Although abandoned almost a decade ago by the commercial music industry, folk music is far from a dying art. In clubs, festivals, and on back porches, its homespun clarity is timelessly vital.
Tom Paxton, who began by playing the streets 22 years ago, is a remarkable folksinger. His songs, numbering in the hundreds, include such popular standards as “Rambling Boy,” “I Can’t Help But Wonder,” and “The Last Thing on My Mind.” They’ve been recorded on his own many albums and on those of Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Peter, Paul and Mary and Doc Watson.
He’s best known for the wit and quiet sarcasm that mark his political songs — “the voice of liberal conscience,” a recent reviewer called him — but his songs cover a wide range of emotions and ideas. Pervading them is the sincerity and compassion he brings to his writing and performing. What struck me most in his recent Durham concert was the feeling of a man deeply in love with his work, playing for the joy of sharing his songs, with little of the ego often too obvious in performers.
The crowd was curious and expectant. Many only remembered him from years back. Would this be another evening of folk nostalgia? Paxton proved as dynamic as ever, singing some of the old songs and as many new ones. His manner was warm and friendly and it was easy to join in. He started softly with a song he wrote in the early days of the environmental movement:
“Whose garden was this? Did it have flowers? I’ve seen pictures of flowers, and I’d love to have smelled one.”
He made me laugh, using good-natured satire to poke fun at big business, pollution, the arms race, and even himself, with songs like “Who Speaks for Me?”, dedicated to Alexander Haig, the ironic “All Clear from Harrisburg,” and the Abscam off-shoot, “I Thought You Were an A-rab.” In “I’m Changing My Name to Chrysler,” he declares,
“I’m going to Washington D.C. And tell some power broker What you did for Iacocca is perfectly acceptable to me.”
His humor is potent, making his points without bitterness and guilt. Like Pete Seeger, he uses humor to unite audiences, and not to enhance alienation.
He then sang a song written for paralyzed Vietnam veteran Ron Kovics:
“Born on the Fourth of July, no one more loyal than I. When my country said so, I was ready to go. I wish I’d been left there to die.”
And a searching song for his beloved friend, folk legend Phil Ochs, whose career ended under a make-shift scaffold in a Greenwich Village basement; “I opened the paper. There was your picture. Gone, gone, gone, by your own hand.”
Then through the tears comes a love song, a silly love song or a serious one — he’s written many — and then back to poking fun.
In speaking with Paxton, I felt a certain guy-next-door quality about him, a soft-spoken honesty and a contentment with doing his part. Over the years he has learned to walk the difficult tight-rope between commercial rewards and inner ones. “The only success I’m interested in now,” he said in our interview, “is the success inside, when you know that you’re using the gifts that were given to you.”
— Howard Rubin
SUN: If you were introducing Tom Paxton to SUN readers, what would you say?
Paxton: I don’t think you can avoid the fact that I’ve been around a long time and that I got my start during the now-fabled Sixties. I would say something about how he has managed to stay fresh and involved after all this time (laughs).
Don’t be easily satisfied. That’s the worst amateur mistake. . . . Your friends are too eager to be supportive. You wind up getting no constructive criticism in time to do you any good.
SUN: Why did you start singing folk songs?
Paxton: Because I really loved the music. It did something for me. You couldn’t get more middle-class, conventional, not to say conservative, than I was. I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, and had all the usual views on things. I had some musical talent. I played trumpet in the high school band, enjoyed being in plays, and wound up taking a degree in drama at the University of Oklahoma.
So I had these conventional likes and dislikes. I loved popular music and dancing. But the pop songs of the time that really got me were the ones that had an element of folk music to them. Like “Cry of the Wild Goose.” (Sings) “My heart goes where the wild goose goes.” Frankie Lane would sing these things; they told a story. Then I heard Burl Ives. I gradually began to get hold of a few folk records, like Harry Belafonte, and Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians. They struck a chord with me. Then, when I was in college, I began learning some folk songs. A couple of friends liked them too. We gradually discovered records by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie. There were two records that really did it for me. One was called “Blood, Booze and Bones,” by Ed McCurty. It was all folk songs about drunkards, doom, murder and gambling (laughs). The other was the fabled recording of the Weavers at Carnegie Hall. Those two albums were my watershed. When I heard them they made it impossible for me to do anything else. I had to try to make this sort of music. I was still in college with two years to go. From that day forward there was a hardening resolve in me. I wanted to try this, and slowly weaned myself from my ambition to be an actor. By the time I had finished college — although I did take a short acting job in Colorado that summer — I had lost any ambition to act.
SUN: The songs you’ve written certainly aren’t conservative. When did your views start to change?
Paxton: Actually the music had a part in that. My views began to change when I encountered the questions that were being raised in folk music. It turned out that I wasn’t as conservative as I thought, once I began to see an alternative. I had really just been waiting to find myself. I began hearing union songs by Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. I couldn’t find a sentiment in those songs that my heart didn’t agree with. So, I began to find a lot of liberal in me. Not that I had ever thought about it. I’m sure students nowadays find it difficult to believe that students of my generation didn’t think much about politics. During all my college years the only political issues discussed on campus were campus politics. Nobody thought about national questions. The music became my bridge into that kind of consciousness.
While we’ve got no friends in the Pentagon, we don’t have any friends in the Kremlin either. . . . I’m just as angry with the Kremlin as with the Pentagon, maybe angrier. When everyone else has quieted down about it, I want to keep shouting “Afghanistan.”
SUN: Your friend Phil Ochs sang, “If you want to keep your song, don’t play the Chords of Fame.” You’ve never had the fame of some of your contemporaries, like Dylan. What does success mean to you?
Paxton: The only success that I’m interested in now is the success inside yourself, when you know that you’re using the gifts that were given to you. To feel that I’m of some use. To feel that I’m successfully supporting my family. The rest of it is so far beyond one’s power to affect that it’s silly to worry about it. All I can do is do what I can do. As the saying goes, “To accept the things I cannot change and have the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
SUN: Are you successful?
Paxton: Absolutely. I feel very successful. For 22 years I’ve worked at the trade of my choice. I’ve written a lot of songs that I’m proud of. I have a wonderful family to whom day by day I grow closer. I feel very successful.
SUN: Do you feel that your music, and folk music in general, has been effective as a means for change?
Paxton: All music is effective. I mean, you wouldn’t call John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” a folk song, hard to call it a rock and roll song either, but it certainly played its role in the struggle against the war. All music can have an effect. It’s very difficult, however, to get specific about what effect a song has.
The bottom line is whether I think I have the power to change people’s minds and the answer is no. All I can do is write my songs, put them out there, and what happens after that is out of my control. The effect that they have is beyond me. My job is to make sure that I write the best songs I can write.
SUN: Is there a specific point of view you’re trying to get across in your songs?
Paxton: I think every song that you write is an attempt to get a point of view across, whether it relates to an itsy witsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini or “Give Peace a Chance.” That’s the point of writing a song. A song is a point of view.
SUN: What tricks have your found to help you get your message out in a song?
Paxton: One of the things that I believe — something that I’ve learned from Shel Silverstein, who is very articulate and one of the best songwriters in America — is that you have to be sure that a song pays off. You want to finish a song, make it pay off, make sure all the loose ends get tied up and the point gets made.
And the greatest piece of advice is don’t be easily satisfied. That’s the worst amateur mistake. You get easily satisfied with your own work, which is usually compounded by the fact that your friends are too eager to be supportive. You wind up getting no constructive criticism in time to do you any good. By the time you do get it, you’ve presented the song in a situation that’s to your disadvantage and you get slammed for having written an incomplete or even a dumb song. You’ve waited up all night in order to stop some record producer on the street as he comes out of the studio. You hand him the song at just the right moment. He agrees to listen to it and says, “This is amateur. I’m sorry. Good night.” It’s really critical to be tough on yourself. Others will be, so it ought to be you first.
SUN: If we haven’t the power to change other people’s minds, how do you think people can make changes in society?
Paxton: The obvious answer is to start with yourself. We can all make a difference, but it has to start with us. Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. Peace is catching. That doesn’t mean that you have to be a doormat. You don’t have to roll over and play dead for people. You can just refuse to take part in an evil. A lot of people made that choice back during the war, during the civil rights movement and they’re doing it right now. They refuse to take part in evil. Many times there is a price you have to pay for that. I respect everyone who has made that choice. That’s how you can make a difference. The chances present themselves to us every day. You suddenly realize the check-out person is making a mistake in your favor. What are you going to do about it? Tell her, or take the 25-cent mistake? Hey, I’ll give you the 25 cents to keep you from making that stupid mistake.
SUN: So, you think that the effect of even such small choices can be great?
Paxton: What do you think? As the twig is bent, so goes the tree. I don’t mean to sit here like Mr. Wonderful and pretend that I haven’t blown it. I’ve blown it on thousands of occasions, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t see what’s right and how important it is.
SUN: What do you see as the major thing that’s wrong in our culture today?
Paxton: Everybody wants the rest of the world to start coming up to scratch first. Everybody wants the other guy to meet his standards. It’s like saying, “Let’s be honest. You first.”
SUN: Have your ideas about politics changed at all since your more politically visible days in the Sixties?
Paxton: Yes. I started to say that I’m more conservative, but I’m not really. I’ve become more able to see both sides of the questions. I was talking last night to a waitress who had on a “U.S. Out Of Guatemala” button. I told her I couldn’t agree with that more, but I would be more comfortable if it said, “everybody out.” Anyone who wants to deliberately blind their vision to the fact that Russia is involved in Central America up to their dirty little necks is guilty of hopeless naivete, as far as I’m concerned. It disturbs me that young people in Europe are having anti-nuclear parades, which I’m in favor of also, in which there are 25 anti-U.S. placards to every one timid mention that perhaps the Russians ought to agree to get rid of bombs also. Bullshit. Let’s open our eyes to see that, while we’ve got no friends in the Pentagon, we don’t have any friends in the Kremlin either. That’s all I’m asking for. That’s how I’ve changed. I’m just as angry with the Kremlin as with the Pentagon, maybe angrier. When everyone else has quieted down about it, I want to keep shouting “Afghanistan.” It’s rape, it’s murder, it’s unforgivable, and looks permanent. It is in fact much more permanent than our involvement with Vietnam was for us. I don’t want that forgotten. I want us out of El Salvador, and I want the Russians out of Afghanistan.
My chief complaint about the media is that they always quote me accurately, and leave me no excuse when I come off sounding like a pompous ass.
SUN: Your approach to politics in your songs is often very humorous.
Paxton: Well, I think humor is just one way of approaching a serious question. You can tell differences in attitude in my humorous songs. For example, you can hear the seriousness in my song about Nancy Reagan and her little gun. That outrages me, that the day after John Lennon was shot, she shows off to the press the cute little gun that her darling husband gave to her for fun. Then you have the song I sang after that one last night, about the epic confrontation between Jimmy Carter and the rabbit in his row boat, called “I don’t want no bunny-wunny in my widdle row boat,” which has no political message at all. That’s just the humor of a situation. The difference is clear from the song. I bear utterly no malice towards Jimmy Carter, kind of liked him in fact, voted for him, and my malice towards Nancy Reagan is nothing personal at all, it was just one of the grossest miscarriages of timing that she made the remark about the cute little pistol right after John Lennon was killed. She was making a political point by saying it — her point being that of course we mustn’t have any gun controls. She’s not an elected official, but I felt that she deserved to be answered.
SUN: What are the most important changes you’ve seen in society in your years as a performer?
Paxton: Drugs. It’s a horrible epidemic that is killing people. Drugs and alcohol are more misused than they have ever been. When I was in high school in the mid-fifties, you never heard of marijuana. I never saw a joint until I was in graduate school. Now it is an absolutely everyday thing in high schools. The deaths from alcohol in single-vehicle accidents are unbelievable. I will flatly say that anyone who is doing drugs seriously and actively is doing nothing else. Nothing else is going on in their life. So, we’re seeing a percentage of our population totally out of it, getting nothing done, slip-sliding away. That’s a big change.
SUN: How do you answer those who say that drugs like marijuana or psychedelics can in limited use help open people up to new ideas and ways of thinking?
Paxton: Of all the self-serving rubbish, that’s very high on the charts. I’ll tell you this, from my own experience — of all the people I began with, my musical classmates who started out in the Sixties, of those who were heavy vipers, marijuana smokers, none are active today. I don’t happen to believe that marijuana is physically addicting — I accept conventional drug culture opinion that it isn’t — but not a single one of them is doing shit today. They probably have wonderful reasons for that, doing a little research, getting their act together, what have you, but they ain’t working.
SUN: What keeps you from despair, and gives you hope?
Paxton: I have a lot of hope in my life because of my family. I have hope because the spiritual beliefs that I have lead me to think that things can and will improve. I have a never ending series of things to work out. There’s no end to the amount of work that you can accomplish, when you work at it one day at a time. I have enough songs that I want to write that I’ll never run out of them.
SUN: Can you speak about the spiritual dimension in your life?
Paxton: I’d rather keep that private. It’s too easy to jump up on a soap-box and start preaching, so I’ll just pass on that.
SUN: Do you feel as though you are on a spiritual path in your life?
Paxton: Absolutely. That’s the single greatest source of strength for me.
SUN: You’ve been married almost nineteen years. Many marriages don’t make it that long.
Paxton: That’s really too bad, because it’s only in the last year that I feel as though I’m becoming a real partner with my wife. I feel that this year has been the best year of our marriage.
SUN: What has changed to make this possible?
Paxton: I’ve changed a lot of things in my life that I know were harming me and my relationship. I’ve stopped abusing myself in significant ways. I stopped smoking six years ago — that’s a relatively minor thing. But I’ve also stopped drinking. I don’t take any alcohol of any kind into my body. It’s no good for me, and the freedom from that has really helped me. A lot of the growth has had to do with leaving that stuff behind.
SUN: What has kept your marriage working for so long?
Paxton: Love. Nothing but love could, under the strains of this business. So many separations. Love is the only thing that can keep it going. It’s been a consistent love over the years, but never an easy one. A lot of strain and difficulty along the way, but we’ve made it so far. Thank God.
SUN: What advice would you have for someone starting out in folksinging now?
Paxton: I would ask that person first to tell me what they meant by folk music, what was important to them. If they told me that they loved traditional folk music, Appalachian ballads, five-string banjo picking, whatever, if this was the music that they loved, I’d say wonderful. Keep that interest pure. Get yourself a career in something else to support it. Don’t think that you’re going to make anything like a living playing pure traditional folk music. You’re not, but there is plenty of scope for you to have a fabulously rewarding avocation, not a hobby but an every-spare-moment passion, that will give you as much back as you put in to it. Have a day job. Support yourself and that leaves you free to say, “I don’t want to sing that.”
If that person tells me that they want to do what I do, I would say you’re in for a long, hard climb. I have been doing this for 22 years now, and have not even remotely achieved financial independence. I’ve done very well, but by insisting on writing the stuff that I write I automatically condemn myself to not make a lot of money for most of what I do. Now and then, by the grace of God, a band comes along and records one of my old songs and sell a lot of copies in Canada and I make some money on it.
Actually the path I’ve taken is the most difficult. Either they should do what I said if they want to play traditional music, or they should go to Nashville, or New York or Los Angeles, and try to become the best commercial performers that they can, and see if they can maintain their integrity in the process. What they really should do is please themselves.
SUN: How would you describe your relation to the media?
Paxton: My chief complaint about the media is that they always quote me accurately, and leave me no excuse when I come off sounding like a pompous ass. It’s really not easy to answer intelligent searching questions and sound intelligent. Usually people want to know more from me than I’ve got to give. Sometimes it’s very difficult to say what you have to say and then shut up. It’s tempting to keep your mouth flapping with the tape recorder running. The tape recorder isn’t saying, “Well, he sounds a little stupid here, I’ll just go into automatic pause.” There you are, sounding like a looney, which in fact you are, but most people’s looniness is mercifully unexposed. My chief compliant about the media is that they’re there.