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

Pete Seeger took Paxton under his wing and sang "Ramblin' Boy," the young, still-unsigned artist's elegy to a lost friend, at a Weavers reunion concert at Carnegie Hall in 1963. Nice introduction. (It became the title track of Paxton's 1964 debut recording for Elektra and remains one of Paxton's best-known songs.)

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The owner of the soon-to-be-legendary Gaslight Cafe, where Paxton often performed, was convinced that the singer-songwriter with the Army haircut was an undercover cop. "But nobody really thought of me as an Army guy; I was one of them."

Paxton ran with Van Ronk and Stookey and Phil Ochs, and he talked shop with Dylan. "One night, in the Kettle of Fish, which was the bar above the Gaslight, a bunch of us were sitting around a table, as we usually did between shows. Bob was sitting next to me and said, 'Listen to this.' And I leaned over, and into my ear alone, he sang a new song called 'Gates of Eden.' I said: 'Bob, I really like that song. I really like that song.' He was really exploding creatively then."

Did the positive feedback flow both ways? "Oh, yeah," Paxton says. "We had a drink one night . . . and Bob told me that he loved my song 'Annie's Gonna Sing Her Song' and that he'd actually recorded it, though he didn't know if it was going to come out. He told me several times over the years how much he liked that song."

Funny thing about the scene, Paxton says: "We were all competitive and supportive at the same time, and there was no apparent dichotomy. We were supportive, but of course you wanted to do better."

Some did better than others, of course. Dylan took off like a rocket before plugging in to play rock-and-roll. Others became marquee stars, too: Baez, Richie Havens, Peter, Paul and Mary. That gave everybody hope. "Looking back, the thing that one is apt to forget is the insecurity of it," he says. "Nobody knew if they were going to be able to actually sustain a living doing this. "

Paxton, though, couldn't land a record deal during his first four years in the Village. "And it wasn't like now, where you can put out your own record; you had to wait until you got a contract," he says. He wondered if he'd ever make it.

But he had steady employment, performing at the Gaslight and elsewhere. And the songwriting was really working for Paxton, who had received his first big break in fall 1960. He'd auditioned for the Chad Mitchell Trio and was picked provisionally as the group's newest member, but it turned out that the voices didn't blend quite right. But he'd sung "The Marvelous Toy" for the group, which ultimately had its one hit with the song. More important, Milt Okun, the founder of Cherry Lane Music and the Chad Mitchell Trio's producer, wanted to publish Paxton's work. "That was the only good song I had at that point; I thought I had more, but I didn't," Paxton says. "But it was enough to let Milt know that I was already a songwriter. . . . And we're still together, damn near 50 years later."

At the time, Okun was producing for multiple artists, including Peter, Paul and Mary, and he wound up getting several of them to record Paxton's songs, such as "I Can't Help but Wonder Where I'm Bound." As a result, Paxton had a modest, steady income even before he was signed to Elektra in 1964. "And it was tremendously supportive morally," he says. "I knew that I was not kidding myself if other people liked the songs well enough to do them.

"It was exciting to think that, my God, I can actually do this."

Still can. Still is.

"I wouldn't be able to define success in folk music; it's almost an oxymoron," Paxton says. "It really doesn't fit. But I suppose one measure of success is that I'm still doing it nearly 50 years later."

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