What Brings a non-Jewish, Kippa-wearing American Bluesman to Israel?

Jerron 'Blind Boy' Paxton, in Israel this week, is a great African American performer who plays real, non-commercial music. Oh – and he wears a kippa.

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Jerron 'Blind Boy' Paxton. Credit: Moti Milrod
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton put the harmonica into the pocket of his overalls, lifted the beat-up guitar off the floor, and before he started playing it, amused the audience with a few words in Hebrew that he had probably learned just a few hours before. “Todah raba [thank you very much)... eifo ha-sherutim [where’s the bathroom] ... gam lishtot mashehu [would you like to drink something] ... shachta [a puff on a cigarette].”

Then he started playing old blues that sounded like it had been drawn from deep inside the Mississippi River, only with some mischievous modern additions along the way. The word “Jew,” which does not pop up much in old blues songs, suddenly made its appearance. Maybe Paxton was doing an on-the-spot improvisation to keep entertaining his audience. Maybe not. Who knows?

At first it seems like a gimmick, with too many unexpected, contradictory and attention-getting characteristics in one blues man. He is young, big (“135 kilos of heavenly happiness,” he jokes onstage), black, partially blind, wearing farmer-type overalls, a skullcap on his head, sitting on the stage of a Tel Aviv club in 2014, playing the banjo and singing songs from 100, 150 and even 200 years ago.

But anyone who was at the Levontin 7 alternative music club on Monday night knew that Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton ain’t no gimmick. An excellent musician, a great performer, a supremely gifted entertainer – a kind of Afro-American klezmer guy. It is best to stay away from expressions like “the real thing” – when it comes to the blues, what do we know about “real”? – but something of the spirit of that culture that Paxton brings, in his modest and unpretentious way, was in the air and even stamped its feet at Levontin 7.

Paxton went easily from one instrument to another (harmonica, guitar, piano, banjo and the bones, which are called that with good reason), among various styles of American and para-American music (blues, bluegrass, jazz, country and Irish folk songs) and various moods. He sang rough blues songs, soft love ballads, funny songs and rude funny songs, performing all of them with complete freedom of expression, with a joy in his improvisation that was breathtaking.

Guitarist Eli Marcus, who played with Paxton on one song, was right when he said that things like this are not conveyed well on YouTube. The only thing that could be improved before Paxton’s performance at Tel Aviv’s Ozen Bar on Saturday night is that his banjo, whose sting was a bit muted by Tel Aviv’s wintry humidity, miraculously recovers.

When I interviewed Paxton in the Jaffa apartment of Yamit Hagar, the blues producer who brought him to Israel for a week-long tour, he looked exhausted. He had done a show in Metulla the night before, gone to sleep at 2:30 in the morning, gotten up four hours later and traveled three hours to Tel Aviv. Between yawns, with his humidity-stricken banjo at arm’s reach, he told me what had made him, a Los Angeles-born man now living in New York, play music from so long ago. He also told me what his nickname, Blind Boy, meant, and how he came to be wearing a skullcap.

Crossing generations

Paxton was born in 1989 in the South Central area of Los Angeles, which is known to fans of hip-hop as the West Coast capital of rap. It is where gangsta rap, the N.W.A., Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg and other rappers got their start.

While these were the childhood heroes of Paxton’s agemates, he was in a totally different place. He recalls that he grew up around older people, spent time with his grandmother and his neighbors, who were even older than her. He did yard work for them, watched westerns with them, and absorbed their culture. That is his excuse for sounding a generation or two older than he actually is. He adds, with a laugh, “I know somewhere deep inside of me there’s a young person.”

Paxton’s grandmother moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles in the 1950s, as did the family and community circle in which he grew up. Paxton heard the old-time Afro-American music in their homes and yards. He says that he first heard blues music at a yard party at his grandmother’s sister’s home.

He began playing the violin when he was 12 years old, switched to banjo when he was 14 and started on guitar when he was 16, which was around the time that he started performing outside the family circle. That happened when his older neighbors asked him to play them the blues. His banjo was better for country and bluegrass, then one evening he received a guitar from the family of a neighbor who had died. When his grandmother heard him playing a Skip James song on it the next morning, she said, “Wow, that was fast.”

Paxton took a bluesy nickname when he began uploading his songs to MySpace. He chose Blind Boy even though he had proper eyesight. When he started being invited to festivals outside Los Angeles the nickname stuck, and just then, when he was 18 years old, he contracted an eye disease. He explains that while he is still sighted, he is legally blind, and adds that he learned to read Braille and walk with a cane in case his eyesight should deteriorate. He says that despite this, he feels blessed and fortunate, and has never thought of himself as disabled. “I feel I see everything, even though I don’t,” he says.

Blues and Jews

And what about that skullcap he wears? He is not Jewish according to religious law, but his grandmother, who came from a Creole family, believed that her family had Jewish roots, although she was unfamiliar with Jewish tradition and customs. (There may be a branch from Spanish Jewry on the family tree.) Paxton laughs and says that after she lit candles on Friday nights, she would cover the radio and turn the volume down to the lowest level, but not turn it off. On Saturdays, though, she would crank the volume until the house shook, and listen to the blues she loved.

Paxton began his acquaintance with Judaism after moving to New York from Los Angeles about five years ago. He began searching for his path outside music back in Los Angeles and enrolled in college, but focused on music after his move to New York. He played banjo and piano in a jazz band and then began performing solo.

Although he looks like a 1920s bluesman in his PR photo, he is well-versed in the 21st-century music market. When asked what he feels about people’s attraction to old-time music in recent years, he says: “I’m not sure you can call it a revival, but some people are sick of commercial music. I know I don’t like it. I can’t even imagine what it is to like it. It sounds like a commercial. But when you hear something that is real like folk music – and when I say folk music I don’t mean sixties music that they call folk, I mean old folk music, indigenous music, no matter where it comes from. Music from god knows where ... all the countries that end with ‘stan.’ When you hear that stuff you go: Yes! He is singing! It’s a party. It’s sad. It’s beautiful. It’s got all the emotions in your face.

“People are starting to look around for their roots and traditions. Respect themselves a little more. I wasn’t ashamed of where my parents came from, but many people were. They wanted to assimilate, to fit in, to conform. I can understand that. But with me, I love those things. I think it made me an American more than anything. This is the flavor of my family, my people. This is who I am. If you don’t like it, that’s your problem.”

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