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.'
"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."
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.)
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."