Like me, Bill Taylor greatly admires Tom Paxton. A brief exchange at the Salut! Live Facebook group led to my suggestion that Bill should write about him. No birthday, happily nothing requiring an obit, just an acknowledgment of one outstanding singer-songwriter’s work.
Me? I’ve seen Tom three times live, maybe more (memory does fade), and had a chat with him before one such performance in Glasgow. He knew and respected Maurice Rosenbaum, who preceded me as The Daily Telegraph's folk bloke, so that dominated our conversation. We parted, I watched his set and felt all the better for having met him ...
Tom Paxton, I hope, would be the first to forgive me for starting off this tribute to him with a toast to myself:
“So here’s to you, my ramblin’ boy…”
Because I am going to ramble my way in, by way of the remote Jiuzhaigou region of southwestern China in the mid 1990s.
It’s a stunningly beautiful place which the Chinese government was keen to open up to Western tourists. Access is a lot easier now. But going on 30 years ago, it was a difficult place to get to.
As a travel writer for the Toronto Star, I was part of a small group of journalists in a minibus negotiating a narrow, winding road through the mountains. Once, we were able to see down into a gorge – and the wreckage of a truck that hadn’t made it. To add to our woes, there was intermittent torrential rain.
Tired, and a little afraid, of looking out of the window, I fell into conversation with a Dutch reporter sitting across the aisle. We got onto music and discovered we both loved Tom Paxton. The Dutch guy began to sing:
“Bottle of wine, fruit of the vine, when you gonna let me get sober…”
I joined in and we harmonised haphazardly through the whole song. Given the circumstances, it was a rather surreal moment.
I’d learned Bottle of Wine from Paxton’s 1965 album, Ain’t That News. I was still in my teens when I bought it. I have no idea what prompted me to do so – I wasn’t much into folk music then and it was a far cry from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I’d hardly even heard of Tom Paxton, couldn’t have told you the name of a single one of his songs.
Was it a life-changer, that album? Probably not. But it was certainly a consciousness-raiser. The 14 songs, all original compositions, ran the gamut from the Vietnam War (Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation) to the Civil Rights movement (Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney) to the military draft (The Willing Conscript) to America’s love of firearms (Buy a Gun for Your Son). There were love songs, social commentary, satire. And ending with Bottle of Wine.
I was hooked. And delighted when, not too many years later, I got involved with the folk club Colin Randall, his brother Phil and the late, much-missed Phil Steele ran in my home town, Bishop Auckland, and discovered that Colin did a creditable version of Paxton’s Leaving London.
It was with Colin that I first saw Paxton live, at Les Cousins folk club in Soho. Colin used to hitchhike to London sometimes and pull an all-nighter at the club. We didn’t hitch this time – probably went by bus – but we didn’t much sleep either. Worth it, though, for a superb performance.
I saw Paxton again when I moved to New York and a third time when I moved again, this time to Toronto. He was, and I imagine still is, a mesmerising performer – moving, passionate, sincere (without being sanctimonious) and at times extremely funny.
One of my favourites of his is Annie’s Song about a man whose girlfriend keeps leaving him and then returning. Despairing as he is, he always takes her back…
'A drink for me, a drink for you. We’re going to need a drink or two.
Annie’s going to sing her song called Take Me Back Again.
You’ve never heard it sung before, I hear it twice a month or more
Complete with tears and sheepish grins, it only lacks the violins…'
A bittersweet humour, true, but full of laughter.
I just stopped to ponder and I can’t think of a Tom Paxton song that I don’t like. His range of topics is phenomenal, his knowledge of human nature and frailty, his political conscience, his indignation at injustice, his unabashed sentimentality when it’s called for. I’m thinking of the way he segues from Jennifer’s Rabbit, one of the best children’s songs ever, into I Give You the Morning, one of the best love songs ever.
Is he one of the best lyricists ever? Yes, I’d say so.
I’ve been listening to Tom Paxton’s music for more than half a century. Unlike me, at 75, and him, at 86, it never grows old.