T o m ...P a x t o n
“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.” – Pete Seeger
“Tom Paxton embodies the spirit of folk music in the most beautiful sense…He’s the coolest.” – Ani DiFranco
"[His] songs are so powerful and lyrical, written from the heart and the conscience, and they reach their mark, our innermost being.” – Judy Collins
“Tom Paxton ranks up there with the Beatles [and] Bob Dylan…for the number of songs he’s written that everyone seems to know.” – Dirty Linen
It seems like only yesterday that Tom Paxton arrived in New York’s Greenwich Village as a fresh-faced member of the Army reserves who commuted from Fort Dix on weekends to haunt the Village’s mushrooming folk clubs, performing at small “basket houses” and sleeping on friends’ floors until it was time to return to the New Jersey military base. More than forty years later, the earnest, clean-cut kid has evolved into a twinkling-eyed grandfather who has forged a legendary reputation for his singing, songwriting and stage skills over the course of thousands of concerts, hundreds of original songs and dozens of albums.
The only sign that Tom may be slowing down a bit is that his past is catching up to him. In December 2008, it was announced that Tom will recieve a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 51st Annual Grammy ceremonies, and his latest CD, Comedians & Angels, was nominated for a Grammy Award in the "Best Traditional Folk Album" category (with the winner to be announced in televised ceremonies on February 8, 2009). In 2005, Tom received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting at BBC Radio 2’s Folk Awards in London. The following year, he was the recipient of a 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award from the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance, honoring “those who have devoted their life's work and talent to the advancement of folk music and dance.” And in January 2007, the British Parliament paid official tribute to his life and work, in which Lord Neil Kinnock described Paxton, a perennial UK favorite, as “one of the great folksingers. His is the real voice of America; he speaks for decent Americans.”In the 45 years since Tom started performing regularly in Greenwich Village, he’s earned his place as one of the great “singing journalists” in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and the early Bob Dylan; as a pioneer in the early-Sixties transition from performing traditional folk songs to original, personal compositions; and as one of our finest contemporary songwriters. Although his own records have never sold in the quantities they merited, Paxton originals such as “The Last Thing on My Mind,” “The Marvelous Toy” and “Ramblin’ Boy” reached a wider public through cover versions by more “commercial” folk acts – the Chad Mitchell Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, and the Kingston Trio, and in latter-day versions by musicians as diverse as Pete Seeger (an early Paxton inspiration), Placido Domingo, and Willie Nelson. The Fireballs had a 1968 Top 10 hit with Tom’s goodtimey “Bottle of Wine.” One of his songs, “My Dog’s Bigger than Your Dog” was even licensed for use in a Ken-L Ration dogfood commercial. As early as 1969, Paxton’s status as an under-appreciated master was noted in Lillian Roxon’s seminal Rock Encyclopedia: “The trouble with Tom Paxton is that he’s been too good too long and people take him for granted . . .”
But sometimes good things do come to those who wait. In addition to the recent honors mentioned above, Paxton was enjoyed much long-overdue appreciation in the 21st Century. His 2001 CD Your Shoes, My Shoes was a Grammy finalist in the “Children Music” category, and 2002’s Looking for the Moon, his first solo CD for Appleseed, was a Grammy finalist as “Best Contemporary Folk Album.” In 2002, he also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Composers, Artists and Publishers (ASCAP), and three “Wammies” (Washington, DC, Area Music Awards) as “Best Male Vocalist” in both the “traditional folk” and “children’s music” categories and for “Best Traditional Folk Recording of the Year” for Under American Skies, his duo CD with frequent collaborator Anne Hills on Appleseed.
Born in Chicago on Halloween in 1937 but transplanted with his family to tiny Bristow, Oklahoma, at age 10, Paxton caught the music bug for R&B, classical and folk music in junior high school. Although he entered the University of Oklahoma as a drama major, his attraction to folk music blossomed and he acquired an acoustic guitar as a sophomore. “By the time I got out of college . . . I loved this music so much that I had to try it. . . . I had undergone a chromosomal change after hearing The Weavers At Carnegie Hall album.”
While serving a six-month stint in the Army Reserves in New Jersey, the proximity of Fort Dix to Greenwich Village put Tom in the right place at the right time to develop his musical skills. After his hitch ended, Paxton became a Village fixture by mid-’62, one of the first of the new crop of young folkies to write original material, helping to open the floodgates of the singer-songwriter movement, alongside Dylan, Ochs, Fred Neil, Tim Hardin and others. As the outspoken musical activist Steve Earle recently told No Depression magazine, “The singer-songwriter thing came out of the folk movement. The first guys who wrote their own songs were Dylan and Tom Paxton. They were both really good.” On a West Coast tour in 1963, Tom “discovered” another young singer-songwriter, Eric Andersen (a future label-mate on Appleseed) in San Francisco and sent him back east to join the musical party.
In 1964, Paxton was signed to Elektra Records, which released his first of an estimated 40 or so albums, Ramblin’ Boy. The following year, Paxton made his first of many annual tours of Great Britain. At the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival in the UK, Paxton’s performance stole the show from the most popular rock bands of the day and solidified a still-ardent English fan base. He lived in London during the early ’70s, collaborated with various British folk stars, including Ralph McTell and Danny Thompson, and, after returning to the States, came back to England to record the first of his many albums of children’s songs in 1974.
In 1984, Paxton, fellow folk veteran Bob Gibson, a deep-voiced master of the 12-string guitar, and Anne Hills, a relative newcomer with a distinctive voice and rapidly developing songwriting talent, banded together for 18 months, touring the U.S., U.K. and Canada as “Best of Friends.” Although no studio recordings were made, a February 1985 live radio broadcast of the trio was released by Appleseed in 2004 as Best of Friends.
In his lengthy career, Tom Paxton has become a beloved constant on the folk circuit, acclaimed for the depth and wit of his songs and the humor he brought – and still brings – to his dozens of yearly performances. His compositions, whether topical, personal, humorous, or all three combined, have become templates for the successive waves of singer-songwriters (no longer “folk singers”). Tom is a delightful storyteller with or without a guitar in his hands, and since 1987 has written the text for more than a dozen children’s books. Whether Tom sings of love, as on his new Comedians & Angels, of topical events (in his ongoing series of “short shelf-life songs” frequently posted for free download on his website), of toys and measles and holidays (on his children’s CDs), or of the everyday lives and world that surrounds him, what’s left of the “real” America couldn’t have a better spokesman.
For a recent appreciation of Tom’s skills as a songwriter, please follow this link to the Huffington Post website.
For a career retrospective and in-depth interview with Tom Paxton in the Washington Post on the occasion of Paxton's Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in February 2009, follow this link.
Tom Paxton performs “Get Up and Go” on our Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger set and “Times A’Getting Hard, Boys” on Pete Seeger & Friends’ Seeds: The Songs of Pete Seeger, Vol. 3. Tom’s moving salute to the heroes of 9/11, “The Bravest” (from Looking for the Moon) also appears on Sowing the Seeds – The 10th Anniversary, and the Paxton/Hills/Gibson live rendition of “Bottle of Wine” from their Best of Friends CD is featured on Christine Lavin & Friends’ One Meat Ball.