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Alexandria Resident & Folk Icon Tom Paxton Gets Lifetime Achievement Grammy Today
"And she said: 'I'm telling you, it was my dad!' 'Who's your dad?' 'Tom Paxton.' He thought for the longest time and then said, 'Well, he might have written it.' "
He laughs. "I've decided to settle for that: I might have written it."
Paxton still sits down to write several times each week at home in Alexandria, where there's a framed manuscript of "This Land Is Your Land" -- in Woody Guthrie's own handwriting! -- on a living-room table. (It was an anniversary gift from Midge, Paxton's wife of 45 years. They moved here in 1996, from East Hampton, to be closer to their brood: Kate lives a few doors away in Old Town, oldest daughter Jennifer is in Bethesda with her husband and three children.)
So how many Tom Paxton songs might there be?
"It's a meaningless statistic," he protests. "I could say a couple thousand. But it doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is how many songs you'll admit to having written. That could be 500."
The first one worth owning up to was "The Marvelous Toy," a whimsical, oft-covered children's song written during his stint as Pfc. Paxton. "I wrote it on an Army typewriter," he says. "I was in the clerk typist school at Fort Dix, New Jersey. But I was bored out of my mind because I could already type!"
Paxton became a folk artist because, he says, "I couldn't not."
"I was always a sensitive child and young man, and I was very passionate about the things I was passionate about. One of those things was music in general and folk music in particular. There was something about folk music that spoke to me very personally, even when the songs were nothing about a life I knew. They seemed to be a window into a broader soul. They made me feel connected somehow."
He'd been born in Chicago and raised mostly in Bristow, Okla., and enrolled in the drama program at the University of Oklahoma because he'd always been in school plays and always loved to perform. But he became increasingly interested in folk music, eventually forming a group with two like-minded classmates. "We had our own little imitation Kingston Trio/Weavers trio, singing in a coffeehouse off-campus for no money," he recalls.
Listening to "The Weavers at Carnegie Hall" changed his life. "By the last track, I had undergone a chromosomal change. I had gone from somebody who loved this music to somebody who had to try to do it."
When he came to New York, courtesy of the Army, he'd found his spiritual home. "I began making friends right away: Dave Van Ronk, Noel Stookey from Peter, Paul and Mary. I stayed in the Village and slept on a lot of sofas and somehow began to make my way."