For Tom Paxton, music remains a defensive weapon

Tom Paxton

By Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., September 25, 2001) – For about four decades, Tom Paxton has wielded his guitar and his skill as a writer of acute songs of topical protest as a defensive weapon in battles that read like a laundry list of liberal causes: civil rights, the peace movement, the environmental, women’s rights.

At a time when some are questioning the value of art as political protest, Paxton remains unbowed.

“Music is never futile,” said Paxton – who kicks off the Berkshire Museum’s new “Originals in Song” folk music series on Saturday, September 29, at 8 -- in a phone interview just days after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C.

“I do feel that music of comfort is more important to me now than any kind of aggressive music,” said Paxton. “I don’t think I’ll be writing any revenge songs.”

Paxton said that rather than shying away from music or art in the wake of terror, one should embrace the arts for their healing and expressive powers.

“At a time like this, music can help so much,” said Paxton. “Listening to Deniece Graves?? sing ‘America the Beautiful’ -- it’s a way to focus grief. It’s up to musicians to figure out ways to do it, but all of this can be expressed musically.”

Paxton said it’s even not beyond question to directly address the terrorist attacks in the form of a new folk song. “I’m not sure I’ll be successful, but I have one idea for a song that I’ll keep to myself,” he said. “I will try. It’s almost foolhardry to think one can encapsulate something like this in a song. I just think that I owe it to everyone to try to write something that can help.”

Writing songs intended to help has been a large part of Paxton’s mission for the last 40 years, since the singer began haunting Greenwich Village coffeehouses like the Gaslight and the Bitter End in the early-1960s.

It was a great time to be an aspiring folk singer in New York, and Paxton soon fell in with a good crowd, including people like Len Chandler, Noel Stookey (later to become Paul of Peter, Paul and Mary) and Dave Van Ronk, who became Paxton’s best friend.

While early on he began to get regular gigs, Paxton quickly established himself as a songwriter, and songs like “The Marvelous Toy,” “Ramblin’ Boy,” and “The Last Thing On My Mind” were soon popularized by the likes of Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Glen Campbell, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary.

Later on, Paxton’s songs became a mainstay of John Denver’s repertoire, and eventually the list of those who recorded his songs grew to include Neil Diamond, Dion, Placido Domingo, Jose Feliciano, Arlo Guthrie, Dolly Parton, the Mamas and the Papas, Hank Snow, the Weavers and Doc Watson.

While Paxton’s songwriting talents were ahead of his performing skills, eventually those caught up and he became known as a quintessential entertainer.

It wasn’t easy, however. “I had to work at it,” said Paxton. “I was a pretty fair amateur actor -- I studied drama in college, I was a theater major and did a lot of acting -- but as soon as I put a guitar on and got in front of audience to sing I was stiff as a board, just terrible. It took me quite a while to learn to loosen up and be watchful and disciplined at the same time.”

The dichotomy – to be loose and disciplined at the same time – is the key to successful performance, says Paxton.

“You have to be relaxed, but in a very unnatural place to be relaxed,” said Paxton. “Everything you say is amplified, lights are in your eyes -- these are not natural conditions.

“But you also have to be paying attention to the performance -- what comes next, what’s happening, what to react to, when to let a spontaneous thought come out or whether to say no to it. You’re making what amounts to decisions on a couple of seconds sometimes.”

Paxton continues to balance the topical, satirical songs for which he’s perhaps best-known – songs like “I’m Changing My Name to Chrysler” and “Yuppies in the Sky” – with the tender ballads and folk songs that seem to have been around forever and that people may not realize are his – songs like “Ramblin’ Boy.” Recently he has recorded several albums of children’s songs and even branched out into writing children’s books.

Paxton’s most recent recording is “Under American Skies” (Appleseed), a duet album recorded with longtime associate Anne Hills. The two have performed together often over the last 20 years, but this marks their first full-length collaboration.

Of the 14 songs on the album, four are by Paxton, two by Hills, and the rest are drawn from the great, overlooked American folk songbook by writers like Richard Farina, Malvina Reynolds, Gil Gurner, Tom Russell and Kate Wolf.

Paxton explained how they went about choosing the songs. “It just seemed that the songs that we were drawn to were ones that had something to say about the country and the social life and the politics and the justice and the lack of justice -- they just seemed to be the kind of songs we’d do,” he said.

As for the future of folk music, Paxton described himself as “sanguine.”

“This is a kind of music that never dies out, because it’s not subject to market pressures,” he said. “It’s not as if it’s the hot thing and then it’s ice cold. It’s eternal, people making songs up for occasions, not professional songs. They have a life of their own.

“It’s the kind of music that will never die, as witness ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ and the movie ‘Songcatcher.’ They’re folk songs; they always speak to the human condition. There will always be folk songs.”

For tickets to Tom Paxton at the Berkshire Museum, call 443-7171 ext. 10.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Sept. 28, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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