Alexandria Resident & Folk Icon Tom Paxton Gets Lifetime Achievement Grammy Today

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 7, 2009

Tom Paxton, an icon of the 1960s folk music movement, is riffing in a coffeehouse. Perfect!

Of course, it's a Starbucks near Paxton's townhouse in Old Town Alexandria -- nothing like the small, homey cafe in New York's Greenwich Village where he landed his first singing job nearly 50 years ago after crash-landing in the creative center of the American folk scene.

"It was happening right as I got there," Paxton says of the folk revival that was underway when he moved to the Village from New Jersey's Fort Dix, where he'd been posted with the Army. "On weekends, you couldn't move on the sidewalk, and all the coffeehouses would be crammed. It was the tail end of the Beat generation, and the Gaslight actually featured some of the Beat poets; the folk singers were kind of interspersed between them. But that didn't last long. Pretty soon, it was folk singers, period. It was exciting to be part of that."

Paxton never really moved on: The "small-town yokel from Oklahoma" who as a kid favored Woody Guthrie and the Weavers over the pop stars of the day has been almost singularly focused on folk music for the entirety of his adult life. For his efforts -- for five decades of writing, recording, performing, straw-stirring, self-editing, influencing, hamming, mentoring, teaching and rewriting -- Paxton, 71, will receive a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award today in Los Angeles as part of the Recording Academy's Grammy Week festivities.

The award, which honors artistic contributions to the field of recording, will be announced on tomorrow night's live Grammy telecast and will place Paxton in pretty fine company. Previous Lifetime Achievement Award recipients include some of the most famous of all folkies: Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Weavers, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

"One of the things with Tom Paxton is that while he might not be as much of a household name as some of the people we've honored, his music has been really influential," says Bill Freimuth, vice president of awards for the Recording Academy, which gives out the Grammys. "He's very much considered a mentor to many, many musicians; he's been an inspiration to so many other folks who've continued the tradition of making great music.

". . . And Tom always stuck to his heart, sometimes perhaps at the cost of his wallet. He did not go the commercial route. People really respect that about Tom."

Paxton's take? "The English have a word for it: gob-smacked. It's recognition I never thought I'd get. You think of the Grammys as billion-selling artists. I've never had a hit record myself; other people have had hits with some of my songs, but I haven't. Not even close. I'm stunned."

For the uninitiated (basically, anybody who doesn't have a subscription to Sing Out! magazine), Paxton's catalogue is filled with both satirical songs and serious songs, almost all of which have choruses constructed for sing-alongs. They're songs about adult relationships, children's songs and pointedly topical songs. Lots and lots of those, including "Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation," "The Ballad of Spiro Agnew" and "I Don't Want a Bunny Wunny," about Jimmy Carter and the "killer" swamp rabbit that the president said attacked his fishing boat in 1979. (That one still gets requested in concert, though Paxton is down to about 40 dates per year. Loves the interchange; hates the travel.)

There was also "I'm Changing My Name to Chrysler," about the controversial 1979 federal bailout, and the recent update/sequel, "I'm Changing My Name to Fannie Mae." Also: "The Bravest," a poignant song about the heroic efforts of the 9/11 firefighters, and "Sarah Palin," a silly song about, well . . . you know.

Over the past half-century, other artists have recorded plenty of Paxton's songs -- none more frequently than the regretful lover's farewell, "The Last Thing on My Mind," which has been recorded by something like 200 artists, from Baez and Judy Collins to Neil Diamond and Charley Pride. It's been performed so many times, by so many artists around the world, that some people apparently think it's a traditional folk song of unknown origin, as Paxton's youngest daughter, Kate, discovered at a pub in Scotland.

"True story," he says. "A musician at the pub sang 'The Last Thing on My Mind,' and during the break, Kate went over to him and said, 'Thank you for singing that song; my dad wrote it.' He said: 'No, he didn't. . . . He couldn't possibly have written it. That's an old Scottish folk song that I learned from my dad.'

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