Tom Paxton reflects on songwriting and a decades-spanning career

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Photo/Cody Mello-Klein
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By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

When he was 15 years old, Grammy-nominated folk singer-songwriter Tom Paxton pulled a guitar out of his aunt’s closet in her Chicago home. It was dusty and beat-up, with signs of a life that began before Paxton, but it still had stories to tell.

Pulling that hand-me-down six string out of the closet, Paxton had no idea the places those stories would take him.

Paxton, 81, has taken his songs across the world, from the Gaslight in Greenwich Village and Newport, Rhode Island’s Newport Folk Festival to London and China. He’s racked up accolades, including four Grammy nominations and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. And his songs have been performed by Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond and his personal hero Pete Seeger.

After more than 60 years as a singer, songwriter and performer, Paxton’s guitars might be newer, but his stories remain the same timeless tales of love and loss, societal injustices and childhood joy. Reflecting back on his career, Paxton said he sees a common thread that has grown longer and more complex over time.

“I think I’m the same performer and writer that I was on day one,” Paxton said. “I hope I’ve grown and deepened, but I haven’t changed. I really feel like a farmer plow- ing the same field every year. … We’ll see what next year’s crop will bring.”

Paxton now performs as part of a trio alongside Jon Vezner (right) and Don Henry (left), also known as The Don Juans. (Courtesy photo)

On Friday, Paxton returns to The Birchmere, this time as part of a trio, performing alongside the Don Juans duo – Jon Vezner and Don Henry.

Born on Oct. 31, 1937 in Chicago, Paxton and his family moved to Bristow, Oklahoma when he was 11, after a brief stint on a dude ranch in Arizona.

By the time his family moved to Oklahoma, folk music was already a part of Paxton’s life, he said. Paxton recalled hearing Burl Ives’ 1947 recording of the traditional folk tune “Blue Tail Fly.” And, although the family only spent three months in Arizona, Paxton fondly remembered one cool Arizona night when a local rancher came by and sang some “cowboy songs.”

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Traditional folk songs – plucked on an acoustic guitar and filled with history – had an almost instant appeal for Paxton.

“They were like fairy tales almost,” Paxton said. “You could sing them, and they were funny and they were sad. They just spoke to me of other times and other people who had sung these songs hundreds of years before.”

By the time Paxon took the guitar out of his aunt’s closet, he knew he wanted to learn how to sing and play these old-world tunes. He started to learn the music of Ives and Harry Belafonte, and upon entering the University of Oklahoma in 1955, Paxton purchased his “first decent guitar,” an acoustic Gibson Sunburst.

Paxton entered the drama school, a fact that surprises many people, Paxton said.

“I tell people that I started out wanting to be an actor, but, in the end, I settled for the security of folk music,” Paxton laughed.

At the University of Oklahoma, Paxton found students who shared his love for folk music and, more importantly, exposed him to new artists, like Pete Seeger.

One day during his junior year, Paxton was at a friend’s house when his friend, like a record store guru, said those magic words: “Listen to this.”

“He put the needle down on an LP and out came Pete Seeger’s banjo introduction and the album was ‘The Weavers at Carnegie Hall,’ which they recorded Christmas Eve 1955,” Paxton said. “I subsequently had a chance to tell each one of The Weavers that by the time that album ended I had become someone who not only loved this stuff but had to do it.”

Seeger set Paxton on “this path,” he said, and has served as a guiding light ever since.

“He didn’t tutor me; he just was a living example for me of how important this music can be in the life of a country,” Paxton said. “… Pete’s integrity, his dedication to the music and to people and to the causes he believed in were all just right upfront for me. They were a model for me.”

Years later, Seeger performed Paxton’s song “Ramblin’ Boy” during a Weavers reunion concert at Carnegie Hall. Paxton described the moment as “surreal.”

“It was so thrilling that this man liked my songs well enough to sing them in Carnegie Hall,” Paxton said. “Talk about validation. I guess I must have made the right choice.”

Like so many young people, Paxton was drawn into the cultural vortex of New York City’s Greenwich Village in the early ’60s.

During the 1960s, Paxton was a mainstay at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village. (Courtesy photo)

Paxton had joined the army after graduating from college and was stationed at Fort Dix in New Jersey. On weekends, Paxton went to the Village and visited the coffee houses and folk clubs like the famous Gaslight, listening to the rising beat of a countercultural movement through the words of beat poets and folk singers.

“You couldn’t get in the Gaslight on weekends,” Paxton said. “It was exciting. This was all against the backdrop of the civil rights movement that was getting bigger every year. You had [New York University] right there, so students coming every night to hear the songs.”

By the time he got out of the army in 1960, Paxton was a mainstay at the Gaslight. The stage was a second home. He even met his wife, Margaret “Midge” Cummings, at the Gaslight in 1962. They married the next year.

Soon enough, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Eric Anderson were on the Gaslight stage, while record company representatives started coming down to the Village to scout talent. The Village was officially a fixture in the cultural – and countercultural – consciousness.

Almost every night, Paxton performed traditional folk songs and, in an unprecedented move for folk musicians at the time, his own original songs.

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Even before picking up the guitar, Paxton loved the stage, Paxton said.

“When I was in second grade in Chicago … I was in a play, and I was Uncle Sam, with the suit and the top hat and a cotton goatee. And they applauded and I thought, ‘Wow, I like that. I’ll have some more of that.’” 

Onstage, Paxton found a joy that was completely different than the hard, but satisfying, work of songwriting, he said. Audiences didn’t care if he had written the material, Paxton said, just as long as it was entertaining.

Paxton has never been a flashy performer, his long-time agent and founder of Fleming Artists Jim Fleming said. His shows are subtle. Emotion is laced through the words Paxton sings, the simple acoustic arrangements amplifying the impact of every word and silence.

“It’s just very subtle and by the end of it you just go, ‘Oh wow, that was a great show,’” Fleming said.

Paxton found early success as a songwriter before he was signed as a performer to Elektra Records in 1964. He published several of his songs in folk music magazines including Broadside, but his big break came in the fall of 1960 when a missed opportunity with the Chad Mitchell Trio turned into a career-defining moment.

After auditioning for the trio, Paxton was passed over for the third slot because “my voice didn’t blend with theirs,” Paxton said. Musical director Milton Okun informed Paxton that he wouldn’t be joining the trio but that the group liked “The Marvelous Toy,” a song he had performed during a break in the audition. The Chad Mitchell Trio went on to record the song, with Okun publishing it.

Paxton was the first songwriter signed to Okun’s Cherry Lane Music Publishing, and several of his songs were recorded by the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary and Johnny Cash.

Even after hearing his songs covered by countless musicians, including his musical heroes, Paxton is still sometimes overwhelmed by hearing others retell his stories, he said.

“Not too long ago I came across on YouTube Dolly Parton and Doc Watson backstage at MerleFest singing [“The Last Thing on My Mind”]. … I almost cried,” Paxton said. “It was the first hit that Dolly had when she was with Porter Wagoner. … But here she was singing it with Doc at much more like the tempo I used, and it was just so beautiful.”

Paxton performs alongside Steve Earle during Paxton’s 80th birthday celebration at the Schimmel Center in New York City in 2017. (Courtesy photo)

Over the years, Paxton’s passion for songwriting hasn’t diminished. Although he doesn’t write as much as he used to, he now teaches songwriting to aspiring musicians at events and camps across the country. He also mentors artists on the Fleming Artists roster, including singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco.

“He was one of the first ones to embrace [DiFranco], and that was really important to her, and I know they remain friends to this day because of that,” Fleming said. “Tom has done that so much over the years.”

Paxton teaches his students that songwriting is a craft that rewards time, attention and hard work, and that “you have to kiss a lot of frogs to get a prince,” Paxton said.

“Someone came to me at a club one night and sang me a song and I said, ‘That’s a pretty good song. Now, write a hundred of ‘em,’” Paxton said.

The breadth of Paxton’s songwriting is staggering, even as he’s never wavered from acoustic folk as a stylistic backdrop. Like Seeger and his traditional folk forbears, Paxton wrote everything from children’s lullabies to intensely political songs about racial injustice, the Vietnam War, the environment and labor rights.

“When something really gets under my skin, eventually it’s gonna come out in a song,” Paxton said. “The difference is I’m not a preacher. I’m not a political orator. These songs matter as much to me as any songs I write, and I try to make them good songs. I don’t want people to applaud because they agree with me. I want them to be moved.”

“First and foremost, he tells the truth,” Fleming said. “I think one of the roles of the artist is to be able to express things in a way that people can’t necessarily express. And I think that’s very empowering for people.”

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After his early success in the ’60s, Paxton hit his commercial peak in 1971 with the release of “How Come the Sun.” The album reached the number 120 spot on the charts, the highest any of Paxton’s albums ever charted. After living in London for four years with his wife and two daughters, Paxton moved to Long Island, New York, then eventually the D.C. region in 1977.

Paxton moved from record company to record company before opening his own record label, Pax Records, in 1987.

Through it all, Paxton has maintained a strong core audience, one that has connected to Paxton’s words in truly moving ways, Fleming said.

“I had someone write me recently from England and [say] that they just wanted to let Tom know something,” Fleming said. “In this email, they told me what it was and it was that their mother, who had just recently passed away, when she was literally on her death bed she asked them if they could please bring a couple of … Tom’s songs for her. It gave her great comfort.”

Paxton has seen a level of success that most musicians can only dream of achieving. He’s performed at some of the biggest music festivals in the world, been nominated for four Grammy awards, received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and hung out with legendary musicians.

Tom Paxton was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009. The award now sits on the mantlepiece of his Torpedo Factory apartment. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

He recalled how, upon getting the call informing him that he would receive a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, he “immediately teared up.” Thinking back on the surreal experience of attending the Grammy nominees party, Paxton couldn’t help but smile and laugh in disbelief.

In 2018, Paxton finally achieved his lifetime goal of playing in a trio. He’s been touring with the Don Juans, an acoustic duo, and plans to end his career not as a solo act but as a member of a group. Playing alongside Vezner and Henry, Paxton said he’s learning new lessons every time he goes on stage.

“It’s much more interesting because I’m hearing sounds that they’re producing, harmonies they’re singing, instrumental riffs that they’re playing that are fun to have,” Paxton said. “It’s a more interesting experience for me than my own damn voice. I’ve had many years of that.”

Now, Paxton is content to end his career doing what he loves: singing his songs and telling his stories. Folk will never die, he said. The next generation will find folk music in the back of an aunt’s closet, just like he did.

“The great thing about folk music is that it’s timeless, which allows old farts like me to still perform,” Paxton said. “And the best thing about it is in fact that it is folk music. Folks make it. … It’s easy music to get into. Three chords and a capo. As long as people pick up a guitar and sing ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ we’ll have folk music.”

Tom Paxton will perform at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., on Oct. 11 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at www.birchmere.com.

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