Tom Paxton Interview
by Cara Gibney
“You’ve got me all wound up here. Let’s talk about puppies and kitty cats or something.” Tom Paxton was talking politics and it was becoming fiery.
For 50 years Paxton has been a key feature of the folk music scene; ever since Greenwich Village in the early 60s. He has released an astonishing 62 albums with songs that cover love, life, protest and many songs for children. The immense list of renowned artists who have recorded his songs includes Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Sandy Denny and Marianne Faithfull among many others. For all this he has been awarded numerous honours, including the 2005 BBC Folk Award for a Lifetime Achievement for Song Writing. He has supported striking miners, performed at civil rights rallies and voter registration drives, and with great aplomb he has sustained his role as the ‘musical fly in the ointment’ of the establishment.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that the American folk singer who wrote the impassioned “Buy a Gun for Your Son” in 1965 to discourage giving children toy guns to play with, has issues with present-day U.S. gun law. Or that the songwriter with a Pete Seeger endorsement on his website bio, thinks that the U.S. President “only cares about Donald Trump, the glory of Donald Trump…… and we’re in for a really rough ride.” Indeed, by the time we got to talk about the Dakota Access Pipeline, and how tragically relevant his 1970 classic “Whose Garden was This” still remains, he had started to talk of resistance. “… It’s only starting now” he told me. “But we’ll be hearing more about it.”
But this political fire wasn’t always in Paxton’s belly. Not even when he was at university. “I didn’t have any political conscience at all” he recalled. “I was studying drama. I was kind of apolitical actually.” It was when he joined the army around 1960 that everything changed, and not for the reasons you may be thinking. “I was mainly in training while I was there” he explained. “But the army took me up to the New York area and I would get into Greenwich Village where I began to make friends, and began to sing here and there … And then when I got out of the army I just stayed in New York and the rest ,as they say, is misery,” he laughed.
It was there that he started to hear Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger; he started to hear “their songs about social justice and it made sense to me … the Civil Rights Movement was just getting underway and once again it just seemed simple to me that segregation is just not right. My political consciousness began to develop once I got to New York.”
However, the music began years before that, with a Tonette (a plastic flute) that he played in school. Then at the age of 12 or so he picked up the trumpet, which he played until the age of 18. Simultaneously he discovered the ukulele at summer camp – “And I thought well how long has this been going on … Get me one of those.” Unfortunately it ended badly. “I had the ukulele until somebody sat on it and reduced it to sprinters.” Thankfully it didn’t end there. An aunt managed to “fish a guitar out of the back of her closet and said you might try this.” It worked, badly, but it worked. “It had God awful action on it. You needed pliers to put the strings down, but it was a start.” He moved onto a Gibson guitar later on, “and it’s been that way ever since.”
For many years Paxton has worked with multi-instrumentalist Fred Sokolow, who would accompany him on stage. Sokolow is equally at home with various styles of music, be it bluegrass or blues, but he may be better known as the author of instructional books/ DVDs for various instruments including guitar, lap steel, banjo, and Dobro. Sokolow has a son, Zac, a multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar, banjo, fiddle, and mandolin with a band called The Americans who were interviewed on Rocking Magpie last summer.
Zac, too, has played with Tom Paxton. “How do you know Zac?” Paxton laughed when I mentioned him in the conversation. “Zac has substituted for his dad when his dad couldn’t play for me” he went on to explain. “He played instead and it was just wonderful. I love him and his old man. His stepmom is a great bass player. She plays upright bass full. Zac is a very fine musician and of course his dad is amazing.”
For Zac the feeling is reciprocal. “Tom has been has always been incredibly gracious with me, and first brought me on stage to play with him at a time when I was pretty young and hadn’t really played in front of an audience much at all. Despite a lot of my energy being spent on trying not to completely mess everything up, I remember feeling fully engaged in his songs and storytelling along with everyone else in the room.”
“Tom often tells a story about how someone in Ireland was trying to convince him that his song “The Last Thing on My Mind” was an old Irish folk song and that he hadn’t written it at all. I was in Ireland a little while ago at a pub in Tipperary where there was a session going on, and I heard someone sing that song in between some old traditional songs and fiddle tunes. Having the ability to write a song that doesn’t feel out of place in that context is something very unusual.”
“A couple years ago I played a few shows with Tom that he closed by singing a powerful version of “The Parting Glass”, as a dedication to the Clancy Brothers who were friends of his. That’s an old song that’s commonly sung at sessions in Ireland, but I had never heard it before he sang it. I started playing it with The Americans, and we eventually made a recording of it with T Bone Burnett.”
Paxton was in Glasgow for Celtic Connections when we talked over the phone. At that stage he only had a few more nights left playing to packed houses in his UK Tour with folk/old-time/swing musicians Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer. Interestingly they toured together before, back in 2003. “Kathy recorded all of them on Mini Disc” he recalled. “And when she listened to them she said it sounded so good she produced a CD out of it, which got a Grammy nomination.”
The UK tour was a launching pad for Paxton’s new album Boat In The Water, indeed three or four songs from the new record were included in their set. “It’s not a very political album” he explained when I asked if he was addressing any issues that had wound him up so much earlier in the conversation. However, the track that he released as a single at the end of last year – “Christmas in Shelter” carries that Paxton trademark nod to the haves and have nots, the acknowledgement of the unfair. A song to the homeless at the most poignant time of year sung with simple piano, a lived-in voice, and harmonies that break any sense of being alone.
“But it’s a whole different tune
When a soup kitchen spoon
Is dishing your dinner tonight”
“I really empathize with the homeless” he explained as I asked if homelessness was an issue that stood out to him, amidst all the other issues out there. He goes to a shelter on Thanksgiving Day every year to help with the dinner. “It’s only one day a year” he told me, “I wish I could do more.”
“I think we’ll see more people sleeping rough” he continued. “There is a kind of religious philosophy that has equated wealth with piety. The pious will make more money. It’s just incomprehensible to me and I’m certain that Jesus would say ‘are you kidding? Are you kidding? These are my people!’ I feel that Christianity is being mocked by the people with their ‘you don’t deserve anything because you’re poor. Obviously god doesn’t love you. If God loved you, you would be prosperous like we are.’ I start spluttering at some point …”
“I’m very fond of this album” it’s very dear to my heart. The one before had some [political] stuff on it, but the new one is for the love of the music.” Then he paused. “I guess I’ll be writing a little more politically now with this asshole in the White House.”
It looks like he’s going to be busy. When I asked how he felt about events over the past 12 months he told me – “It’s not the last year that worries me, it’s the next four … It’s really hard to overstate how bad I think this man Trump is. I mean I thought Nixon was bad but he was nothing, nothing, compared to this man … [Trump] has no shame and every word out of the man’s mouth is a lie. It’s just the way it is.”
But it was the Dakota Access Pipeline that brought him to the end of his rope. At that point we thought it best to change the subject altogether, on to something more positive. “You’ve got me all wound up here” he groaned. “Let’s talk about puppies and kitty cats or something.”
Zac and Fred Sokolow