Remembering Caroline (Swenson) Paton
August 31, 1933 – March 18, 2019
by Kathy Westra
Folk music lost a beloved voice—and I and a host of others lost a loved and loving personal friend—when Caroline Paton died on March 18, 2019.
Caroline’s passing was not unexpected, but it was a blow to all of us nonetheless. Losing Caroline meant the end of an era that provided a family-owned traditional and tradition-inspired musical soundtrack to all of us in the folk community beginning in 1961 with the founding of Folk-Legacy Records. Caroline, along with Folk-Legacy co-founders Sandy Paton and Lee Haggerty, played a pivotal role in fostering the folk community of which CDSS and so many other folk organizations have been a part for more than 50 joyful years.
I like to think of Caroline as the “golden thread,” weaving—in Pete Seeger’s words—a “magic spell of rainbow design.” She was not the whole design, but she was certainly a bright thread flashing through the years and complementing the other brilliant colors of the Folk-Legacy tapestry.
With her sweet voice, enthusiasm, and love of traditional song, Caroline helped weave a community of song and tradition and friendship. Her gift was the gift of connection: of listeners to the music she loved so much, and of musicians and singers to one another, to the world we all shared at folk festivals, in our local folk music clubs, and to her beloved Folk-Legacy.
Over the years, Caroline became our extended community’s folk-music “mother”—a woman who, over the years, hosted housefuls of friends, cooked meals for multitudes, and added her distinctive harmonies to so many choruses at singing gatherings and on recordings.
She cared deeply about the disenfranchised, contributed her music to support political candidates she believed in, and gave new meaning to the term “political junkie.” Though she was legally blind for much of her adult life, she was a devoted listener to NPR and cable news, avidly following the nuances of of U.S. political drama, chatting for hours (and sharing her strong opinions) with friends on the phone, and occasionally tracking down a new protest song or two to keep the tradition strong.
Most importantly, though, no one was more welcoming than Caroline to new singers in a song circle, or more enthusiastic about a newly discovered singer or song. Her openness and enthusiasm were what drew me to Caroline at the beginning of our friendship. And that’s what kept the bonds of all of her many friendships strong. She made us feel included. The woman who couldn’t see made everyone she touched feel truly seen.
I know that probably everyone reading this has their own story to tell about how deeply Caroline touched them. The golden thread of Caroline’s life shone through so many of our personal stories.
Caroline made everyone she met at festivals, concerts, or on the phone—feel as if they were the only person in the crowded room. As if your news was what she most wanted to hear. She wanted to find out how things were going for you; talk about a version of a ballad she was learning, ask what YOU were learning, and tell you about a new artist that she and Sandy had invited to record. Her special gift was the gift of friendship, of connection, of listening, of enfolding everyone she met in a magic circle of belonging.
Caroline was the golden thread that flashed through so many of our community’s shared stories. We shared those stories in song and reminiscences at her memorial gathering held on Mother’s Day, May 12, 2019, just a few miles from Folk-Legacy’s own homestead and recording studio in Sharon, Connecticut.
As in Caroline’s life, the crowd that gathered to mourn Caroline’s passing was not limited to blood relatives, although Caroline’s siblings, sons, grandchildren, great granddaughter, nieces, nephews were there in force to remember their mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, and aunt. The rest of the crowd, like me, considered Caroline our “family of choice,” coming from near and far to celebrate the myriad ways she touched our lives. We were a motley crew of young and old, amateur and professional, recording artists and living-room singers, concert organizers, radio hosts, loving friends and devoted fans.
While this article is a tribute to Caroline, no tribute to her would be complete without a shout-out to Folk-Legacy, the company she helped create and nurture over its more than five decades and more than 140 recordings.
While Caroline took on the role of “folk mom” and the enthusiastic telephone voice of Folk-Legacy, Sandy was more of an introvert, contributing his quiet genius of recording and programming. It was Sandy who brought his keen ear and a passion for collecting the music of little-known singers, storytellers, and instrumentalists—versions of songs that never would have caught the attention of the commercial marketplace.
Lee Haggerty and his sister Mary were the “angels” who worked behind the scenes to transform Sandy and Caroline’s enthusiasm and vision into reality. It was Lee and Mary who offered the real-world business expertise Folk-Legacy needed and provided the backing to release those first seminal recordings from Beech Mountain, NC.
When I think about Caroline, Sandy, and Lee, I think of all the songs we sing that we wouldn’t know if it weren’t for their life’s work:
“Tom Dooley”—The song Frank Proffitt of Beech Mountain, North Carolina, sang into Sandy’s tape recorder to become one of the tracks on the very first Folk-Legacy (vinyl) record before it became a chart-topping Kingston Trio hit.
“The Rolling Hills of the Border”—one of many songs from the circle of friends known as “The Golden Ring.” Thanks to Folk-Legacy, everyone knew that song—and all the others on that record and on its two-volume follow-up release, “Five Days Singing.”
“Turning Toward the Morning”—the song by Gordon Bok that firmly established him as one of the finest singers and songwriters “in the tradition.”
Joe Hickerson’s riveting interpretation of “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down,” learned from a field recording in the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song and shared with a wider audience via Folk-Legacy.
Sara Grey and Ed Trickett’s exquisite recording of John Conolly’s beautiful song, “Fiddlers Green.”
And then there were Caroline and Sandy’s own recordings of so many traditional and contemporary songs they had learned and collected over the years.
These songs, and the many others we listened to on the Folk-Legacy label, provided an inspiring soundtrack to our lives.
Lee was the first of Folk Legacy’s partners to die, followed by Sandy in July of 2009 and Caroline this year, 2019. But the far-flung community of song, tradition, and friendship that they brought together lives on, as will the recordings they produced.
The Patons’ singing tradition is alive and well in Caroline and Sandy’s sons Rob and David; their grandchildren Eric, Hannah, Linnea, Shannon and Juli. Now great-granddaughter Adaline has joined Caroline and Linnea and Shannon and Juli in the line of talented singing Paton women.
Thanks to granddaughter Linnea and some generous donors, the recordings and history that tell the Folk-Legacy story are destined to go on for generations as part of the Smithsonian Folkways label, which acquired the Folk-Legacy catalog and archives earlier this year. Caroline, Sandy and Lee’s life’s work of more than 140 Folk-Legacy recordings will be available in perpetuity to new generations of singers and scholars eager to explore the sources and interpreters of folk music during the company’s heyday in the 1960s, 70s and beyond.
Thanks to Folk-Legacy—and now, Smithsonian Folkways—the songs we have all come to love and sing together will remain a vibrant part of our nation’s musical history. Though some of the singers are no longer with us in body, we can enjoy their recordings and remember the gifts they brought to our lives. Now, the Folk-Legacy of the Patons is an enduring legacy in Washington, D.C., where all those “records edged in black” will be available to our children and grandchildren in perpetuity.
What a legacy. What a Folk-Legacy. Thank you, Caroline Paton for the life you lived and shared. We will miss you, but your life’s work—and that of Sandy, Lee and your children and grandchildren—will live on in the future generations will sing together. What a wondrous gift!
Kathy Westra is a Folk-Legacy recording artist (with partner George Stephens, CD-146, “Birds of Passage”), singer and folk concert organizer who met Sandy and Caroline Paton as a 17-year-old in 1971 when they visited her hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. That meeting launched four decades of friendship and led to a lifetime of involvement in the folksong community. An environmental writer by profession, Kathy served for many years as a volunteer board member and president of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington (DC), and currently runs Rockland Folk Arts, an all-volunteer collaborative dedicated to presenting live folk music in Midcoast Maine, where she and George make their home. She has played cello on Folk-Legacy recordings by Scottish singer Archie Fisher and the late Helen Schneyer.
Contact information: email, (207) 593-8068