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Tom Paxton - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 18 / 4 / 2015

Tom Paxton - Interview


Lisa Torem talks to legendary singer-songwriter and folk artist Tom Paxton about his fifty year career, his recent decision to stop touring and his forthcoming farewell tour of the UK

His songs have been covered by Willie Nelson, Placido Domingo, Judy Collins and Johnny Cash - and in this Pennyblackmusic interview this legendary singer-songwriter will remind you of a few more. But like snowflakes, each Tom Paxton song is unique. Each one invites participation and introspection or makes us laugh. They celebrate freedom, peace and commitment, and the ethereal magic of our natural surroundings. But his lyrics also urge us to get involved, to right wrongs or shift our views. ‘Whose Garden Was This?’, ‘Bottle of Wine’, ‘The Marvellous Toy’ are just a few titles that have sprung forth from his 40-plus year career. Tom has won three Lifetime Achievement Awards, bestowed upon him by the Grammys, ASCAP and the BBC and to support the release of his recent album, ‘Redemption Road,’ Tom will tour the UK from May 8th to 30th, covering many cities in England, plus a few in Ireland and Glasgow, Scotland. Tom Paxton was originally from Chicago, but with his family he moved to Oklahoma. After being discharged from the U.S. Army, and, with a six-string in tow, he settled in New York and graced the stages of The Gaslight and Bitter End in Greenwich Village in the mid 1960s. His career may have begun there, but his songs remain an integral part of the international music community. PB: Someone had given me a reel-to-reel tape of Peter, Paul and Mary, ‘See What Tomorrow Brings’ and the last track is one of your songs,‘The Last Thing on My Mind’. That song, like so much of your material, has been widely covered. How do you feel about your songs that have been covered? TP: Basically, I have always been pleased. I think they’ve mainly done a conscientious effort to do the best by the song. There have been a couple of unusual ones. At the head of that list would be, ‘I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound’ by Tiny Tim. It’s one at the same time, funny and sad. He does his best with the song, but of course, it’s not his kind of song and what’s clear to me, because I’ve been in the business so long, is what happened was, he would tip toe through the tulips and record companies said, “We’ve got to snap him up. He’s a hit.”’ And then in the cold light of dawn, they said, “Now what? What do we do now? We have him, but I know. We’ll just get one of our staff producers to put together a bunch of songs and go in the studio and cut them,” and that’s what happened. They gave him these songs to record. He recorded the songs as best he could and nothing really came of it. In the meantime, I have this recording of Tiny Tim singing my song and to me it’s very touching. It’s so much a fish out of water. But then, years later, I get a recording of Johnny Cash doing it on ‘American Recordngs’, one of his last albums, the one he did with Rick Rubin, where it was just him and the guitar and it’s wonderful. It’s so plain. So unadorned. It’s Johnny Cash, for God’s sake. When John Denver or Peter, Paul or Mary or Judy Collins did my songs, they were always beautifully done. They know me. They know this kind of song. It’s their kind of song, so it was no stretch for them to do beautiful recordings of them. PB: It’s interesting how each artist or group arranges the song differently. On the version I heard, Mary Travers pretty much handled the lead vocal. On the Seekers version, the group engaged in a lot of harmonies from the start. TP: I recently heard the Seekers again. For some reason, I was on my iTunes list so I listened to it again. I hadn’t heard it in years and, boy, is it a good version. PB: Judith Durham’s voice is gorgeous. TP: What a voice! And it was once again a straight-ahead version. I will say that certainly one of my lesser known songs, but it was a massive hit in Canada was ‘Wasn’t That a Party?’ That was covered by Lonnie Donegan as well. But the big hit was by the Irish Rovers. They had a huge hit. It went platinum in Canada. It’s a very big jukebox song. And then years later, I get a call from Rounder and whoever it was said, “We’re sending you a disc. We want you to hear this recording,” and it was a polka album by Jimmy Sturr. He always won the Grammys for polka, so he has this recording of ‘Wasn’t That a Party?’ The vocal was by the Oak Ridge Boys. So, I had someone over here and he and my wife and I listened to it, and at the end of the recording I said, “And this is what it sounds like when a world famous group phones one in.” It’s a funny song. “Could have been the whiskey/Might have been the gin/Could have been the three or four or six packs/I don’t know, But won’t you look at the mess I’m in/A head like a football/I think I’m gonna die/But tell me, me, oh, me, oh, my/Wasn’t that a party?” And then it goes on. Someone’s talking to a cat under the table about football and the cat’s talking back, and the thing is that the Oak Ridge Boys sang it, note perfect. Precision perfect without a hint of humour. Not an ounce of the joke in the vocal. PB: Do you think they did that deliberately? TP: No. I think they did it because that’s the way it was laid out. They sang the notes and the words. PB: Literally. TP: So talk about missing the point. PB: You worked with Jim Rooney previously and again on ‘Redemption Road.’ TP: He’s my man. We started in 1995 - that was the first one we did together. And I’ve known Jim for fifty years. I’ve known him since the old days in the Village and Cambridge, Mass. But the first album we did was‘Wearing the Time’ and then we did a live album, ‘Live for the Record’, and then we did ‘Looking For The Moon’ and then we did ‘Comedians and Angels’ and now this is the fourth studio album and the fifth overall. And, boy, do I love him. He knows me. He knows my music. He knows how to do it. There is a group of unbelievable musicians he works with down in Nashville and it’s just heaven for me to go down and record with Jim and these guys. And the same engineer, Dave Ferguson. It doesn’t take any time at all because he knows my songs and they pick them up lightning fast, and we finished my part of the thing in three days. When I hear about guys spending months in the studio, even thinking about the money they’re spending, I think, what are they doing with all of that time? Jim gets the guys together and I sing the song for them, and they write the chords down and they go back to their stations, and we run it through maybe twice. We’re doing it for business, and half the time after one track Jim says, “You got it.” PB: And you enjoy that pace. TP: I love working like that. I don’t want to spend great gobs of time doing the same song over and over, looking for I don’t know what. PB: ‘Virginia Morning,’ Buffalo Dreams, ‘Ireland’ are all tracks on the new album. You write eloquently about these places. You’ve travelled around the U.S., Europe and Asia. It sounds like place means a lot to you as a songwriter. TP: It’s important to me to write with specificity. When I’m writing about Ireland, I like to write about actual places like O’Donoghue’s is a club in Ireland just off St. Stephen’s Green and they have a permanent session going on in there, and the place up in Donegal, the club, McGrory’s, is an actual pub where they have a wonderful music programme. Everybody I know has played there. You see the posters on the wall: Rodney Crowell has been there, Arlo Guthrie.So I like to be specific about things. I think it’s evocative to do that. I remember a song that I wrote some years ago to a tune by Susan Graham White, called ‘A Long Way From Your Mountain’ and the verse is about Colorado: “You dreamed of something and your Colorado snow,” and I wanted something specific, and just like that it came into my mind. There’s a mountain in western Colorado called, Uncompahgre Peak, which is a fantastic word. Uncompahgre. It sings so beautifully, and it means uncomparable, and it sprang into my mind and it worked perfectly. The only thing is that the only time I ever encountered that word was when I was in junior high school, and my friend sent me a picture postcard of that mountain and a fountain pen traced where he and his brothers had climbed. Of course, they didn’t get to the top, but decades later I was looking for something specific and, bam, there it was. Not my brain, but the human brain is so fantastic, the way it provides us with things like that if we’re looking for them. PB: You performed in the Village in the 1960s with the likes of Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan. How well did you know them? TP: Dave was my best man when I married Midge in 1963. I met him in the summer of 1960. I was still in the army at Fort Dix and I was coming in on weekends and Dave was singing at the Commons, a coffee house on McDougal St. and he was hiring the rest of the bill. He would use me on the weekends and I would make ten or fifteen dollars a night, which was fantastic. What that meant was I didn’t have to have lunch at the mess hall. I could go to the PX and get a hamburger. So I was in high cotton. I met him that summer, and we became great friends. And right after that I met Noel Stookey and later on we were roommates, whilst they were putting Peter, Paul and Mary together. So, I knew those guys very well, and Len Chandler, who wrote ‘The Green, Green, Rocky Road’. Dylan came in 1961, January, February, something like that. We were at the Monday night hootenanny at Gerde’s Folk City. Dave and I saw this scrawny kid with a black, corduroy cap on and harmonica rack, who sang three Woody Guthrie songs and we both said, “Very good. This guy’s interesting,” so we met him right away and we were all friends together. PB: But at that time, a lot of the performers were doing traditional music. You wrote a song a day. You showcased original music. TP: That’s what Dave pointed out, that I was one of the first to do a lot of writing. Of course, Dylan started writing immediately and he seems to have done okay with it. But it went hand and glove with me. I was singing the same traditional repertoire everyone else was doing, songs from the Appalachian collections, songs I’d learned from Burl Ives records, etc. But right along at the same time, I was writing songs and now and then I would do one in my shows. But it was really ’68 or ’69 before my shows were just my songs. I always found that once you were on stage no one cared if you’d written the song or not. All they cared about was were they having a good time, and so I stuck with songs that I thought were written, and gradually I began to write some winners like ‘Ramblin’ Boy’ and the aforementioned ‘Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound’. PB: I saw a clip with you and Pete Seeger. You were having a very, casual conversation about ‘Ramblin’ Boy’. Were you an influence on each other? TP: I would say that Pete was an enormous influence on me. I have no idea whether I influenced him at all. I think that would be hubris to assume such a thing. But Pete was a great influence on me in his musicianship and his repertoire, and his worldview I shared. I didn’t share his politics. By then, Pete had become what he’d called, a “small c” communist. He had left the party years before, but to his death he remained a “small c” communist. I never was. I didn’t buy that in any shape or form. I was always pretty much a left wing democrat, but I loved his worldview. I loved his philosophy that music brought people together rather than divided them. It’s very hard to dislike somebody you’re singing harmony with, and so I was very much influenced by Pete and by the Weavers as a group. I loved what they represented. I loved how they sounded. I loved a lot of my contemporaries. I thought a lot of my contemporaries were outstanding. Peter, Paul and Mary and the Chad Mitchell Trio were great groups. They were towards the middle of the spectrum. As musical stylists, they were very polished and I also liked the unpolished singers very much, but I think we all influenced one another. PB: Wasn’t Janis Ian a guest on the new album? TP: She did harmony on the title track. That was her contribution, and John Prine sang a verse and a chorus with me on a different track, ‘Skeeters Will Get Ya’. PB: How did your recent American tour with Janis Ian come about? TP: We’ve been doing shows together now off and on for three or four years and we just decided it would be fun to do it, so once we decided to do some shows together the first decision we made was that this wasn’t going to be a split bill: one half hers, one half mine. Instead we were going to take the stage together and stay together mainly for the whole show, singing harmonies and having fun. She’s pretty easy for me to crack up and I enjoy making her laugh. so we started with that and the show kept evolving. We kept thinking of different ways of doing it, until now we have a show that I’m very happy with and audiences are eating it up. PB: Do you still feel that protest music has a role in contemporary music? TP: Of course, it does. PB: Because often people link that concept to the 1960s— TP: I have a song on the new album, ‘If the Core Don’t Matter’, which in the old days, would have been a protest song. I just call it a song, but it certainly takes a point of view that we as a society are either going to care for the poor or not, and, if not, what does that make us? If we do take care of the poor, it makes us a compassionate society and I don’t know what the reverse of that is. PB: So if a teenager said to you, “Protest music. Is that still happening?” You might not refer to it as protest music, but maybe music with a conscience? TP: Yeah. Not every song has to be written with the expectation of selling a million copies. That doesn’t have to be the standard, which we apply to our own aspirations. My old friend, Utah Phillips once said, “You can’t get rich in folk music, but you can make a living.” I’ve made a very good living, and it has not hurt me in my world to be known as someone who writes this kind of song as well as love songs and comical songs. They’re just part of what I do. . PB: But sometimes it doesn’t get the respect it deserves. How about the film ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’? TP: I think it seldom gets the respect (Laughs). PB: The folk era gets parodied so often. TP: I know. People like to make fun of things. They like to make fun of anything that’s earnest. So, I’m earnest about what kind of society we live in. So go ahead and make fun of me. I don’t care (Laughs). PB: You lived in London for a while, but it’s been a very long time since you’ve toured the UK. TP: We’re doing the tour fifty years on. PB: So why now? What are you most looking forward to and what kinds of venues will you play? TP: The venues will all be concert halls. As for why I’m doing it, I have a new album. I’m going to stop touring in November, so I wanted to make it a nice even fifty years with the UK. The UK has been unbelievably supportive of me for fifty years, and I can never thank them enough for that. PB: Are you officially retiring? TP: I’m retiring from touring. I’ll do the one-offs. I’ll do a festival, but I’ll always come directly home. I’m not going to point C. I’ll go from point A to B and then back to A. PB: Where are you living now? TP: I live in Alexandria, Virginia. From my workspace on the third floor, I can see the Capitol building in the distance and hurl my thunderbolts that way. I live here. My wife and I moved down there in 1996 to be closer to our daughter Jennifer and our then only grandson. We have three grandsons now. I lost my wife back in June of last year, and so now I’m rattling around in this house by myself. PB: Tom, you’ve won a Lifetime Achievement Award and so many other awards. Do you still have more professional goals or are you satisfied with what you’ve accomplished? TP: I’m satisfied. I’m more than satisfied. Two weeks ago, I was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. PB: Congratulations. TP: Thank you. I never expected anything like that. I never expected the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. I feel I’ve been patted on the back until my back is sore. It feels wonderful. It’s great to be appreciated and I have no other ambitions. PB: For the emerging songwriters, how do you make a song you want to sing and harmonise to, with a theme that people will remember? TP: It’s hard for me to explain that except that I know how to do that. I know that a song has to sing. All of this is so self-evident that it’s amazing that we don’t get it right every time. I would say when it comes to making a melody, maybe doing it a cappella until that melody sings and then you find the chords for it. That’s one way. I don’t do that myself. The melodies come to me. and they come in melodic lines that flow. It’s got to sing, and you can always tell when it’s not singing. PB: Thank you. UK Tour Dates: Friday 8th Londonderry Millenium Forum 028 7126 4455 Saturday 9th Dublin Vicar St 00353 1 775 5800 Sunday 10th Belfast Ulster Hall 028 9033 4400 Tuesday 12th Glasgow Old Fruitmarket 0414 353 8000 Wednesday 13th Gateshead The Sage 0191 443 4661 Friday 15th Birmingham Town Hall 0121 345 0600 Saturday 16th Harrogate Royal Hall 01423 502 116 Monday 18th Liverpool Philharmonic Hall 0151 709 3789 Tuesday 19th Basingstoke The Anvil 01256 844 244 Wednesday 20th Poole Lighthouse 0844 406 8666 Friday 22nd Milton Keynes The Stables 01908 280 800 Saturday 23rd Bristol St. George’s 0845 402 4001 Sunday 24th Shrewsbury Theatre Severn 01743 281 281 Tuesday 26th Guildford G Live 0844 7701 797 Wednesday 27th Brighton St. George's Church 01273 606 312 Thursday 28th London Union Chapel 0844 844 0444 Saturday 30th Salford The Lowry 0843 208 6000

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Tom Paxton - Interview

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