A CHAT WITH: TOM PAXTON
aaamusic | On 18, Mar 2013
American folk singer songwriter Tom Paxton has been writing, performing and recording music since the 1960s. His timeless hit The Last Thing On My Mind has been frequently covered, memorably by Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. In 2009, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. AAAmusic interviewer Anthony Weightman chatted to him ahead of his UK tour in April, 2013.
AAAmusic: Firstly, my very best wishes to you on your forthcoming tour in the UK. Going back to the very beginning, what was it that inspired you to pursue music rather than some other career?
Tom Paxton: I sometimes tell audiences that I began wanting to be an actor, but then I decided to fall back on the ‘safe’ occupation. For me it was a calling rather than a decision. I really had no choice in the matter. I was studying drama at the University of Oklahoma and I took a degree in it and I still love the theatre to this day, but I found this and it superseded that love. I don’t think I would have been in any great shakes as an actor. I think this suites me much more. But, right from my childhood, I would hear the odd folk song and they struck a particular chord with me in a particular corner of my heart and I had this antenna which would seek them out in the popular culture. It was not easy to find them. There would be a movie with Burl Ives and he would sing a few folk songs and I would just love them. They spoke to me of other times and other people and they just provided a connection to real people. These were songs that were imagined and created, bit by bit, by actual working people, rural people. They were kind of hand made songs. I just loved them. I also loved all the popular songs I was hearing, but there was a special part of my heart that reacted to these ones. So, as I grew older I would learn them. By the time I got to the university I knew that I loved this type of music. I was learning new songs all the time while I was there and acting. One day I heard a recording called The Weavers at Carnegie Hall which was recorded on Christmas Eve 1956 and this first time I heard it I was thunderstruck. I tell people I undertook a chromosomal change. In the space of hearing that album I went from someone who loved folk songs to someone who simply had to do it. Never looked back.
AAAmusic:Could I go back to your very first tour in the UK, in 1965, and ask you what your memories are of that period?
Tom Paxton: Well, it was a great exciting time for me. It was a real discovery of the British folk scene. It was very unlike the folk scene, superficially, in America. In America we had coffee houses which were essentially commercial establishments of a bohemian sort. They provided us with stages to be folk singers on, whereas in the UK they were folk clubs. They would meet once a week upstairs in a pub. They’d have a guest singer and floor singers and it was like Saturday night every night of the week for me. I’d be in Oxford on a Monday night and it would be packed because it was folk night. Whereas, at The Gaslight in Greenwich Village on a Monday night, there’d be tumble weed blowing through the place. People didn’t come out on a Monday night. So, I went from Saturday night to Saturday night. That did wonders for building talk about what I was doing. So, the next time I came back, I was crammed with folk gigs. It’s been a love affair for me since 1965. I’ve always loved the British and Irish and Scottish audiences. They’ve just given me more than I ever gave them.
AAAmusic: Could I ask if there has ever been a specific set of lyrics which stand out in your memory as being been particularly difficult for you to write?
Tom Paxton: There have been several. The first track on Comedians and Angels, my newest album, How Beautiful Upon The Mountain. It’s a pillar phrase of Isaiah 52/7 How beautiful upon the mountain are the steps of those who walk in peace, which I thought was such a gorgeous sentiment. I wrote the chorus which is simply a repetition of that phrase. Wrote that in 5 minutes. Music and words. Then it took me a year and a half to write the verses, because I kept writing verses that didn’t work and I would get frustrated and put them aside. Finally, one day, I knew what I was trying to say and I wrote the three verses in a couple of hours. But, if I hadn’t loved the chorus, I would have let it go a long time ago. That’s happened on a few other songs. One called Looking For The Moon . It took about two years to finish it.
AAAmusic: Am I right that you’ve been married since 1963, for 50 years? There’s a saying that marriage to the right person is one of the best things in the world. Would you agree with that?
Tom Paxton: Absolutely. It’ll be 50 years on August 5th. I say, about the 50 years, that I don’t know how how she did it. She had to really hang in there. It’s not easy having a travelling husband. The first twenty years are the hardest.
AAAmusic: Worldwide people were horrified by that dreadful massacre of those poor children in Connecticut last year. It’s been described as a nightmare and a horror story which is too awful to tell. Could I ask you for your personal feelings and where you think the USA is heading on this issue?
Tom Paxton: Sure. It’s not known by most people how the deepest horror of the whole thing is that most of the children were shot more than once. It’s unspeakable, of course. I wrote a song after the shooting in Tucson. Last year one of our congress was shot, Gabrielle Giffords along with other people, many of whom were killed. I wrote a song then which I sing. Judy Collins has just recorded it, I’m happy to say. The song asks the question: what if no matter how angry he was, how furious he was, he couldn’t lay his hands on a gun? That’s the only question I want to ask. Of course, we all get furious with other people from time to time. Not homicidally furious but, even if we did, if we couldn’t pick something up and shoot, how many people would be walking around alive today who would otherwise be dead? For those who can’t control their anger, what if they couldn’t find a gun to use? What if they were forced to take up something else not nearly so lethal? The gun is a disease over here. We have more guns than people now. After Newtown gun sales went up because people were afraid they were going to be shut down. We’ve had a growth in these so called militias who buy all the assault weapons and whose avowed reason for having them is to protect themselves against this government. They are convinced that Obama is going to come and take their guns away. So, it’s a dreadful situation.
AAAmusic: You said in a interview earlier this year that writers of protest songs tend to become part of a conversation which helps to bring about political change through a greater collective effort. If you go one step further and try to raise the status of a songwriter to someone who’s intellectually in control and at the forefront of a campaign, do you think that sometimes this just doesn’t feel right? It make people feel a bit uncomfortable and uneasy.
Tom Paxton: When it makes people uncomfortable and uneasy is when it’s preaching and I try never to do that. I try to draw pictures and let people make their own minds up. My exemplar there has always been Picasso’s painting of Guernica which I used to go to see at the Museum of Art in New York city. It’s a staggering work of great anguish and anger, but it’s a picture and you can draw your own conclusions. You can say it wasn’t like that at all. Or, more likely, you can say what an abomination was created and committed that day. What an atrocity. What a forerunner of what we have to look forward to. I try to draw pictures myself. When I wrote a song about the twin towers and the fire fighters who gave their lives, I simply wrote it from the point of view of someone who was able to escape from the tower while watching the firemen running up the stairs to their death. I don’t tell you what to think about that, I simply draw the picture. In Shakespeare what did Hamlet tell the players? Hold the mirror up to life. That’s what we try to do. So, I don’t think the mirror is going to put people off, because it respects their ability to think.
AAAmusic: When you were awarded your Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 you were referred to as influential and inspirational, despite not being a household name. Do you feel that the comments made on that occasion were a fair reflection of you?
Tom Paxton: You know what, I didn’t listen to those comments. I was very thrilled. I’m sitting in the same chair as when I received a call from the academy saying they were going to give me a lifetime achievement award. As you say, I was gob smacked. It was a stunning moment. I wasn’t able to pick it up myself. I sent my younger daughter Kate to do that because I had to stay with Midge. I can see it now. I can shake my head. How did that happen? I’d never won a Grammy.
AAAmusic: You clearly have an interest in the importance of music to children. In the 90s you recorded 9 children’s albums in a decade. 1n 1992 you received a Washington DC Music Award for children’s music. There are many hugely talented young musicians who are finding it exceedingly difficult to finance their studies. Fine charities like Awards For Young Musicians are doing their best to help. Do you feel the work of charities like this is important?
Tom Paxton: Oh it is! So many school systems have dropped music from the repertoire, from the curriculum, which is a catastrophic failure on their part to educate. It’s well documented that students who study music as part of their curriculum do better in their other courses, across the board. It is beyond dispute that the study of music increases the ability of the student to learn elsewhere. Yet somebody says we’ve got to cut the cost or these horns are costing money but also we’ll double the athletic programme. It gets me very angry, actually, what happens in this country about the arts. This country is filled with people who don’t want to support the arts by a cent. They think that the arts should pay for themselves. All this nonsense.
AAAmusic: You may know that, in the UK, there’s been medical research which seems to indicate that, if you sing regularly, you tend to be physically healthier than if you don’t sing. To me, you look like a guy who seems to be quite healthy. Do these sort of findings come as a surprise to you?
Tom Paxton: No. Not at all. I had my little cancer deal last year but that’s all passed and I’m basically very healthy. I’ve never heard of that study before, but it makes sense to me.
AAAmusic: Sandy Denny remembered you well from The Cousins Club in London’s Soho according to her biography No More Sad Refrains. I know that she covered your songs. All sorts of musicians contributed comments for her biography. Do you personally have any memories of her that you’d like to share?
Tom Paxton: The last time I saw her was in a restaurant that Roy Guest took me to so that I could meet her. He was promoting both our tours and we had this rather liquid lunch with lots of ribbed humour. Altogether it was a happy occasion. Sandy was very much looking forward to going back on tour and she seemed very happy about it. That was the final memory. A very happy lunch.
AAAmusic: I’d like to place you in an imaginary situation, which is possibly very unlikely to ever happen. Nevertheless, it’s quite a curious question. What do you feel the world would be like without music?
Tom Paxton: Oh my god! I think the sun would stop coming out. I can’t imagine such a drab thing. Some sort of 1984 thing where music was banned. I wouldn’t want to live in that world. Take away the songs? Excuse me while I leave the room.
Author: Anthony Weightman