In Conversation With Tom Paxton
Since the early '60s, Tom Paxton has been a fundamental icon in folk music. Arriving in New York City's Greenwich Village in 1960, Paxton quickly made a name for himself as an original songwriter -- something that stood in a neighborhood full of performers who were focused on interpreting traditional folk tunes.
For more than 50 years, Paxton has been creating and performing authentic folk music for audiences worldwide. With 62 albums under his belt (his latest, Redemption Road, came out on March 10), he's seen -- and written about -- an innumerable amount of topics, from the jovial and carefree to the political and earnest.
(For fans of Inside Llewyn Davis, Paxton told me he thinks the movie is a fascinating story, but that -- among other complaints -- "the idea of an abortion clinic in 1961 was beyond absurdity. It was utterly impossible.")
While getting ready for a recent gig at the Egg in Albany, N.Y., Paxton was gracious enough to take a few minutes to chat about his new album, what was so special about the '60s-era Village and why he's decided to "hang up the touring shoes." Check out our exclusive conversation below:
I can't start this without saying congratulations on Redemption Road.
Thank you! Thank you very, very much.
This is album No. 62, right?
I have no idea. [Laughs] I don’t know who came up with that number, but they obviously had a reason. I know it’s a god awful amount of albums. It goes without saying that some of them, looking back, I would have just as soon have not done. Having said that, I like the stuff I did in the early ‘60s for Elektra and, to an extent, for Reprise. What I really like is starting in '95 with Wearing the Time, working with Jim Rooney -- I’ve been very happy. I love Jim Rooney, I love what he knows about me and my music and the way he brings it out. I love the people he assembles in the studio. I’ve been very happy with what we’ve done since then. Now, none of it sells, but that’s almost not the point. You make enough from selling them onstage. As [Dave] Van Ronk said, the game is worth the candle. Besides, it’s what I do, so I’m going to do it.
And it’s what you’ve always done. Throughout your career, it goes without saying that you've released a lot of albums. Sometimes there has been a year in-between, sometimes not even that. With this one, though, it’s been seven years since Comedians and Angels.
Has it really? Wow.
What happened during that time that led to such a long break between records?
Well, I think I probably got tired. I’ve been doing it a long time. I make no secret that writing songs is hard work. It’s frustrating, that’s the best way to put it. It’s frustrating work which makes it hard work. It’s frustrating because it’s very hard to write good songs. It’s as simple as that. It’s hard to write good songs. It’s hard to paint good paintings. It’s hard to put on a good musical show. I think I probably ran out of a little energy and needed to recharge the batteries a bit. I’m writing better now and a lot of the stuff on this album is from the last couple of years. I’m continuing to write, so I think it was just fatigue.
And rather than putting something out for the sake of putting something out ...
Oh, I wouldn’t want to do that. I did some of that early on and I suffer for it.
Is there significance to “redemption” for you?
Actually, what happened, that specific song, that melody is by Jeff Barkley, who is playing with me tonight. Jeff sent me, at the time, his new album, and he had recorded “Central Square” on it -- which I had not yet recorded it myself. I listened to it and I thought, “God I like that one.” The next track was an instrumental called “Redemption.” The title is his. I just turned it to “Redemption Road” by writing that lyric. I think everything happens for a reason and that song belongs in that album and it’s a good title for the album because I’m obviously closer to the end than I am to the beginning. At 77, I think a man is a fool if he’s not thinking longer thoughts and thinking about the broader picture. Redemption is something we should all be happy to get.
You mentioned “Central Square,” which is such a beautiful song.
It sounds like the ‘60s -- I think it has that type of sound to it.
Yeah it does, doesn’t it?
What’s the story behind it?
First of all, it’s one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written. It pretty much wrote itself. I started writing it in Central Square in Cambridge. Jeff for many years has hosted a Monday night open mic at the Cantab Lounge in Central Square. My wife, Midge, and I went to the Cantab Lounge the year that Folk Alliance met in Boston. We stayed over and went to see Jeff on a Monday night. I wrote the first lines there, and then I just put it away and waited until I got home. The story just told itself. It’s one of those wrong turns that we’re experts at when we’re young. [Laughs] I mean, it’s all fiction. I didn’t sing the song for years and years. I wrote it in ’95 I think, but I didn’t sing it because I thought, sure as hell, people would think that it was autobiographical and that I had an affair with someone in Cambridge, when in fact I was already married to Midge. Why fuel that kind of crap? But when I heard Jeff’s recording of it, I said f--- it, I love the song, I’m going to do it.
It sounds timeless. I think it’s one of yours that will last forever.
I hope so.
With Redemption Road, you funded it through a Kickstarter campaign.
Yes! And we raised the entire thing. It was wonderful. I’m not at all an astute business person, but I did make one great decision about this album, which was that I hired my friend Cathy Fink to be executive producer. Jim Rooney produced the music, Cathy produced everything else. She’s the one who did the Kickstarter campaign. All I really had to say was, “Okay.” She did everything, she took the photo on the cover of the album, she played banjo and sang with me. She and her partner, Marcy Marxer, have won a couple of Grammys for children’s music. They’re wonderful musicians. I really owe Cathy big time for this.
Kickstarter and all of those crowdfunding campaigns are relatively new. Over your prolific career, I think it's safe to say you’ve seen the music industry change like very few other musicians.
It’s unrecognizable today. My view is that it’s all up to us, that the only people who can count on labels to run their recording careers and everything are massive artists -- I mean, only the top 1-percent. Everybody else is on their own. With the technology, it’s possible for talented people to make their own recordings, and now with Kickstarter, it’s possible to finance the music and look for distribution. The one thing that is for sure is that the record companies have become more and more irrelevant. What a lot of record companies are all about is selling the albums to the artist to sell onstage. That's what happens. Guess what? It’s hard to make a living in music, and yet things are changing so drastically that you’re going to find an artist coming along who’s going to do it all him or herself and have a single break loose on iTunes and sell a million copies. It’s all going to happen. Not to me, but it’s all going to happen.
Taking a trip back to the ‘60s, to that era. Dave Van Ronk -- who you mentioned and who you wrote a song about on this new album, which I love -- said that you "started the new song movement." Looking back, do you agree with that?
Yeah, it’s not for me to say, but I was certainly writing songs by the time I came to New York courtesy of the Army. I was writing songs but it never occurred to me that nobody else was writing songs. It was part of my thing from the beginning.
So it was more just a part of who you were, rather than you making a conscious decision to do it.
Right. I wrote songs because I found I could write songs.
Van Ronk also said that if someone gave you a topic, you could write a song like that. [Snaps fingers]
Not like that. [Laughs] It wasn’t that easy, but yeah, it’s always been a matter of imagination. What I tell people who want to write songs is to go through the paper everyday with a view to find anything that moves them in anyway. It can be to hilarity, to rage, to scorn, whatever. So long as it moves them, then write a song from the point-of-view as a participant in that event or as an eyewitness. This does several things for us. For one thing, it gets the songwriter out into the world where everything is happening and where we can hold a mirror up to nature, as Shakespeare says. And it gets us out of the habit of writing songs about our boring goddamned lives, our ridiculous relationships. I mean, yeah, there is room for those songs, but not every single song. This gets people out there documenting our times. Some of those songs, I guarantee you, will survive. Our national anthem is a topical song about an actual specific battle in one of our less important wars. So, there it is.
You’re no stranger to writing socially active or political songs, even on this new album. You’ve been doing it ...
But like you said, there is still room for songs that move you to hilarity. On the new record, you have lighthearted songs, too. Children’s songs, love songs. You obviously think an album has room for all those types of emotions.
I think so, yeah. But, never having had a commercially successful album, I’m not one to claim that that’s the way to do it. I think probably the way to do it is to have one album that sticks to one theme with one overarching tone to it. But that’s not what I do. My albums are like little shows.
And that’s life -- life isn’t one theme.
Not for me! One of the greatest albums I ever heard, when I was still in Oklahoma, was The Weavers at Carnegie Hall. There was everything on that album. The variety was fantastic.
You mentioned you’ve never had a commercially successful album and that you're not going to sell a million copies of a single on iTunes. But, in 2009, the Grammys awarded you with the Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2015, you’re putting out your 62nd album. At 77, you're still touring. Why do you think you’ve been able to do all of this throughout more than five decades?
Well, I like what Woody Allen says. He says 90-percent of success is showing up. I never stopped showing up. I meant it when I said I want to do this, so I do this.
That authenticity, that honesty, I think it's obvious in your music. You don’t do it for the money or fame.
The money is not unimportant, you know? I have to make a living, and I’ve been able to raise two daughters. I’m not some Bohemian hero, but the money ... put it this way, it’s better to say the money is secondary. It’s not unimportant, but it doesn’t drive my life.
I live in New York City, but I never saw it the way it was in the '60s. I spend a lot of time in the Village, but it's obviously not the same neighborhood it was when you came to town. When you look back on your life during that time, what is one of the fondest memories you hold?
When I got there, the first thing that anybody who was there ahead of me would say, “Ah, the Village has gone to hell. It’s dead. You should’ve been here two years ago.” You always get that. The fish were biting last week, you know? It’s always that way. The thing I remember so fondly is the camaraderie. It was wonderful. There was a bunch of us. Shifting membership of the herd, sure, but Van Ronk was always there. He was raised there. I showed up in ’60. Dylan in ’61. Phil [Ochs] in ’62. Eric Andersen in '63. About that same time Patrick Sky showed up. Noel Stookey was there, later to be Paul Stookey [of Peter, Paul and Mary]. Wavy Gravy was there. Buffy Sainte-Marie. We hung out there all the time.
We laughed ourselves sick. I love Dave’s book [Van Ronk's memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street], I thought it was a great book. The thing was that we had so much fun. So much fun. We were always learning from one another, you know? People would show you a lick if you asked. I remember, right after I got out of the Army in ’60, Dave -- who taught guitar throughout his career -- gave me one lesson to get me into three-fingered picking, with an alternating thumb. It took about two hours, it was exhausting. I finally got it, and the funny thing is that night, at the Gaslight, I was getting ready to do "The Golden Vanity." It’s an old British ballad in many, many forms. I was cocky and I started it with the newly-learned three-fingered picking. I got to the end of the first verse and cramped. My hand was so tired from the lesson that it just gave up.
That was going on all the time, that kind of sharing. Before it sounds too much like Candyland, though, of course we were all rivals. We were all trying to make a living and succeed. Naturally you wanted to do as well as you could, but we were also friends and supported one another. All human life is complicated -- so was that, but I have great memories of those times. I loved Phil, for one thing. Phil was a mess, a wonderful mess. He and I were the only singer-songwriters that I know of that had done time in military school. We shared a lot, we knew how to drill troops. [Laughs] He was much, much more political than I was.
You talked about having that one theme on an album; Phil had one theme -- politics -- throughout his career.
Yeah! I was always a Democrat and Phil was always a radical, although I don’t think he belonged to any party. No party would have him, I’m sure he was way too independent! No one could tell Phil what to do. Van Ronk belonged to the Socialist Workers Party, which was, you know, a joke. I was always like a left-wing Democrat -- I was left of the Democrats, but I was still a Democrat. I still am.
I remember hearing so much great music. I was at the Gaslight one night in ’61 when Albert Grossman brought in Ian and Sylvia to sing three songs in a guest set. It was magic. Magic. And when Peter, Paul and Mary were rehearsing, they were rehearsing across the street, just up five floors. They finally got sick of singing for themselves and they came to the Gaslight and sang three songs. That was the first time they ever sang in public and I was there. I was at Gerde’s Folk City with Van Ronk at a Monday Night Hoot the night Dylan sang the first Guthrie songs that he ever sang in New York City. That kind of thing happened a lot. It was a privilege.
Do you miss that era when you visit New York now?
I don’t miss it. I had it. I had it and I’m content to leave it where it was, but I’m so glad I had it. Without any question, it formed the way I am today.
And speaking of today, do you follow new music? There seems to be a very strong focus on folk and Americana music with burgeoning artists.
I was just at Folk Alliance in Kansas City for the first time in several years. I heard a lot of young musicians and I thought they were good. I would love to hear a folk song now and then, though, you know? You don’t hear those anymore. Everybody writes their songs. But, I think that’ll happen. I think someone is going to get the bright idea of doing a new recording of "The House Carpenter" and some of those ballads from the Harry Smith collection and it’ll strike everybody like a thunderbolt and they’ll all start digging up the old songs.
This tour in support of Redemption Road -- is this really your last tour?
Yes, it is. I’m sick of touring. I love this part, I love getting to the gig, I love everything about a night like this, everything about it. I like the people I meet, I love playing with Jeff, we’re great friends. You know, he designed the Paxton signature guitar for Martin [HD40-LSH], every stick of it. I love everything about it except getting here. The fact that I have to go to the next one tomorrow, I can’t take the travel any longer. So, I’ll do the Birchmere on Nov. 14 and I’ll hang up the touring shoes -- which is all I’m doing. I’ll still do the one-offs. I might come up to New York and do a special show, I’ll go to a festival. I’m not going to quit performing or playing music.
I’ve been a ham since the second grade in Chicago and I’ll die a ham. I love to perform! It’s another game that’s worth the candle. It’s worth doing well and it’s worth trying to do better. I love applause and if that makes me a lesser person, so be it.
There are far worse vices in this world.
I know, I know! So sue me!
Tom Paxton's latest record, Redemption Road, is out now via Pax Records. You can pick up a digital copy of the album here and the physical edition at this location. And make sure to check out his full tour itinerary for his final tour -- including gigs throughout the states and the U.K. -- at his official website.