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This article by David McDonough was prepared for the April 28, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Tom Paxton: This ‘Ramblin’ Boy’ Is Still At It

‘You have to write with one eye on today and another eye on 10 years from now."

"Did I say that?’ asks folksinger Tom Paxton, on the phone from his home in Virginia. When assured that he did, on a 1965 television program, he muses, "Well, that’s an interesting thing to have said."

The subject was topical songs, and nobody writes better ones than Paxton. No one pens more tender love songs either, and children’s songs, and songs of comic rage. For over 40 years and over 50 albums, he has been one of the most powerful, lyrical, wry, and knowing singer/songwriters in folk music.

Paxton has a devoted following, many of whom will be in attendance at his concert Saturday, May 1, at the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton. His songs have been often covered over the years by performers as diverse as Pete Seeger, Willie Nelson, Placido Domingo, and Nana Mouskouri, but as is so often the case, it has taken awhile for the official accolades to kick in. In 2001 Paxton was honored with the ASCAP Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Folk Music. In 2003 he received a Grammy nomination for his children’s CD, "Your Shoes, My Shoes," and this year he was nominated in the Best Contemporary Folk Album for his latest release on Appleseed Records, "Looking For The Moon."

"Two nominations in 43 years," he jokes. "I’ve got my average down to every 21 and a half years. But it’s genuinely thrilling to be nominated. Last year we went and had an absolutely splendid time seeing our dear friends Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer win for children’s music. Hey, it’s a tremendous honor to be one of five (nominated). That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be tremendous to win. But Warren Zevon? Emmylou Harris? Roseanne Cash? Lucinda Williams? Boy, good company."

They would say the same of him. Other folk artists consistently praise Paxton’s deft handling of a song, and welcome the chance to work with him. He has sung with Judy Collins, John Gorka, Ani DiFranco, and Nanci Griffith, who does harmony vocals on "Looking For The Moon," along with frequent Paxton collaborator Anne Hills. He recently contributed to "See The Songs of Pete Seeger Vol. 3," due out in September, in which Paxton, Arlo Guthrie, Steve Earle, Billy Bragg, and others celebrate the patriarch of American folk music, who turns 85 on May 3.

"Looking For The Moon" finds Paxton in a contemplative mode. The songs, all self written, have titles like "Easy Now, Easy", "Marry Me Again," "The Same River Twice," and "Homebound Train." There is a touch of the topical Tom, in a fine, moving song called "The Bravest," a tribute to the firemen who responded to the catastrophe on 9/11, a song that sends chills up your spine and tears to your eyes. But overall, you are left with the impression of a man who is quietly looking back on a well-lived life.

"Reflective? Yeah, everyone says that," Paxton acknowledges. "I can hear it now as I listen to it. Of course, I don’t go in to make a reflective album. I went in as I always do, with the best of the songs that I’ve written since the last album. And we recorded them, and it turned out that yes, they did tend to be reflective. But hey, I’m 66, so it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?"

"Homebound Train" in particular, feels like a companion piece to one of Paxton’s most celebrated songs, "Ramblin’ Boy," recorded just 40 years ago. The songs have a similar cadence, and both deal with loss – in "Ramblin’ Boy" a young man loses his best friend; in "Homebound Train" a small boy deals with the death of his father.

"Not autobiographical," says Paxton firmly. "The only fact is that I, too, was 10 when my father died. He died three months after we moved from Chicago to Oklahoma."

Paxton definitely thinks of that small town of Bristow, Oklahoma, as his childhood home; in fact, when he speaks of it he unconsciously slips into a slight Oklahoma twang. But growing up in the home state of folk icon Woody Guthrie, probably the single greatest influence on his generation of folksingers, didn’t make him into a hard-core folkie, at least not until college.

"When I got to Oklahoma University I already loved folk songs. I had an old guitar that an aunt had given me. I was learning folk songs from the Burl Ives songbook – I had his "Wayfaring Stranger" album. Down at OU I found friends who also liked folksongs and we started teaching each other whatever we knew. It was there that I first heard Woody Guthrie. My first impression was that this guy couldn’t sing at all. I got a little less uptight and I learned that there’s more to singing than just a beautiful instrument. Though I still love great singers, Woody Guthrie had an entirely different quality that I found really attractive after awhile."

Paxton was drafted shortly after college, and his military experiences don’t seem to have supplied material for very many of his songs. But the Army did do him one favor. In 1960 he was stationed at Fort Dix, and was able to head into New York City almost every weekend, to Greenwich Village.

He couldn’t have come at a better time. The Village was teeming with like-minded souls. You couldn’t walk down MacDougal Street without tripping over a folksinger, sometimes literally. Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk, Fred Neil, Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the Clancy Brothers, and some kid named Robert Zimmerman who was in the process of transforming himself into Bob Dylan were sparking an artistic frenzy that would take over the music world in just a few years.

"We had a great scene going in the Village and up in Cambridge (MA) and places like that," says Paxton. "When you weren’t playing, you were listening, you know? And you were hearing excellent stuff. You have one of two reactions; one is to go home and burn your guitar, and the other is to be inspired to try to get better. Obviously, a bunch of us tried to get better. It was wonderful to hear people like Van Ronk and Ramblin’ Jack. Phil and I were great friends, and I’d hear something of his and say, ‘That’s terrific, I’ve got to keep getting better.’ Because every night I was down in the Village. If I wasn’t working, I was still down there.

"And when Dylan made it big, it was exciting. To see all that interest certainly didn’t hurt the rest of us at all. It’s great to have someone who’s doing what you’re doing attract a lot of attention. When I was working at the Gaslight in the Village, a lot of people came and heard me, so I started getting offers to play folk clubs up in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago."

Paxton was signed by Elektra, one of the leading folk labels, and put out his first album for them in 1964. It included several songs that set the tone for the Paxton sound. "The Last Thing On My Mind" was a mournful song of lost love that soon became a standard. Considering that Paxton was known as one of the most stable of all the personalities coming out of the 1960s scene (he has been married to Midge for 39 years, and lives not far from daughters Kate and Jennifer and their families), the song was troubling to some. "It was kind of funny, because people would come up to me after shows and say, ‘Is everything okay?’ I’d say, ‘It’s a song!’ I write a lot in the first person, but it’s almost never me. But it’s always a good sign if they think it is."

"Going to the Zoo," on the same album, was one of his first children’s songs, and it was covered by a slew of other artists. In time Paxton came to record five albums just for children, and has branched out into children’s books as well.

"I had no prejudice against writing for children – they’re people too," says Paxton. "’The Marvelous Toy’ was the first good children’s song I wrote. And I just carried on with my regular stuff and the next time I got an idea for a children’s song I wrote that – ‘Going To The Zoo.’ Then ‘My Dog’s Bigger Than Your Dog’, those were the three that really found an audience. In recent years I have written a lot more."

"My Dog’s Bigger Than Your Dog" became famous in the ’60s on a dog food commercial for Ken-L Ration. It should have made Paxton a fortune. "But who knew back then to make the best deal? But it’s certainly one of my best known songs. The other one that people know is ‘Bottle of Wine.’ My albums always pretty much sold the same, which is to say they made their money back, but I’ve never been a big record seller."

That 1964 album also contained two political songs, "Daily News" and "What Did You Learn In School Today?" Paxton has become as well-known for his topical songs as anything else. Some exist just for the moment of impact, what he calls his "short shelf life" songs, while others resonate for years after.

"I do find it spooky how some topical songs from back then are just as topical now. I’ve just recently begun to sing "What Did You learn In School Today?" again. The old approach to topical songwriting is that it’s something to wrap the fish in a few days later. I don’t buy that at all. It all comes down to, if it’s a good song, it’ll have its own life. ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is a topical song, and it seems to have held on. I try really hard to make a topical song as good as any other song I write. I want to write songs that transcend the moment. Of course, when I write my short shelf life songs, like my Tonya Harding song or my song about Jimmy Carter and the killer rabbit, I certainly don’t have my eye on more than two months from now."

You can bet that the audience at Hamilton will clamor for some of the political stuff, perhaps his anti-pollution anthem "Whose Garden Was This?" or the always-popular "One Million Lawyers." And Paxton will oblige. "Of course they are waiting for three or four songs that I know I’m going to do for them. I don’t have any kind of petulant I-don’t-sing-the-old-crap-anymore. They have a right to ask for it. They’re very happy to listen to the new material as long as you give them some of the old stuff."

Speaking of the old stuff, is Paxton dismayed at the graying of the folk audience?

"I learned long ago not to sweat the stuff I can’t do anything about," he says. "All you can do is leave the best legacy you can, and then it’s really out of your hands. And it’s fabulous that all of this archival folk music is available on CD. What’ll happen is at some point some kids will discover this stuff and say ‘wow.’ And they’ll get into it they way we did."

Tom Paxton, Grounds for Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton, 609-689-1089. Reservations, 609-586-0616, ext. 20. Folk duo Chip Mergott and Annie Baurlein open the show. $22. Saturday, May 1, 7:30 p.m.

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