By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Will there be not a trace left behind?
I could have loved you better, I didn't mean to be unkind
That was the last thing on my mind.
The unreconstructed folkie, his jeans, work shirt and troubadour-issue corduroy cap as faded and familiar as 1961, his songs still full of belief and hope and romance that, 40 years down the road, no one should have a right to anymore: Tom Paxton still does singalongs, for Pete Seeger's sake.
Paxton has the right; for him it's inalienable. Dave Van Ronk, with whom he haunted the Bleecker Street cafes in the '60s, has said that it was Paxton, not Dylan, who first opened a generation to the power and purpose of original songwriting. "I came to New York in 1960," Paxton says. "Bob came in '61, Phil Ochs in '62. We all started about the same time, but I was a little before. But we didn't principally think of ourselves as songwriters. I was singing a lot of traditional songs, Woody Guthrie songs. So was Bob. That's something that I'd love to convey to younger artists: They shouldn't feel they have to do only their own songs. They should do the best songs they can do and give themselves time. We didn't draw a distinction between doing an original and a traditional. The songs we were writing were all in the folk tradition. The bulk of the songs that I write to this day fit traditional forms.
"I can remember the first song I wrote because I just dug it up to put in a songbook," he adds. "It must be the worst song anybody ever wrote. It's a phony folk song, really abysmal. It's called "Robert,' an imitation-Elizabethan murder ballad. It's an object lesson: If I can go from writing that to writing decent songs, anybody can."
Born in 1937 in Chicago, Paxton moved to Oklahoma in 1947 and has come to identify most deeply with the Oklahoma hill country, a land that seems to bestow an earthy romanticism on its native sons -- witness Woody Guthrie and Chet Baker.
My first steps were taken
Where her muddy waters flow
All my life I've walked these hills
These hills are what I know
"That's my love for Oklahoma. It's not literally true, of course. I was born in Chicago, but I love those Oklahoma hills, the foothills of the Ozarks. To me it's abut knowing who we are. We're allowed to define that for ourselves. We decide for ourselves who we are in essence. That's what that singer is stating: "This is who I am. This is home. I tried to live somewhere else, but I knew instinctively that I had to return.'"
Paxton studied drama at the University of Oklahoma, but the folk revival's first wave was cresting, and after a short march through the Army he lit out for New York, where he helped stir up the second wave. "The earliest folk songs, for me, were Burl Ives'. But the record that blew me out of the water, and many of my colleagues say the same thing, was The Weavers at Carnegie Hall. They brought a passion and social consciousness, that deadly phrase, which seems so academic and politically correct, but it was the immediacy and the relevance that got to us. They sang with conviction. But then at the same time they were singing songs like "Hush Little Baby Don't Say a Word.' It was the authenticity of the emotion. The arrangements weren't like Appalachian settings, but they retained the spirit of the songs. They sang of the Underground Railroad, the Spanish civil war or an Indonesian lullaby. It was an emotion that seemed much more real than your average pop song, however fun those pop songs might have been. This was another dimension.
"I went through years where I didn't want to talk about those days," he continues. "But now I can say that they warrant the celebration. Those days were very intense -- we worked and lived intensely."
Along with his great romantic ballads -- "The Last Thing on My Mind," "Ramblin' Boy," "Leaving London," "Along the Verdigris," "I Can't Help but Wonder Where I'm Bound" -- Paxton has written novelties ("short-shelf-life songs," he calls them), kiddie tunes and darkly comic satirical numbers. The best of Paxton's songs are marked by an intensity that never betrays their contemplative mild-heartedness. Early in his career he found a kindred spirit in the Belgian singer and composer Jacques Brel. "I became aware of Brel through Judy Collins, who did his song "The Dove." I loved the feel of it; it felt like folk music, but it was more sophisticated in structure. I saw his last performance in America -- such a gorgeous show. I felt that here was an impassioned and intelligent writer. A song of mine like "Jimmy Newman' is under his influence. It begins quietly and builds in intensity to a climax in that cabaret style. When people think of cabaret, they think of artifice. But it ain't necessarily so. Billie Holiday was cabaret."