort of a menu of someone’s life. It also includes footnoted information. It’s a way of telling the story and also giving little chunks of information.” The theatrical production will be multi-media with images and video projected on screens.

“It’s a modern way to tell a story,” Mr. Mollin said. “It tells the story of the relationship between Paul Clayton and Bob Dylan in words and music. I’m working in this form that I call narrative non-fiction.” Last summer, The Vineyard Playhouse presented a play by Mr. Mollin called “The Screenwriter’s Daughter,” which also shed light on two obscure figures — playwright/screenwriter Ben Hecht and his activist daughter Jennie.

Mr. Mollin said that with these two plays he has strived, “To set the record straight on people who are forgotten.”

Though Clayton was one of Dylan’s earliest musical mentors, and was one of the first to reintroduce old folk music as a popular form, his legacy has not withstood the test of time. “He was a very popular figure in the Village,” said Mr. Mollin. “He played lumberjack songs, Cumberland Gap songs, and other old folk songs before the dawn of the singer/songwriter.”

Clayton spent a good deal of time traveling and researching in remote parts of America. “He had a degree in folklore,” Mr. Mollin said. “He spent his early days as a song catcher.”

Mr. Mollin hopes, with his new musical, to recreate the spirit of Greenwich Village in the 1960s when folk music had captured the hearts and minds of young people from all over.

“The place should feel the way Washington Square felt on Sunday — Folksinger Day,” said Mr. Mollin. “People came with guitars and just played. The only rule was no bongo players. That was another day.

“In 1961 folk singing was banned in Washington Square Park. There was a big protest with singing. I use that incident as a centerpiece of the first act.”

Into that emerging renaissance of folk music entered Bob Zimmerman, later to gain fame as Bob Dylan. “Dylan absolutely worshipped him,” Mr. Mollin said of Clayton. “He sought out Paul who really opened up the whole folk world to him and taught him the tricks of the trade.”

However, it was the student who taught the master an important lesson about the music business. In 1962, Clayton’s publishing company alleged that Dylan’s hit song, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” was a rip off of a Clayton song. “It became a sort of contention that changed this idyllic relationship,” he said. “People had found out that they could make money out of folk music.” A lawsuit ensued, but the incident only caused a brief rift in the two men’s friendship.

Their relationship was further complicated by the fact that Clayton was in love with Dylan. “By 1965 he [Clayton] was out as a gay man before it was acceptable to be openly gay,” said Mr. Mollin. “It’s a tragic story. Dylan broke his heart, but at the same time he loved and respected him. The story is a lot about love and plagiarism.”

Clayton was conflicted about his sexuality and also suffered from bi-polar disorder and drug addiction. Although he recorded 10 albums, he never enjoyed anything like the success of some of the other early folk musicians. “He was caught in the grinding wheel between folk and rock and could never really make the transition,” Mr. Mollin said. “He did record a folk rock album that’s never been found.”

Besides Dylan, many other popular musicians played a part in Clayton’s life. “Search: Paul Clayton” features almost all local talent in its 12-person cast. Playing Clayton is Danny Jensen, a trained opera singer and Los Angeles based actor who has appeared in many Vineyard Playhouse productions. Alex Karalekas, who can often be found at venues around the Vineyard performing original tunes on guitar and harmonica, will take on the role of Bob Dylan.

Accomplished folksinger Jemima James will play Clayton’s mother. Nina Violet will take on a number of roles including Dylan’s girlfriend, Suze Rotolo. Marciana Jones will play Joan Baez. Eric Luening will take on the role of the Rev. Gary Davis, a blues and gospel singer who taught guitar to many of the early folkies. Ollie Childs will play Keith Richards. Mr. Mollin’s son Johnnie will play musician Dave Von Ronk. Kristi Kinsman and David Henry Gerson, who both appeared in “The Screenwriter’s Daughter” last year, will take on speaking parts in the musical.

Ms. James, who has enjoyed a long career as a folk musician, was instrumental in helping Mr. Mollin cast the musical. She was also able to contribute to the authenticity of the period piece, having spent time in Greenwich Village during the heyday of folk music.

The reading will include live performances of more than 20 songs, including blues, gospel and a lot of old folk songs. And, of course, the immortal music of Bob Dylan.

Monday Night Special: “Search: Paul Clayton,” Monday, July 29, 7 pm, M.V. Hebrew Center, Vineyard Haven. $25.