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Tom Paxton

In the wake of folk-contemporary DAVE VAN RONK and young revivalists DYLAN and OCHS, singer-songwriter TOM PAXTON spun and weaved his way around many a defining left-wing protest song, his best-known probably stemming from his seminal mid-60s era.
Born Thomas Richard Paxton, October 31, 1937, Chicago, Illinois (from Scottish ancestry/stock), PAXTON and his family relocated to Bristow, Oklahoma, where, after abandoning the trumpet and ukulele, he took up the guitar, given to him by an aunt in the mid-50s after his father died. Inspired by the work of WOODY GUTHRIE, The WEAVERS, HARRY BELAFONTE and actor/singer BURL IVES, Tom performed in coffeehouses with a group called The Travellers. In 1959, Tom graduated from the University of Oklahoma and had a bit of theatre acting before joining the Army; an honourable discharge meant he could pursue a career in folk music through weekend visits to Greenwich Village, NY.
The early 60s saw PAXTON emerge from the pack. A subsequent audition for the CHAD MITCHELL TRIO nearly paid off, although publisher/manager Milt Okun was impressed enough to sign Tom to his own music company on hearing the singer perform `The Marvelous Toy’; the trio in question had a Top 50 hit with it around Christmas ’63, the song having already appeared on PAXTON’s independently-released “live at the Gaslight Café” debut LP, I’M THE MAN THAT BUILT THE BRIDGES (1962) {*5}; the venue was also the place he met his wife-to-be, Midge.
In 1963, with PETE SEEGER performing his songs (`Ramblin’ Boy’ and `What Did You Learn In School Today?’ – mainly with a re-formed WEAVERS), human and civil rights campaigner PAXTON himself appeared at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival alongside all the big guns of the day. It was inevitable that Elektra Records – known for its large roster of folk acts – would sign the singer-songwriter.
Produced by Paul Rothchild, debut album proper RAMBLIN’ BOY (1964) {*7} wore his aforesaid influences strictly on his sleeve, a record that included at least three classics, `The Last Thing On My Mind’, `I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound’ and the title track, while `What Did You Learn…’ and `Goin’ To The Zoo’ became staples for a younger generation.
On a par with fellow activist PHIL OCHS rather than DYLAN, sophomore set AIN’T THAT NEWS! (1965) {*5} addressed all the issues of the day (the draft, Vietnam, civil rights, etc.), his most poignant and earnest deliveries stemming from the anti-war rants `Lyndon Johnson Told The Nation’, `Buy A Gun For Your Son’ and `The Willing Conscript’. Augmented on some tracks by Felix Pappalardi (bass) and Barry Kornfeld (banjo and other guitar), other dirges one might recognise on this rather patchy set should be, `Bottle Of Wine’ (a Top 10 smash for The Fireballs a few years later) and `Hold On To Me Babe’ (later sung by SANDY DENNY).
A romanticised social commentator or political satirist, the follically-challenged PAXTON delicately kept the protest-folk song alive through follow-up LP OUTWARD BOUND (1966) {*6}. `Leaving London’, `My Son, John’, `Don’t Let Nobody Turn You ‘Round’ and the title track were typical PAXTON fibre, although love and longing through `One Time And One Time Only’ and `I Followed Her Into The West’ were lighter relief for other, heavier topical subject matter.
Awaiting a few years for his vinyl return, MORNING AGAIN (1968) {*6} employed the services of high-brow session men, DAVID GRISMAN, Paul Harris and Herb Brown, plus an occasional orchestra to boost the dour arrangements. More diverse than his previous efforts however, the set had the usual anti-war rants, `Talking Vietnam Pot Luck Blues’ among others, character sketches such as `Victoria Dines Alones’ and `Clarissa Jones’, and the respectively wistful and surreal `The Hooker’ and `Now That I’ve Taken My Life’, also carried well.
Reaching the elusive Top 200 had always been a chore for PAXTON, until, that is, THE THINGS I NOTICE NOW (1969) {*6} put things to rights. Ambitious and admirable, the record was marked by a 15-minute baroque-folk dirge, `The Iron Man’, a part-poem of symphonic proportions similar in many respects to the work of TIM BUCKLEY (another Elektra artist). With top-shelf accompaniment from DAVID BROMBERG, Hubert Laws and Richard Davis, his transformation from folkie to avant-pop star nearly came off, although normality was resumed by way of `All Night Long’ (featuring arrangement from ragtime acolyte Joshua Rifkin) and `Wish I Had A Troubadour’.
Hitting Top 30 in Britain, TOM PAXTON 6 (1970) {*7} cemented his reputation as folk music’s most gallant of representatives, fighting as he did the causes and topics of the era: for the likes of the coal miner (`Dogs At Midnight’), the wounded soldier (`Jimmy Newman’) and pending ecological disaster (`Whose Garden Was This’). Mixed in to the proverbial melting pot were a couple of courageous casualties such as the comical and celebrity-baiting `Forest Lawn’ (very Tom Lehrer) and `Uncle Jack’, a track penned with arranger David Horowitz; a concert double-set, THE COMPLEAT TOM PAXTON: RECORDED LIVE (1971) {*7}, would hit paydirt in England/UK (where he now resided), but nowhere in his home country.
Retaining Horowitz on some co-credits, PAXTON inked a deal with Reprise Records, delivering two sets that reached the Top 200, HOW COME THE SUN (1971) {*5} and PEACE WILL COME (1972) {*5}, plus one that didn’t, the live NEW SONGS FOR OLD FRIENDS (1973) {*4}. It was an unfruitful time for Tom in the mid-70s (at least on the recording front), although success came through tours of China, Australasia, et al; three mediocre and low-key LPs surfaced:- CHILDREN’S SONGBOOK (1974) {*5}, SOMETHING IN MY LIFE (1975) {*4} and SATURDAY NIGHT (1976) {*4}.
With a move back to New York and on to Washington D.C. (the second in ’77), things looked on the up for PAXTON when he signed for the once-pivotal Vanguard Records. NEW SONGS FROM THE BRIARPATCH (1977) {*6} restored some faith in the man again, tracks such as `Talking Watergate’, `Mister Blue – White Bones Of Allende’ and `Did You Hear John Hurt?’ (a tribute to the Mississippi blues-folk legend) recalled some halcyon days. Dedicated to PHIL OCHS, who died in 1976, HEROES (1978) {*7}, meanwhile, took on more worldly causes and injustices in his song about the South African anti-apartheid campaigner, `The Death Of Stephen Biko’; also check out `Lucy, The Junk Dealer’s Daughter’ and `Phil’.
On either side of the decade, the live UP & UP (1979) {*4} and THE PAXTON REPORT (1980) {*5} kept his momentum going a little, the first of these sets (for Mountain Railroad Records incidentally) featured a duet (`Outlaw’) with BOB GIBSON, the second, a comical but scathing political rant at Nancy Reagan entitled `I Am Changing My Name To Chrysler’. BULLETIN (1983) {*5} was largely just what it said on the tin, a collection of playful diatribes (if there is such a thing) and fun-poking at er, “acting” U.S. President, Ronald Reagan.
From the mid-80s onwards, PAXTON released several albums for Flying Fish, none better than his debut for the label, EVEN A GRAY DAY (1984) {*7}, a record capturing the singer-songwriter in back-to-basics ballad-mode and backed by ANNE HILLS, Peggy Compton and multi-instrumentalist, the aforementioned BROMBERG. In stark contrast, Tom’s follow-up LP, ONE MILLION LAWYERS AND OTHER DISASTERS (1985) {*5}, produced the funny side of the man; titles such as `Yuppies In The Sky’, `The Day We Lost The America’s Cup’ and `We Can Have The Olympics Over At Our House’, should give one the flavour of his topical humour. From further fresh studio sets, AND LOVING YOU (1986) {*5} to 1991’s disappointing IT AIN’T EASY {*4}, PAXTON at least brought storytelling and thoughtful insight to the most sensitive of subjects.
Bypassing the obligatory children’s album (everybody was doing it), Tom was back on track via the Jim Rooney-produced WEARING THE TIME (1994) {*7}. A lot of old folkies had now taken the Nashville route, although Tom, it must be said, tempered his tunes slightly to a contemporary-folk audience; he’d just turned 57. Sugar Hill Records were also responsible for the 70-minute LIVE: FOR THE RECORD (1996), a song-and-banter set containing the sharp-edged and cutting `Bobbitt’ (Wayne, that is), and the comment on desperate Bosnian plight, `On The Road To Srebenica’.
Surfacing from several “fun”-themed children’s sets released during the late 90s, “twilight years” label Appleseed, produced three post-millennium efforts by PAXTON, the first a joint effort with former collaborator ANNE HILLS on UNDER AMERICAN SKIES (2001) {*6}. With sombre subjects in tow, politics and social commentary were the order of the day; tracks like RICHARD FARINA’s `Birmingham Sunday’, MALVINA REYNOLDS’ `God Bless The Grass’, Tom Russell’s `Manzanar’ (about the treatment of Japanese-Americans during WWII), PHIL OCHS & KATE WOLF’s `Links In The Chain’ and the duo’s title track (about the controversial death penalty) were strictly serious pieces of work.
LOOKING FOR THE MOON (2002) {*6} and the PAXTON-HILLS-GIBSON concert performance of 1985, BEST OF FRIENDS (2004) {*7}, were a few others that kept Tom (in fact, folk-protest in general) alive and kicking. In 2008, PAXTON completed yet another “comeback” album, COMEDIANS & ANGELS {*7}, another splendid set for one of America’s truly prolific singer-songwriters; a year later he received a worthy Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award – none more deserving.
The “Rambling Boy” (at the age of 77) was back in circulation after a previous year which had seen the sad passing of his wife Midge. Surrounded by Nashville session pickers (including JOHN PRINE on `Skeeters’ll Gitcha’), umpteenth set REDEMPTION ROAD (2015) {*7} was probably just what his doctor ordered. Reflective and sung with a back-porch-rocking-chair perspective (example `Susie Most Of All’ and `Time To Spare’), there was a sense that this would be his swansong to country-folk and, aside from his quirky, old-timer tunes (including his VAN RONK tribute `The Mayor Of MacDougal Street’), PAXTON pressed the poignancy button for `If The Poor Don’t Matter’, `Central Square’ and the title track.
© MC Strong 2010-GFD // rev-up MCS Mar2015

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