A couple of years ago, I was watching a singer-songwriter somewhere when I had a sudden flashback to my teenage years. The young man’s delivery and story telling made me harken back to an LP that my elder brother Brian owned in the early 70s and I went on to play to death. The record in question was The Compleat Tom Paxton and had been recorded at the Bitter End Club in New York in 1970. I’d previously been force-fed Brian’s collection of hippie folk singers and hated them all; much preferring T Rex and Slade. But, the way Tom Paxton told a story prior to singing a song captivated me. To this day I can still recite “Bayonet Rap” virtually word for word with the exact same emphasis on the punch line.
Without ever seeing him play live and hopefully recreating that magical record, I’ve loosely followed Tom Paxton’s career over the years; so when I was invited to interview him prior to his short tour of the UK in November I jumped at the chance.
‘Where you from a musical family’? I asked to break the ice.
“Not really,” Tom took a breath as he considered the question; “my father couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket (chuckle) but he and Mom definitely liked popular music on the radio and I remember we had a phonograph; but without hardly anything to play on it (another chuckle).
I have cousins who went on to be musical educators around the State and my sister and half-sister went on to be singers in the local area; but no one played an instrument or ever got paid for singing apart from me.
Until I was 10 I lived in Chicago then we moved to Oklahoma and that would be when I first remember hearing music on the radio. It was so varied you would here a Scottish folk song followed by a Cowboy song then an Irish jig with everything appearing magical to my young ears.
Even as a child I was drawn to ‘story songs.’ I especially liked Burl Ives and his folksy tales and stories. They seemed timeless and intrigued me; and made me wonder where songs like ‘The Wee Cooper of Fife’ and ‘The Devil and the Farmers Wife’ came from. I still have a copy of the Burl Ives Song Book on a shelf in my office. I’m afraid to open it in case it turns to dust after all of these years; but that book has had such an influence on my writing over the years.
Apart from the radio, there was nowhere to see musicians actually play until I went to the University of Oklahoma which opened my eyes to a new way of life and introduced me to scores of like-minded people that I had no idea existed.
I soon bought my first guitar and sang popular songs at Hootenannies and in coffee shops around the campus; but my own songwriting came much later.
Eventually I was drafted and sent to Fort Dix in New Jersey; which meant I could visit New York and Greenwich Village which was just beginning to build its reputation.
I would take my guitar with me on every visit and play whenever there was a free slot. When my time in the Military came to an end I moved to Greenwich Village.
By now I’d made friends with a group of other young, folk singers who had also arrived in town from across the US – Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk, Mississippi John Hurt, Peter, Paul and Mary and of course Bob Dylan.
It really was an exciting time for all of just starting out; it was highly insecure as no one had a full time job and more often than not we played for food and shared apartments; sleeping on couches and floors when you had no money. Eventually I was offered a regular spot at the Gaslight; which lasted for a few years and I felt I could finally put down some roots.
I look back on those days as my apprenticeship; it was a bit like a pilot having to put in the many hours of flying time before he’s allowed to fly solo. It was like that for us; we played a song or two here and there in front of friends and acquaintances until we were confident enough to ‘leave the nest’ and play a full hour in front of strangers in other parts of the State and eventually across country.
During my time at the Gaslight I even recorded a live LP, which is probably long forgotten but my first 6 albums that I recorded for Elektra have recently been re-packaged and re-released. It was a bit odd listening to them after all this time; I sound so very very young; but they have mostly stood the test of time and I can honestly say I’m proud of each and every one of those records and they were very well recorded. Perhaps if I’d known then what I know now I would have changed a few things – put on more harmonies with a few of my friends; but I wasn’t to know how famous some of them would go on to be!
Obviously we all evolved our own styles and success came to some earlier than others (another chuckle) and some have had longer careers than others. It was a strange and exciting time in America in those days, as we were still at War in Vietnam and we had the Civil Rights marches alongside many other ‘political’ things that stirred our consciousness. I found it easy to write angry ‘political’ songs but was just as comfortable writing ‘traditional’ folk songs as well as something more light-hearted and I blame it all on the Weavers and Pete Seeger who I adored; as they could sing about the Spanish Civil War then follow it with a twee children’s song and tell a story that captivated an audience too.
That style, for want of a better description has stood me well over the years. Thankfully I’ve never sold enough records for the ‘Business’ side of the music industry to take too much notice of me and they’ve pretty much left me alone in the shadows doing what I enjoy.
I still love doing what I do and it’s been kind to me – making music and playing in front of an audience. The travelling has become a chore but I never set out to make this a career and I certainly didn’t expect to still get ‘fired up’ about events after all these years; but I do!
Successive Governments have consistently messed up our country and I still get mad about injustices around the World so I still get the urge to write songs; not always angry songs but I still feel I have something to say; which is a songwriter’s job.
At times I feel sorry for young people in the Music Industry today as there is so much pressure applied the moment someone has anything approaching a ‘hit’ which doesn’t allow them to develop their talent so they burn out after a couple of years. Not everyone; of course and the Internet means music is more accessible now than ever before. It means I can find that lost album of Bulgarian Folk Music from 1965 and also discover exciting new talents like Ali Marcus and John Gorka and rediscover people like the wonderful Iris Dement without leaving my living room.
I don’t know if your readers are aware but the actor and singer Tim Grimm has just released an album of my songs and it’s very good; even if I do say so myself (cue another chuckle).
I have a website that lets people know I’m still alive (hearty laugh) and I have music on there that people can download for free and then find out where and when I’m playing live, so they can come and see me and if they like what I do, they can buy a real CD to take home; which isn’t a lot different from when we started out making a living playing coffee houses in the 1960’s.
Since then I’ve been lucky enough to have my songs recorded by nearly 100 different people (with differing amounts of success), played in front of a quarter of a million people at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1969. Imagine that? Just me on stage with my guitar facing a quarter of a million people; it’s something I’ll never forget. I’ve also been nominated 4 times for Grammy’s and was ‘gobsmacked’ when they presented me with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 and in 2007 the UK Government honoured me in the House of Commons which was my biggest surprise when you realise that a lot of my songs have raised a fist at many different Governments!
I’ve loved visiting Great Britain ever since that day when I walked onto a stage at the Isle of Wight and faced over a quarter of a million people! Thankfully they were very kind to me and listened to me and my guitar which I guess is all you can ask of an audience. Soon afterwards I even based myself in London for a few years and toured Britain and Ireland constantly playing City Halls and small folk clubs just about everywhere and even made quite a few trips into Europe which was and still is a wonderful experience for an American boy.
But all I want is to be respected as a songwriter and at some time in the future when the name Tom Paxton is all but forgotten; someone somewhere will be on a stage singing, Ramblin Boy or Last Thing on my Mind or The Marvellous Toy.