Tom Paxton, a folk music legend, is still at it because, it’s simple, he writes great songs.
He came up at a time when the songs that were being written by him and his friends were altering the face of music. They were often story songs that spoke of change and wonder and possibility and were being woven into the fabric of people’s lives. Whether it was a person’s plight, or calling out the establishment, or just having a singalong, whether it was about work, politics, laughing or crying, when folk music was new and you played your song, people listened hard and took things away from it that were profound and real.
Tom Paxton was there, right at the real beginning of the folk music movement. So does he do things any differently today than he did, say, fifty years ago when it all began?
“Same ol’ songwriter workin’. I’m like a farmer going out to the same field every year, plows it and plants it, and here comes the crop, you know? I think I’m pretty much the same songwriter I always was. And I hope that I’ve grown, but I don’t think I’ve changed.”
If you asked some of his old folkster cronies, it was Tom Paxton who essentially started the folk movement back in the sixties, and others came after. Since then, Paxton, 77, has recorded sixty one albums, his latest being this year’s “Redemption Road,” has had his music reverently covered by legends of all genres over and over, is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, and remains a founding pillar of the folk music community. It’s the scope and breadth of Paxton’s songs, from deeply political to light and comical, from a song about John and Lorena Bobbitt to a song about the Holocaust, from children’s singalongs to scathing anthems, that have given and continue to give Tom Paxton his widespread appeal.
So just what was it like as this new form of musical expression was taking shape in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village?
“It was exciting, it was stimulating,” said the affable Paxton from his home in Alexandria. “There were a bunch of us all learning to perform, crazy about this literature, these songs, and I was the first one to be writing in the genre. But we were all excited about learning to perform, and about possibly being able to do this for a living. None of us were sure we could even do that, it was too much to hope for. But there were all these different coffeehouses where we could get up in front of a paying audience and sing, and hope to succeed at it. We were always together, laughing our asses off, and learning from each other, teaching one another guitar licks and being turned on by one another. It was a great place to be young.”
Paxton’s dear friend, the late folk legend Dave Van Ronk, always said it was Paxton who was the first to write the kinds of memorable folk songs that friends like Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen and others would follow suit with. And since those days at the Gaslight and other Village folk haunts, Paxton has gained a worldwide reputation in the genre, playing thousands of shows across the world and entertaining and educating millions of people about folk music.
Yet there was that other folkie that came around, the Zimmerman kid from Minnesota, who is regarded as the real legend, or at least one of a certain uber-reverential magnitude. So was there ever any resentment that this kid grabbed the lead? The gracious Paxton tips his hat in reverence.
“It struck me as the way it oughta be,” Paxton said. “Dylan’s talent was incandescent. Right from the start he was writing songs that people were fascinated by. He wrote some early topical songs like ‘I Will Not Go Under The Ground’ or ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.’ These were exciting songs to hear. So it didn’t surprise me at all that Bob became such a focal point and that he put together such an audience right from the beginning.”
Tom Paxton didn’t set out to become a legendary folk musician, acting was his thing, but hearing the music of Burl Ives, Harry Belafonte, and of course Woody Guthrie and his future friend Pete Seeger would steer him away from the acting stage, and onto a musical one.
“I started out wanting to be an actor, but I settled for the security of folk music,” said Paxton, laughing. “I have a degree in drama from the University of Oklahoma, and I took it very seriously. But all that time, I was deepening my interest in folk music, and then in songwriting. I began to see how music had played a part in working people’s lives in this country, and reflected how life was. And reflected the politics, which I intended to share. That added a whole new dimension to my appreciation of folk music.”
And it was one seminal folk record that was the final impetus for Paxton, a kind of epiphany that truly helped him find his calling.
“When I began to write songs, right from the start I wrote all kinds of songs because I had listened to The Weavers and their Christmas Eve recording, ‘The Weavers At Carnegie Hall,’ certainly one of the most influential albums of the folk revival, and there’s all kinds of songs on it, from ‘Rock Island Line’ to ‘Hush Little Baby Don’t Say A Word’ to ‘Weema Weh,’ it’s just an incredible breadth of vision in that album, the spectrum is just so broad, and that kind of informed me, that there was no real limit on the songs one could write. It’s possible to write a children’s song and follow it up with a political song. Whatever ideas came to me I tended to treat them equally, and try to finish the song that was there to begin with.”
Paxton looks at today’s folk musicians as a group who might want to wait out the lure of quick fame, and be more patient as they find their songwriting voice.
“It’s easy for people to make recordings now because technology is so available, so user-friendly, that lots of people are making albums before they’re ready to make albums. We would have done the same, I don’t ascribe any moral superiority to my generation. But you didn’t record until a record company signed you to a contract. I was in New York for four years working professionally before I recorded my first album for Elektra. I had a lot of songs built up and ready to go. That’s not very true now, you get alot of half baked efforts, and I have no answer for that. The only suggestion I would have for them today is restrict yourself to three of your own songs per set, and the rest, go out and find these great great songs that are out there and cover them. There’s no shame in covering great songs. People in audience don’t care if you wrote ’em or not, they just want to be entertained, and you can do that with all these great songs, and I think you’ll do better that way. That’s the way I did it. Whatever I heard I thought was terrific, I’d sing. And gradually, my songs began to predominate.”
And what did he think of the Coen Brothers folk music film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which had a character modeled after Paxton?
“I thought it was a terrific movie,” said Paxton. “They made it like it was loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, yet Llewyn Davis was nothing like Dave Van Ronk, but he was a fascinating fictitious character, one of those geniuses who was so good at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Sure I had my quibbles, as Dave’s first wife pointed out, the notion of an abortion clinic in 1961 in the Village is ludicrous. And as for the guy who was supposedly me, I would have drunk paint from a can before I’d wear my [Army] uniform in the Village. The more serious quibble is nobody was laughing, and we laughed all the time. Everything was funny to us. But those are quibbles, I thought the movie was an excellent, excellent movie.”
Tom Paxton has written folk songs of every genre that have spanned five decades, and he continues to, mainly because, well, he’s darn good at it, and just as important, loves every minute of it.
“I don’t know what inspired me to write the first song,” Paxton reflects. “But every song since then I’ve written because I found I could write. When I found I could do something, I was like a dog on a bone, I was like, alright I finally found something I can do and this is it, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Tom Paxton performs April 3rd at The Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Road, Vienna VA 22182. The show is sold out but check the Barns box office for possible drop tickets.
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band Second Wind plus other local rock ensembles.