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Ain't no use to sit and wonder why, babe,
It don’t matter any how.
But it did matter, to a folksinger named Paul Clayton. It mattered enough for him to come back from the grave to tell the sad story of how his friend, Bob Dylan, stole that song from him, along with others from his contemporaries.
Search: Paul Clayton is Larry Mollin’s myth-shattering musical about the friendship between two folksingers, the title character and the legendary Bob Dylan. Clayton was a talented young singer, composer, and folkloric scholar who gained prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. Dylan was a new arrival to the Greenwich Village scene when the two met in 1961 at the Gaslight. Clayton, at 30, was already established, having played with Dave Van Ronk and other folk luminaries. Dylan, a mere 20, was a nobody, a brash young newcomer, bursting with talent and unbridled ambition.
“Cocaine Running All ’Round My Brain”
The two hung out together in the early 1960s, deeply immersed in folk music and pot. For Clayton, it was love at first sight. Dylan’s unique style — the corduroy cap, the tousled hair, the elfin grin — captivated him.
For Dylan, on the other hand, it was an opportunity to climb. Clayton wanted to make music and love; Dylan wanted to make connections and a career. While crashing on Clayton’s couch, Dylan ingratiated himself into Clayton’s circle of musicians, managers, and agents. According to Clayton, Dylan used everyone along the way, while developing his own musical persona. Part of that process included taking songs from Clayton and others and making them Dylan’s own. Dylan’s rise to stardom was meteoric, while Clayton fell into a downhill spiral of drugs and depression. Once Dylan had enough clout and cash, he dumped Clayton and moved on.
“This Land Is Your Land”
The play dramatizes highlights from events between 1961 and 1965, including their cross-country tour (which Dylan abandoned halfway), the 1963 folk-song festival in Washington Square at which many singers were arrested, and the New York blackout in 1965.
But the star of the show is the music. Employing a talented cast of six, playing multiple roles and instruments (including guitar, banjo, and Dylan’s signature harmonica, of course), this spirited production offers a rousing medley of folk songs of the '60s, including “This Land Is Your Land,” “Gotta Travel On,” “Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone),” and of course “Don’t Think Twice” (Dylan changed the title when he claimed the song for his). Jared Weiss’s leprechaunlike Dylan is a charmer, but it’s Clayton’s show, and Peter Oyloe’s soulful singing and poignant performance capture our hearts.
“The Times They Are a-Changin’”
Under Randal Myler’s direction, Mollin’s play evokes the spirit of the '60s, when the folk songs of Pete Seeger; Woody Guthrie; Joan Baez; and Peter, Paul and Mary (all mentioned in the script) lifted our hopes, despite the underlying political unrest. Bob Dylan emerges as the folk hero of the times, standing on the shoulders of the others. “Folksinging is plagiarism,” Clayton reflects, ruefully. “If you can’t write, rewrite. If you can’t rewrite, copyright. If you can’t copyright, sue.”
As Clayton points out, Dylan was a shrewd strategist as well, and once the Beatles came on the scene, Dylan predicted that rock’n’roll would be the next big thing. Dylan moved on to the electric guitar and broke Clayton’s heart all over again.
“Blowin’ in the Wind”
While Bob Dylan remains the iconic figure of the era, Paul Clayton, who died tragically in 1967, remains in obscurity. Hence the title Search: Paul Clayton. The play begins and ends with a computer-screen Google search for the folksinger’s name, projected on the upstage screen. But once you hear the gifted Peter Oyloe tell his story and perform his songs, you won’t have to Google Paul Clayton’s name again.
What, When, Where
Search: Paul Clayton, by Larry Mollin. Randal Myler directed. Musical direction by Fred Mollin. At the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, 24 Church Street, Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, July 17 - August 9, 2014, www.vineyardplayhouse.org.
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