Tom Paxton Exclusive Interview

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THERE are likely to a number of people under a certain age who haven’t a clue who 1960s folk singer Tom Paxton is.

The Grammy award winning singer who influenced generations of singers including Paul Simon and Bob Dylan while his compositions have been sung by the likes of Judy Collins, Sandy Denny, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, John Denver, Glenn Campbell and The Move.

The 76 year old Paxton, whose music was influenced by Woody Guthrie and the recently departed Pete Seeger, will appear in Liverpool later this month, to serve up some of his best known songs including Last Thing on My Mind and Ramblin Boy and some new songs.

Many of his early standards were sung for the first time in the Gaslight Club in New York’s East Village in the 1960s, after Paxton and not Dylan was credited with establishing a vibrant folk, protest music tradition there.

Peter Devine caught up with the American troubadour to discover what keeps him going more than 60 years later.

When you were a young man were there things to protest about?

Oh yes of course there were. There was racism that was inbred and it was impacted, but we as a nation managed to overturn that momentum. Of course it’s still not perfect but to my eyes it is unrecognisably different than when I was a kid.

When you took up a guitar as a young man did you always know that you would be writing protest songs?

Yes, I did

And what does that come out of?

Well, that’s a good question, it comes out of an American tradition. Among the singers I most admired were Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and they didn’t call them ‘protest songs’ they just called them songs.

Woody called them hard hitting songs for hard hit people.   And so I have always made that part of what I do but not all of what I do.

Do you think that protest is a lifetime commitment?

Yes, it is. Music is definitely a lifetime commitment. It was always more of a calling to me than a job. I really don’t think I had a choice. Once I found this kind of music and got a feel for doing it myself, I was a goner, I became a lifer. And I can’t imagine doing anything else

Are you still motivated to get up in the morning?

Oh yes, it’s like what am I going to find today, I have no ideas at the moment but I know they come once I start working, is it a silly song or is it something much more serious,

Where do you think the folk movement is going though, is it moving forward?

Folk music as a commercial deal is going nowhere. When I hear someone described as folk in the contemporary music business, I say not by my definition.  It has nothing to do with whether I like it or not but folk music will always be here because whenever someone feels the impulse to pick up a guitar and sing a song, that’s folk music.

And 99 per cent of folk music is made by people who do something else for a living. It wasn’t until the 20th Century that anyone made their living singing folk songs.  And that would have been the Carter Family or Burl Ives and the list of people who have made their living singing folk songs is quite short. 

So folk songs are something people do for their own amusement, their own fun, their own circle of friends.  And they will go on forever. Whether anyone will be able to support themselves singing I don’t know.  I suspect for some there will be. The audience is always receptive to good music and good performances.

Personally, I never went away. I know people talk about the 1970s and protest and they say folk is dead, but I never stopped working and neither did my friends, we kept working but the industry decided it didn’t want to pay attention to folk anymore and it said folk was dead. Well (laughs) the rumour of our death was exaggerated!

 Culturally, folk music has never gone away and is thriving in the States. We have hundreds of clubs and lots of festivals. And they don’t make a lot of money but they support folk music.

So finally, is Tom Paxton set to retire or is he here to stay?

No, Tom Paxton is never going to retire. I am not going to give the guitar away or anything like that. I am on the threshold of a big career shift to radically do fewer concerts per year, but there will always be some, because I would just stop and vegetate

Paxton appears with Janis Ian at Liverpool’s Philharmonic on March 22.