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Ia€™ve had my favorites among the more contemporary performing songwriters -- Greg Brown comes most readily to mind -- but, for sheer longevity and ability to cover the big three in subject matter -- social commentary, satire, and personal relationships -- there just isna€™t anyone in his league. If you were to dream about an American everymana€¦ someone with the ability to verbalize every quality needed to uphold the ideals of democracy, then demonstrate it to the masses, this would be your guy. Wea€™d normally cover the artista€™s life story in an interview, but Tom has put it all down in print. Through high school, in an area where country music was king, it seemed that he was the only person who liked folk music. After a brief, unsuccessful stint in graduate school, Tom followed an impulse he now derides and joined the Army. After his discharge from the Army, he was sitting in the Gaslight Cafe and was prodded to audition for an opening in the Chad Mitchell Trio. Tom had begun working on and off at The Gaslight after his discharge, beginning a 9-month run on the 4th of July weekend in 1962.
In January of 1963, he got what he calls, a€?the biggest break of my life.a€? It was while he was playing at the Gaslight that he met Midge Cummings, the woman who would become his wife.
In spite of Toma€™s prodigious songwriting ability, he watched others get record contracts while he went without. Our observation of Toma€™s a€?deana€? of songwriters status is, of course, not without precedent. In 1963, just before Tom married Midge, he got his first invitation to sing at the Newport Folk Festival.
After the British tour, with stops in Paris and Cannes, Tom and Midge returned to New York.
During the 60a€™s when I was making my first attempt to join the legions of amateurs trying to play folk music, like many others, I made a€?The Last Thing On My Minda€? a part of my repertoire. The film segments on YouTube of Tom sitting at a table with Pete Seeger, chatting about his impetus for writing a song, then singing it, are treasures.
Tom had a way to take a polarizing subject like the Vietnam War and present it in an a€?everymana€? fashion. One of his songs that I will always find haunting is a€?Crazy John,a€? written for John Lennon.
These include some songs that first saw the light of day during the 60a€™s and 70a€™s and came in handy during our current run of madness. Lyndon Johnson told the nation, have no fear of escalation, I am trying everyone to please. He ends the narrative in his songbook with these words: a€?So I teach, I write and record, I travel and perform -- all with my partner, Midge, without whom none of this would be still be happening. Ia€™ve had my favorites among the more contemporary performing songwriters -- Greg Brown comes most readily to mind -- but, for sheer longevity and ability to cover the big three in subject matter -- social commentary, satire, and personal relationshipsA  -- there just isna€™t anyone in his league. Between the covers of his songbook, Tom Paxton, The Honor of Your Company, is a treasure trove of stories and photographs from his childhood and his career.
When his dada€™s health began to fail, for his convalescence, the family moved to Wickenberg, Arizona, a locus for dude ranches. He first heard a€?Shenandoaha€? from the Fred Waring singers Even in that a€?dressed-upa€? version, it drove straight to his core.


It wasna€™t until he got to the University of Oklahoma, that he discovered other classmates who shared his musical tastes. While stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, he whiled away the boring hours in a clerk typist class writing his first commercially viable song, a€?The Marvelous Toy.a€? While stationed at Fort Dix, he began visiting the clubs and cafes in Greenwich Village on weekends, crashing at the apartment of a former classmate.
He won the slot, but it lasted only a week when his voice didna€™t blend well with the other two. With no record contract and not much money, initially the apartment was threadbare, with almost no furniture.
After four years, his manager, the legendary Harold Leventhal, convinced Electraa€™s Jac Holzman to listen to Tom. The workshops were hosted by Pete, who joined Tom on a€?Ramblina€™ Boy,a€? a real thrill for Tom. The folk clubs there were really clubs with memberships, not just commercial establishments that, in New York, might be nearly empty on a Monday. Along with others making it in folk, the college circuit opened up a new and better source of income than clubs. Of course, it would also speak reams to any college kid who wanted to wrap its meaning around his own scared, searching existence. Pete, the standard-bearer of the first American folk wave welcomes Tom, the most literate of the newer generation. The tragedy of a€?Jimmy Newman,a€? for anyone ready to listen, reached across the gulf between the a€?longhairsa€? and their parents. For those who attempt to run their con game on the American populace, Tom Paxton watches, ready to pounce and skewer the miscreants. Though it isna€™t really war, I am sending 50,000 more, to help save Vietnam from Vietnamese.
Tom has kept his touring at around 40 shows per year, so ita€™s a good idea to catch him any chance you have. He first heard a€?Shenandoaha€? from the Fred Waring singersA  Even in that a€?dressed-upa€? version, it drove straight to his core. The tragedy of a€?Jimmy Newman,a€?A  for anyone ready to listen, reached across the gulf between the a€?longhairsa€? and their parents.
We cana€™t possibly include the myriad of experiences he relates or capture the range of wry humor, but will hit some of the high points. When most of us were young, many of us had dreams of being firemen, soldiers anda€¦ cowboys. He and his friends would borrow albums by Josh White, Theodore Bikel and Oscar Brand and share the job of transcribing the lyrics. He got to hear acts like Ed McCurdy (an early hero), The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Josh White and Len Chandler. Tom OKa€™d the use of his song a€?My Doga€™s Bigger Than Your Dog,a€? for a dog food commercial. It was a thrill, even though that first time he was only slated to perform at two afternoon workshops. Night after night, even Mondays, when Tom played, the club members packed the rooms (sometimes upstairs at a pub).


What other songwriter could write: a€?Ita€™s a lesson too late for the learnina€™ made of sand, made of sanda€¦In a wink of an eye my soul is turnina€™a€¦ in your hand, in your handa€¦a€? Ita€™s fingerstyle patterns were perfect for a beginner learning new licks. Seeing Pete join Tom on a€?Ramblina€™ Boy,a€? playing banjo and harmonizing in his high tenor, is a gift to all those who couldna€™t be there at Toma€™s first Newport Festival. As an injured soldier waits to ship out for home, he continues to entreat his unmoving friend lying in the next bed to, a€?Get up, Jimmy Newmana€¦ youa€™ve only to open your eyes,a€? we know his friend is dead. His ignorance is met, first by an ultra-hip Captaina€™s, a€?Wassa matter witchoo, baybee?a€? and a€?Waddya think you been sittin on?
Tom still recalls the shock, fear and anger.A  Not long afterward, he got his first stringed instrument, a ukulele.
Night after night, even Mondays, when Tom played, the club members packed the rooms (sometimes upstairs at a pub).A  His album, Ramblina€™ Boy had preceded him there and people knew the songs. Seeing Pete join Tom on a€?Ramblina€™A  Boy,a€? playing banjo and harmonizing in his high tenor, is a gift to all those who couldna€™t be there at Toma€™s first Newport Festival.
In 1956, he got a second-hand Gibson guitar for Christmas and it accelerated his growth as a guitarist.
Although he took some teasing for a€?selling out,a€? he managed to furnish the apartment with the money. The first album, Ramblina€™ Boy, contains one of Toma€™s most covered songs, a€?The Last Thing On My Mind,a€? and a slew of others that found their way into many a folkiea€™s song-bag.
The old bluesman was only three years from the end of his life, but was able to soak up the adoration of players and audiences in that time. About a year later, someone sat on it and, as he writes, it was a€?Aloha, the ukulele.a€? Soon after, an aunt in Chicago gave him his first guitar, dug out of the back of a closet. One night a rancher paid a visit and sang a cowboy song a€?Tying a Knot in the Devila€™s Tail.a€? It was a€?one more stepa€? in his growing love for folk music.
Years later, he writes, with typically arch humor, that, down the road, he got to tell Burl, in person, a€?I just want to thank you for ruining my life.a€? He got no sympathy, he says.
John played the Gaslight a number of times and Tom and others, lucky to be on the same bill, got to listen and absorb through many sets. One night a rancher paid a visit and sang a cowboy song a€?Tying a Knot in the Devila€™s Tail.a€? It was a€?one more stepa€?A  in his growing love for folk music. The WW I soldiers shouted greetings to each other and exchanged small gifts.A  The false report to headquarters in the last line, a€?We have met the enemy and he has been smashed!a€? also recalls that the opposing soldiers in WW I recognized their foea€™s humanity in spite of objections from their superiors. Later, after some much-deserved success, theya€™d find a house in East Hampton, Long Island where theya€™d live for 27 years, except for three years (1970-1973) spent living in England and touring Europe.
While ita€™s doubtful that much shared humanity was recognized by either side in a€?Nam, the common lot of all soldiers is certainly there in Toma€™s song.
Toma€™s ability to write songs for children is a strong part of his repertoire and catalog.



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