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Rambin' Boy

Singer/songwriter Tom Paxton is still just folk

No fewer than 70 singers, and probably twice that many, have covered "The Last Thing on My Mind." Earl Scruggs, Marianne Faithfull, Porter Wagoner, Sandy Denny, Tony Rice, Neil Diamond, Dolly Parton and even the Move have all found something in the lyric and melody, a pure and dreamlike and ineffable something as close to perfection as a Shakespeare sonnet, or Cezanne's peaches, or "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," as a singer/songwriter's ballad has ever come, or ever will.

It's a lesson too late for the learnin' made of sand, made of sand. In the wink of an eye my soul is turning In your hand, in your hand.

"That's all about how love is an involuntary emotion," Paxton says. "I'm thinking now of my grandson Christopher. The first time I held him was the day he was born. You fall in love all over again. You have no control over it. You're overwhelmed with love. I've never been able to find the original manuscript -- I probably wrote it on a typewriter and it's lost now -- but from the beginning people have said, after hearing the song, "You know, is everything all right at home?' I say, "Yeah, it's just a song.' Of course, it's more than just a song; it's probably the best song I've written. It's a response to an unarticulated question, "How would I feel if? How would I feel if my marriage were over?'"

Perhaps because he has never been an overpowering singer or guitar player, Paxton's songs have never been as well known in their original forms as they have been as covers. He's never thought twice about such a fate. "I love it when someone well-known does one of my songs. John Denver did some beautiful versions, but don't get me started. There have been some hysterical, toe-curling versions. There's a bootleg recording of "Last Thing on My Mind' done as a square-dance call. It's a howler. Tiny Tim, God rest his soul, did "I Can't Help but Wonder Where I'm Bound.' It's sort of pathetic-comic; I could tell he didn't really want to do it."

In 40 years, Paxton's approach to music has never really changed. He still covers the news as well as Phil Ochs ever did, still writes delightful and silly children's songs, and his melodies and lyrics still rise as warm and fragrant as steam from homemade broth. "You can't take credit for it," he says. "It's some kind of gift that you really don't control. What I'll take credit for is working for it. I used to be a disciplined writer, but now it's harder and harder. Now and then an inspiration will come out of the blue, but mostly the ideas come after you start to work, not before. Sitting down, starting to move the pen -- that's how it happens. My wife is a psychologist, and she has informed me of something I always knew intuitively, that the act of writing, of moving the pen, stimulates a part of the brain that's creative, stimulates the idea machine, if you will. My friend the late Bob Gibson once said that you can't steer a sailboat until it's moving. Once you're moving, you tend to get more ideas than sitting in harbor. It's a hopeful metaphor."

Tom Paxton performs at the Sheldon on Friday, March 10.

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