By Bernard Perusse, The Gazette
April 21, 2009
Tom Paxton uses an application on his iPhone to store song ideas when
he's on the road. He's also preparing to perform the song John Henry
with Tom Morello of the alternative-metal rock band Rage Against the
Machine at Pete Seeger's 90th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden.
Paxton, who will be here at Concordia's Oscar Peterson Hall Sunday
night, is fully living in the present, but some of his best-known
songs have been part of folk music's DNA for so long you have to keep
reminding yourself they're not traditional.
Some people are convinced songs like Ramblin' Boy and I Can't Help
But Wonder Where I'm Bound have been around forever. In fact, when
Paxton's daughter Kate was in her first year of college at St.
Andrew's in Scotland, she went with some friends to a pub, where a
local folkie was playing The Last Thing On My Mind. After the set,
she thanked him for playing her father's song only to be told by
the young musician that it was a traditional Scottish folk song he
had learned from his own father. Kate pressed the point.
Paxton picked up the story during a telephone interview last week.
"(The singer) thought for the longest time and said `Well, your
father might have written it.' I decided to go with `I might have
written it,'" he said, laughing.
No trace of resentment is audible in his voice. If anything, he seems
to love the story. "It was always a dream of mine to have songs go
into the tradition and have people love the songs and wonder who
wrote them," he said.
That same sense of wonder is what started Paxton on a musical career
that has been going for almost 50 years and counting landing him
a Lifetime Achievement Grammy award in February. And the record that
was his first guide was The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, a seminal 1957
live recording by the folk group that included Seeger.
"By the end of Side B, I had undergone a chromosomal change, from
someone who loved this music to someone who simply had to do it,"
Paxton said. "The scope (of the album) was unbelievable."
Seeger's early support of Paxton's work, notably his recording of
Ramblin' Boy, also with the Weavers, had a dramatic effect on the
fledgling writer. "It was validation," Paxton said. "It meant I
wasn't kidding myself, that I actually did have something to
contribute. And that there was room for me at the table."
While many of Paxton's albums are filled with songs directly inspired
from the headlines, the protest movement and its politically-charged
anthems started making space for more personal visions by the
mid-60s. Around that time, Paxton had a highly symbolic moment with a
friend from the folk scene who had begun to march to his own drummer
and had a new song to reinforce the point. It happened at the Kettle
of Fish bar in Greenwich Village.
"We had a table right up by the door, where we tended to hang out
between sets," Paxton said. "On a given night, Dave Van Ronk would be
there, Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen, Patrick Sky, David Blue a lot of
bulls---, a lot of kidding, a lot of argument.
"One night, an argument was going on between Van Ronk and Ochs across
the table. Bob Dylan was sitting next to me. He leaned over and said
`Listen, I want you to hear this,' and he sang Gates of Eden into my
ear," Paxton said. "He sang in a whisper, as if he were telling me a secret."
The secret would be out before long, and the Beatles-led electric
generation would be spreading the news. The Byrds amplified Dylan
songs, while Paxton's Bottle of Wine was given a stomping backbeat by
the Fireballs and his Mr. Blue was psychedelicized by Clear Light.
Paxton said he loved both interpretations.
The civil rights movement that largely defined that era has never
been more dramatically manifested than in Barack Obama's election to
the U.S. presidency, Paxton acknowledged. But while he emphatically
insisted that no one's mind gets changed by a song, he conceded that
the music his generation of writers put out there played a long-term
part in reinforcing peoples' growing convictions.
"I think these songs helped put a voice to a theme that was running
through a generation," he said. "You can't imagine the movement
having succeeded without the songs, without We Shall Overcome. It was
part of what moved the boulder."
Paxton occasionally rewrites some of his old topical songs to fit the
times: I'm Changing My Name to Chrysler, about the 1979 U.S.
government loans to the auto giant, for example, is now I'm Changing
My Name to Fannie Mae. Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation was also later
modified to fit George W. Bush.
Finding ideas in the newspapers is an exercise Paxton said he assigns
to participants in his songwriting seminars, his most recent sessions
given a few years ago at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.
"I tell them 'Find something (in the news) that moves you to any
emotion whatsoever anger, fear, loathing, hilarity and write a
song from the point of view of a participant or an eyewitness. It
gets you out of writing about your boring lives. Write about the
world as a participant; make it immediate.'
"That's how I approach topical songwriting." he said. "I like to
write in the first person even if it's seldom me."
Tom Paxton performs Sunday night at 8 at Concordia University's Oscar
Peterson Concert Hall, 7141 Sherbrooke St. W. Tickets cost $40 to
$57. Phone 514-790-1245 or go to www.admission.com. For further
information, phone 514-524-9225.