Tom Paxton Songs for every age

TOM PAXTON, one of the enduring legends of American folk music, is coming to the Town Hall at the end of this month for what promises to be a real treat for concert-goers.

Paxton has been an integral part of the songwriting and folk music community since the early 1960s Greenwich Village scene, and continues to be a primary influence on today’s ‘New Folk’ performers. Many of his songs have become much-loved standards, such as ‘The Last Thing On My Mind’, ‘Ramblin’ Boy’, ‘Bottle Of Wine’, ‘Goin’ To The Zoo’, and ‘The Marvellous Toy’.

Paxton’s songs have addressed issues of injustice and inhumanity, laying bare the absurdities of modern culture and celebrating the tenderest bonds of family, friends, and community. Myriad artists have covered his songs, including Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Placido Domingo, Simon & Garfunkel, Harry Belafonte, and Gram Parsons.

In describing Paxton’s influence on his fellow musicians, Pete Seeger said: “Tom’s songs have a way of sneaking up on you. You find yourself humming them, whistling them, and singing a verse to a friend. Like the songs of Woody Guthrie, they’re becoming part of America. In a small village near Calcutta, in 1998, a villager who could not speak English sang me ‘What Did You Learn In School Today?’ in Bengali! Tom Paxton’s songs are reaching around the world more than he, or any of us could have realised.”

Folkies and protests

Over a morning phone call from his Virginia home, Paxton reflected on his long, and still-flourishing, career. It was the morning after the 10th anniversary of 9/11 so it seemed apt to begin by asking Paxton for his thoughts on America’s current wars and whether he sees similarities to the era of the Vietnam War which prompted a number of his protest songs.

“There are certainly parallels,” he observes. “The thing that got me about 9/11 is that Bush and Cheney launched the wrong war. It would be like as if after Pearl Harbor, America had attacked Italy instead of Japan.

“Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and the war there is one we didn’t belong in. The Iraq War is even more illogical than Vietnam was. I think the US is still traumatised by 9/11 to an extent. Whenever I find myself driving through New Jersey and see the New York skyline I am still astounded by the absence of the Towers.”

The US’s ongoing wars may not be popular at home but they have not provoked the large scale protests that marked the sixties.

“There are protests allright but they’re not as organised or as widespread,” Paxton explains. “The thing is that we still had the draft for Vietnam. We were largely sending these lower-income conscripts, many of them black, out there to die for us. It was the draft that most people were protesting against at the time. Today we have a 100 per cent volunteer army so that makes a difference.”

Paxton first fell in love with folk music as a young boy in Oklahoma. It was a passion that deepened as he grew older and he began writing and singing his own songs. In 1960, aged 22, he moved to New York and became a leading figure on the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene alongside Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez.

It is an era that has acquired semi-mythical status in music lore; I ask Paxton to what extent all these rising young singers were marked by rivalry or fellowship.

“You said it!” he responds. “We were comrades and we were rivals, we all supported each other and we all competed with each other. But as I look back on those times now what I remember most are the friendships.”

Among his friends at the time were The Clancy Brothers and Paxton was a huge admirer of their music.

“I idolised The Clancy Brothers,” he declares. “I remember one of the first times I saw them and hearing Liam sing the Scottish ballad ‘Lang A Growing’. I was mesmerised, I scarcely drew a breath during the song; I listened so intently to it that I had memorised it straightaway.

“I felt that the Clancys ‘hung the moon’ as we used to say in Oklahoma, meaning they were wonderful, and I never changed that opinion. I remember taking my daughter to see their reunion concert in Carnegie Hall. They hadn’t performed together in 25 years but they were as sharp as ever. I told my daughter that would have been Tom Clancy’s work, he was the drill sergeant of the group!”

Children and partners

As a young man Paxton set himself a regime of writing at least one song every day. Does he still follow this schedule? “No, I don’t,” he admits. “Though perhaps I should! Of course just because I was writing a song every day doesn’t mean they were all good. But I do believe that one of the best ways of writing a lot of good songs is to write lots of songs. It keeps the machinery working in the engine room so to speak.”

Paxton has produced a substantial body of work geared towards children through individual songs, albums, and books. I ask how important this aspect of his work is for him.

“I ascribe that initially to the album The Weavers at Carnegie Hall which was released in 1957,” he reveals. “It had a tremendous effect on me. It’s what made me want to be a performer. There were a couple of kids’ songs on that album, such as ‘Hush, Little Baby’ and ‘Go Where I Send Thee’.

“Folk artists regularly included children’s songs in their sets at the time and they were chosen because of their intrinsic musical value. I learned from people like The Weavers and Woody Guthrie that children’s songs are every bit as deserving of respect as any other. And the very first song of mine that proved to be a ‘keeper’ was ‘The Marvellous Toy.’

Paxton has now entered his sixth decade as a performer and his talent remains undimmed. In the past 10 years four of his albums have been nominated for Grammy Awards, most recently 2008’s Comedians and Angels, a deep and affecting collection of songs on the themes of marriage, family, friendship, and ageing. Nine of that album’s songs are devoted to Paxton’s wife of 48 years, Midge, and, as our interview draws to a close, he reflects warmly on the durability of their marriage.

“I give all the credit for that to Midge,” he modestly declares. “It’s not always easy putting up with a folk singer but she is an extraordinary woman, every bit as remarkable today as when we first met. She is my muse. She listens to my songs after I’ve written them and is able to make helpful suggestions as to how they can be improved. And she also puts up with my nonsense!”

To conclude; Judy Collins, another singer who has covered Paxton’s songs, has paid this tribute to his work; “Tom Paxton's songs are so powerful and lyrical, written from the heart and the conscience, and they reach their mark, our most inner being…they are beautiful and timeless, and meant for every age.”

Tom Paxton plays the Town Hall on Friday September 30 at 8pm. Tickets are €25 and are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie

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