Caroline Paton, 86, of Sharon, Conn., founder with Sandy Paton and Lee Haggerty of Folk-Legacy Records, now a part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.More Info
Caroline Ann Paton (née Swenson), 86, of Sharon, Connecticut, died March 18, 2019. She was a singer of traditional and contemporary folk songs with a bright, beautiful voice; an amazing recall of lyrics; and a talent for harmony. She would often sing a cappella or accompany herself on the Appalachian dulcimer or the autoharp. In 1961, Caroline, her husband, Sandy Paton, and business partner Lee Haggerty founded Folk-Legacy Records in Huntington, Vermont. Folk-Legacy became her life’s work and passion for the next 57 years. The Patons and Haggerty moved the business and their home to a large, remodeled barn with a concert hall, recording studio and eight bedrooms on a rural hillside in Sharon in 1967. In November 2018, Folk-Legacy was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution, which will preserve the label and its contributions to traditional folk music, culture and history. Folk-Legacy’s recordings are available in many formats, including vinyl LPs, cassettes, CDs, and online streaming.
Folk-Legacy produced over 120 albums, capturing the music of a wealth of traditional singers from the Southern Appalachians to the Ozarks, and from Scotland and England to Canada. Folk-Legacy also contributed to the development of emerging American folk music by recording tradition-inspired contemporary folk singers, songwriters and musicians over time since the 1960s. The recordings are a major contribution to the preservation and development of the repertoire and culture of American folk music after the American folk revival.
In the national folk music community Caroline Paton was well known and beloved. She was involved with the Newport Folk Festival; the Philadelphia Folk Festival; the Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.; the New York Folk Music Society; the Folk Song Society of Greater Boston; the Fox Hollow Festival; and the Folklore Society of Greater Washington (D.C.).
“Caroline Paton was one of the kindest, gentlest, most wonderful folk music people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing,” said Wanda Fischer, longtime host of “Hudson River Sampler” on WAMC-FM/Northeast Public Radio in Albany, New York. “She was one of a kind, and our world of music and humanity is a better place because she shared it with us. Folk-Legacy has been a great foundation for the music I’ve played on the radio for more than 40 years.” Sight-impaired since birth, Caroline relied on National Public Radio for news and information. She also cared deeply about politics and was an active member of the Democratic Party. She and her husband performed at many local campaign rallies and events.
Caroline grew up in Whiting, Indiana, near Chicago. Her father, Reuben, felt that household responsibilities should not keep his children from their schoolwork or extracurricular activities. He gave Caroline and her siblings the freedom to pursue their talents and interests. Caroline first became intrigued by folk music at summer camps where she was a counselor. By the time she started college, her interest in folk music was well-established, leading her to inscribe in one of her first books of folk songs the introduction to Longfellow’s poem “The Singers”: “God sent his Singers upon earth with songs of sadness and of mirth, that they might touch the hearts of men, and bring them back to heaven again.” She loved the poem though she was agnostic.
Caroline studied for two years at Oberlin College before transferring to the University of Chicago, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology. Wanting to experience the western United States, Caroline took a job at the University of California library in Berkeley, California, at the same time exploring ways to pursue her interests in literature, music and anthropology.
She met her husband at a concert in 1957 after she asked him for lyrics to the song he had performed that night. The song was “Perry Merry Dixi Domini,” which is a variant of “The Riddle Song/I Gave My Love a Cherry” from Linscott’s book “Folk Songs of Old New England.” Sandy had already noticed her in the front row as she was harmonizing with his singing. They connected immediately over their love of folk music, and sang that song together for many years. Later, they traveled in England performing in clubs, studying British folk music, and listening to recordings at Cecil Sharp House. They took a trip to Scotland with their 9-month-old son David to spend time with Jeannie Robertson, a renowned ballad singer from Aberdeen, Scotland, and Hamish Henderson of the School of Scottish Studies.
Folk-Legacy’s first release was of Frank Proffitt, a farmer and fretless-banjo player from North Carolina who is celebrated as the source of the song “Tom Dooley,” later made famous by the Kingston Trio. For the Patons, remaining close to traditional sources was important. Their records “Beech Mountain, North Carolina” are an aural document of traditional music as it progresses through generations in the same community. One of Folk-Legacy’s early releases, “The Golden Ring,” was recorded by a group of friends in Chicago and became immediately popular, inspiring the namesake of the Golden Link Folk Singing Society in Rochester, New York. They recorded a wide range of artists including many singers and musicians from the Northeast, subsequent gatherings inspired by Golden Ring style, and contemporary folk songwriters. Locally, the Patons were also instrumental in the creation of the Sounding Board coffeehouse, now in West Hartford, Connecticut, in 1973.
Over the next 50 years, Caroline and Sandy brought music and joy to thousands through performances, special gatherings, and sales of the traditional and contemporary folk recordings they produced. As performing artists and in keeping with the folk tradition, the Patons encouraged the audience at their own concerts to sing along on choruses and be active participants in the folk music experience. The preference was, as they put it, “to sing with people rather than at them.” She and her husband sang together for many years before being joined by their musical sons and singing grandchildren. Folk-Legacy’s home-based operation and music was featured in the New York Times in 1981.
Caroline and Sandy’s Folk-Legacy sales booth was a steadfast presence at the Old Songs Folk Festival, the New England Folk Festival, and historically at the Champlain Valley Folk Festival. The Patons were given the honorary designation of Connecticut State Troubadours in 1993. Caroline and Sandy also received awards and accolades from the California Traditional Music Society, the Memphis Dulcimer Festival in Tennessee, and the Folk Alliance.
Caroline Paton is survived by her two sons David Paton and James Paton; daughter-in-law Marian Paton; siblings Victor, Edward and Linda Swenson; grandchildren Linnea, Shannon, Juliana, Erik and Hannah Paton; former daughter-in-law Catherine Paton, and great-granddaughter Adaline Paton-Marceau. She was predeceased by husband Sandy Paton and grandson Kaelan Paton.
A potluck memorial will be held Sunday, May 12, at 2 p.m. at Silver Lake Conference Center, 223 Low Road, in Sharon, Connecticut. All are welcome to attend. RSVPs at folklegacyweekend.com are appreciated. Condolences for family and memorial contributions may be sent to Kenny Funeral Home, 41 Main Street Sharon, CT 06069.
Folk-Legacy video, 1975: