Long before Robert Zimmerman rolled up in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s, Tom Paxton was pioneering the new folk movement. For over 50 years Tom Paxton's work has inspired countless song writers across different genres and throughout the world. His influence runs so deep that Pete Seeger once told a story of how he went to a small village in Calcutta and a villager sang What Did You Learn In School Today in Bengali! His songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Simon and Garfunkel and Neil Diamond to name a few.
Tom is returning to the UK for a tour not to be missed. Sharing the stage with him is long-time friend and songwriter Janis Ian. After successful performances in the US, they finally take to our shores in March with the Together At Last Tour. “For this tour it's not a split bill. We take the stage together and stay on-stage and sing on each others songs. We have a lot of fun and audiences over here have enjoyed it. I'm really looking forward to bringing that to the UK.”
Tom initially started out wanting to be an actor but “settled for the security of folk music.” He laughs wryly at the ironic nature of his comment. “I loved folk music long before it became popular with the Kingston Trio and the like. I grew up into this and reached a point where I wanted to do it myself and it's been that way ever since.” Of course the two careers are not dissimilar, both rely heavily on storytelling and Tom is a gifted and natural storyteller. Aside from song writing he has also written a series of children’s books along with his songbook The Honour Of Your Company which is part music score, part memoir and filled with some wonderful anecdotes and photos from throughout Tom's life. For such a prolific creator of stories I ask Tom where he draws his inspiration from, to which he responds simply “from paying attention... I read the newspapers, I watch the news, I listen to conversations. If I want to write a song, they seem to present themselves and leave me to take it from there.”
This inspiration has led Tom to write powerful, moving and humorous songs such as Buy A Gun For Your Son, On the Road to Srebrenica, Sarah Palin and What If, No Matter... as a commentary on our world and society in a way that only folk can.In recent years folk music has had something of a resurgence commercially with artists like Mumford and Sons, Newton Falkner, Bellowhead pushing folk music into the mainstream. But for folk stalwarts like Tom, of course folk music never went out of favour. “I’ve always been involved in the folk music world, it's never mattered whether something was financially viable or not. What mattered was, is this good? Sometimes it's also financially rewarding, but that's not the first consideration....It has to come from the heart if you want it to be real.” Some purists decry pop music as superficial and want to maintain a disassociation from mainstream music. For Tom this certainly is not the case. “I don't like the smug attitude that folk music is better than pop music. It's never been that way. Some pop songs have become folk songs. Great songs are great songs wherever you find them.” Tom is right, a truly great song transcends language, culture, politics and genre – something much of his music has also done. The Coen Bothers latest film Inside Llewin Davisbased on Dave Van Ronk's The Mayor of McDougal Street is also drawing public attention on folk music once more as it centers around the folk scene of the 1960s. Van Ronk is a long time friend of Tom's and the soundtrack features a version of Tom's classic song The Last Thing On My Mind, which incidentally was Dolly Parton's first hit.
Speaking to Tom there is a great humility to him. During our conversation he is continually singing the praises of fellow musicians and their work. He sites Rodney Crowell's memoir Chinaberry Sidewalks as 'brilliant!' and is equally exuberant about Elenor Rigby. “You can't find a better song than that, It's a brilliant brilliant song. You can listen to it and find something new every time.” For this storyteller lyrics are also of profound importance, he says “I told Paul Simon you don't have to write anything else after writing I get all the news I need from the weather report! That line absolutely flattened me!” He continues “with 3 words Johnny Mercer (who wrote Moon River) stopped me in my tracks, My Huckleberry Friend..that's inspired writing. What that doesn't say doesn't belong! Perfect perfect words” I ask Tom what his favourite song of all time is and the response takes me aback. He tells me that the song is the great American folk song Shenandoah, at which point he serenades me. I feel honoured to have such a great singer-songwriter sing a verse of his favourite song just for me! Tom is even gracious when reflecting on what it's like to have had so many artists record his songs. “it's a wonderful piece of luck. I'm always so flattered that someone decides to do a song of mine.” As Tom says, a great song is indeed a great song.
As the music industry changes, so too does the world of folk music. Tom tells me that there are much more songwriters on the folk scene than there were when he started. “I was one of the first after Woody Guthrie to write all these songs myself. So then this kid named Dylan came along and started writing songs too and others of our ilk.” He continues “you don't hear as many traditional folk songs as I would like to hear, I suppose I have to take some of the blame for that, I miss hearing as many folk songs as I used to hear. At the coffee houses you'd hear a greater variety of songs. You might hear people
singing Israeli folk songs or bluegrass songs now it's strictly songwriters.” For now a new generation of folk songwriters are writing songs to express how they feel and how they see the world, just as Tom Paxton, Janis Ian and many others have done and continue to do; Tom tells me he is currently working on a solo album for later in the year, which I am eagerly looking forward too.
I dare say that the old traditional songs will never be too far away, as history has a funny way of repeating itself and the messages of those songs will find their way into the collection of a new audience of folk listeners. But what does Tom think the future holds for folk? “The same as the past has held. There's always going to be an audience that loves this kind of music and these kind of songs. Now and then you'll see a temporary rise in popularity but it can never sustain itself at the top, it's not a popular form. Most pop music you can dance to. I think dancing to On Top Of Old Smokie is gonna be a problem” he jokes. “Folk will always be a viable form that a sizeable minority will enjoy.”
I am certain that for as long as there is inspiration in the world around us the folk music tradition will continue to tell wonderful stories through song.