Are you going away with no word of farewell,
Will there be not a trace left behind?
I could have loved you better, I didn't mean to be unkind
That was the last thing on my mind.
The unreconstructed folkie, his jeans, work shirt and troubadour-issue corduroy cap as faded and familiar as 1961, his songs still full of belief and hope and romance that, 40 years down the road, no one should have a right to anymore: Tom Paxton still does singalongs, for Pete Seeger's sake.
Paxton has the right; for him it's inalienable. Dave Van Ronk, with whom he haunted the Bleecker Street cafes in the '60s, has said that it was Paxton, not Dylan, who first opened a generation to the power and purpose of original songwriting. "I came to New York in 1960," Paxton says. "Bob came in '61, Phil Ochs in '62. We all started about the same time, but I was a little before. But we didn't principally think of ourselves as songwriters. I was singing a lot of traditional songs, Woody Guthrie songs. So was Bob. That's something that I'd love to convey to younger artists: They shouldn't feel they have to do only their own songs. They should do the best songs they can do and give themselves time. We didn't draw a distinction between doing an original and a traditional. The songs we were writing were all in the folk tradition. The bulk of the songs that I write to this day fit traditional forms.
"I can remember the first song I wrote because I just dug it up to put in a songbook," he adds. "It must be the worst song anybody ever wrote. It's a phony folk song, really abysmal. It's called "Robert,' an imitation-Elizabethan murder ballad. It's an object lesson: If I can go from writing that to writing decent songs, anybody can."
Born in 1937 in Chicago, Paxton moved to Oklahoma in 1947 and has come to identify most deeply with the Oklahoma hill country, a land that seems to bestow an earthy romanticism on its native sons -- witness Woody Guthrie and Chet Baker.
My first steps were taken
Where her muddy waters flow
All my life I've walked these hills
These hills are what I know
"That's my love for Oklahoma. It's not literally true, of course. I was born in Chicago, but I love those Oklahoma hills, the foothills of the Ozarks. To me it's abut knowing who we are. We're allowed to define that for ourselves. We decide for ourselves who we are in essence. That's what that singer is stating: "This is who I am. This is home. I tried to live somewhere else, but I knew instinctively that I had to return.'"
Paxton studied drama at the University of Oklahoma, but the folk revival's first wave was cresting, and after a short march through the Army he lit out for New York, where he helped stir up the second wave. "The earliest folk songs, for me, were Burl Ives'. But the record that blew me out of the water, and many of my colleagues say the same thing, was The Weavers at Carnegie Hall. They brought a passion and social consciousness, that deadly phrase, which seems so academic and politically correct, but it was the immediacy and the relevance that got to us. They sang with conviction. But then at the same time they were singing songs like "Hush Little Baby Don't Say a Word.' It was the authenticity of the emotion. The arrangements weren't like Appalachian settings, but they retained the spirit of the songs. They sang of the Underground Railroad, the Spanish civil war or an Indonesian lullaby. It was an emotion that seemed much more real than your average pop song, however fun those pop songs might have been. This was another dimension.
"I went through years where I didn't want to talk about those days," he continues. "But now I can say that they warrant the celebration. Those days were very intense -- we worked and lived intensely."
Along with his great romantic ballads -- "The Last Thing on My Mind," "Ramblin' Boy," "Leaving London," "Along the Verdigris," "I Can't Help but Wonder Where I'm Bound" -- Paxton has written novelties ("short-shelf-life songs," he calls them), kiddie tunes and darkly comic satirical numbers. The best of Paxton's songs are marked by an intensity that never betrays their contemplative mild-heartedness. Early in his career he found a kindred spirit in the Belgian singer and composer Jacques Brel. "I became aware of Brel through Judy Collins, who did his song "The Dove." I loved the feel of it; it felt like folk music, but it was more sophisticated in structure. I saw his last performance in America -- such a gorgeous show. I felt that here was an impassioned and intelligent writer. A song of mine like "Jimmy Newman' is under his influence. It begins quietly and builds in intensity to a climax in that cabaret style. When people think of cabaret, they think of artifice. But it ain't necessarily so. Billie Holiday was cabaret."
No fewer than 70 singers, and probably twice that many, have covered "The Last Thing on My Mind." Earl Scruggs, Marianne Faithfull, Porter Wagoner, Sandy Denny, Tony Rice, Neil Diamond, Dolly Parton and even the Move have all found something in the lyric and melody, a pure and dreamlike and ineffable something as close to perfection as a Shakespeare sonnet, or Cezanne's peaches, or "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," as a singer/songwriter's ballad has ever come, or ever will.
It's a lesson too late for the learnin'
made of sand, made of sand.
In the wink of an eye my soul is turning
In your hand, in your hand.
"That's all about how love is an involuntary emotion," Paxton says. "I'm thinking now of my grandson Christopher. The first time I held him was the day he was born. You fall in love all over again. You have no control over it. You're overwhelmed with love. I've never been able to find the original manuscript -- I probably wrote it on a typewriter and it's lost now -- but from the beginning people have said, after hearing the song, "You know, is everything all right at home?' I say, "Yeah, it's just a song.' Of course, it's more than just a song; it's probably the best song I've written. It's a response to an unarticulated question, "How would I feel if? How would I feel if my marriage were over?'"
Perhaps because he has never been an overpowering singer or guitar player, Paxton's songs have never been as well known in their original forms as they have been as covers. He's never thought twice about such a fate. "I love it when someone well-known does one of my songs. John Denver did some beautiful versions, but don't get me started. There have been some hysterical, toe-curling versions. There's a bootleg recording of "Last Thing on My Mind' done as a square-dance call. It's a howler. Tiny Tim, God rest his soul, did "I Can't Help but Wonder Where I'm Bound.' It's sort of pathetic-comic; I could tell he didn't really want to do it."
In 40 years, Paxton's approach to music has never really changed. He still covers the news as well as Phil Ochs ever did, still writes delightful and silly children's songs, and his melodies and lyrics still rise as warm and fragrant as steam from homemade broth. "You can't take credit for it," he says. "It's some kind of gift that you really don't control. What I'll take credit for is working for it. I used to be a disciplined writer, but now it's harder and harder. Now and then an inspiration will come out of the blue, but mostly the ideas come after you start to work, not before. Sitting down, starting to move the pen -- that's how it happens. My wife is a psychologist, and she has informed me of something I always knew intuitively, that the act of writing, of moving the pen, stimulates a part of the brain that's creative, stimulates the idea machine, if you will. My friend the late Bob Gibson once said that you can't steer a sailboat until it's moving. Once you're moving, you tend to get more ideas than sitting in harbor. It's a hopeful metaphor."
Tom Paxton performs at the Sheldon on Friday, March 10.