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Tom Paxton, a Pillar of the American Folk Scene, Still is Going Strong

Tom Paxton was born in Chicago in 1937 and spent his childhood in Oklahoma and Arizona. Wikipedia says that he was given his first stringed instrument, a ukulele, at the relatively late age of 16.

Burl Ives and Woody Guthrie were major influences on the young Paxton. He joined the army and, commuting from Fort Dix, New Jersey, immersed himself in the Greenwich Village scene.

Tom Paxton is a remaining link with a great generation of musicians. A slightly fictionalized version of Paxton was a character in the Coen Brother’s “Inside Lewellyn Davis.  Click here (iTunes) or on the image (Amazon) for information on “Ramblin’ Boy,” which many consider his best album. The man has been making great music for a long, long time.
Perhaps the single most interesting comment in the profile is from the legendary Dave Van Ronk. He clearly credits Bob Dylan with being the most noted graduate of the Greenwich Village folk scene. Paxton, however, wrote more songs earlier and was responsible for a major transition: At the beginning of the folk revival, the songs performed were traditionals. Paxton’s high output — and the fact that he found his originals to be better received by audiences — encouraged performers to sing more of their own material.

AllMusic’s profile goes over the same ground, of course. Its strength is that it separates different subgroups within the folk scene and points out that like Pete Seeger — but unlike Dylan — Paxton never aspired to be a rock star. He kept happily (and almost certainly less financially successfully) tied to his acoustic guitar. He also didn’t burn out and is still going strong at age 76.

Both songs here are beautiful. “I Miss My Friends Tonight” is above. It’s as sad as the title sounds. The closeups are of Liam Clancy and Eric Bibb. At the beginning of another YouTube clip from what seems to be the same performance, Paxton remarked that following those two is quite a challenge. He adds, however, that he once followed Black Sabbath at a concert in Germany, so nothing scares him. He doesn’t say why the promoter thought pairing the two acts–and having Black Sabbath open–was a good idea. “Ramblin’ Boy,” below, was performed with Seeger on the latter’s “Rainbow Quest” television show.

Anyone interested in the Village scene in those days should take a look at Paxton’s website. He offers interesting and heartfelt reminiscences of working — it was more than work, really — with Phil Ochs, Seeger, Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt. My guess is that the movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a fair recreation of the times, though I found the focus on such a depressing main character odd. In any case, a character in the film clearly is modeled after Paxton.

Note: The version of “Ramblin’ Boy” mentioned in this post is no longer on YouTube, so I’ve replaced it with “The Last Thing on My Mind.”

Wikipedia, AllMusic and Tom Paxton’s website were used in preparation of this post.