Tom Paxton: Singer/Songwriter Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Tom Paxton: Singer/Songwriter

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Oh you might believe in miracles, you might believe in saints,
But you'd never believe my Katy when she's playing with her paints.
For there's red upon the window and there's green upon her face,
In her hair and in her eyes but on the paper, not a trace.

– from 'Katy'

Imagine being a child and having your very own father write a song for and about you, then record it and have millions of people around the world listen to it. Well you can if your name happens to be Jennifer or Katy Paxton. The songs 'Jennifer's Rabbit' and 'Katy' have permanently registered these girls in the minds of all who have heard them. So who is their father, Tom Paxton? Folk singer, songwriter, ballad singer, protest singer, anti-war singer, children's songwriter, biting satirist, comedy songwriter? Tom Paxton is all these, and more.

Outward Bound

Outward bound, upon a journey without ending,
Outward bound, uncharted waters beneath our bow.
Far behind, the green familiar shore is fading into time,
And time has left us now

– from 'Outward Bound'

Thomas Richard Paxton was born on 31 Oct, 1937 to parents George and Esther in Chicago, the family moving to Bristow, Oklahoma, when Tom was aged around 11. His early passion was sports, but from high school age onwards, his goal was to be an actor. His musical ability showed, playing trumpet in the school band; he also started picking up guitar. Pursuing his goal he attended the University of Oklahoma, majoring in drama. It was while there that Tom was introduced to the styles and people who would so influence his later work: Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Ewan MacColl and in particular, Woody Guthrie. Leaving college, his new goal was to be a folk singer.

The Marvellous Toy

It went 'zip' when it moved and 'bop' when it stopped,
And 'whirr' when it stood still.
I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will
– chorus from 'The Marvellous Toy'

Tom joined the US Army briefly as a Reserve, and was sent to the Army training facility at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Here he was required to learn to type, but being the US Army, it didn't matter a jot that he could already type, so for two hours a day, four days a week, recruit Paxton 'learned' to type. It was sometime during these hours that instead of the prescribed typing exercises, his keys tapped out the lyrics of a song entitled 'The Marvellous Toy'. After his discharge from the Army, Tom moved to New York and started to be absorbed into the folk music scene there, especially Greenwich Village. His associates in the Village were people like Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and Paul Stookey (of folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary) with whom he shared an apartment at one time.

In 1960, Tom auditioned for the Chad Mitchell Trio; they were looking for a singer to replace original member Mike Pugh, who had left to return to college. Tom did not get to fill the vacancy, but that audition did have two beneficial outcomes. For one, it brought him to the attention of Milton Okun, the Trio's musical arranger, who had just started a music publishing company called Cherry Lane Music; Tom became the first writer to sign for them. Secondly, during a rehearsal break, Tom sang 'The Marvellous Toy' to the Trio, who loved it and recorded it, the record becoming one of their biggest chart hits in 1963/64. In the years that followed, the Chad Mitchell Trio were to sing many of Tom's songs.

I'm The Man That Built The Bridges

I'm the man that built the bridges,
I'm the man that laid the track.
I'm the man that built this country
With my shoulders and my back.

– from chorus to 'I'm The Man That Built The Bridges'

'The Marvellous Toy' was one of the songs included on his first album, I'm The Man That Built The Bridges. This album resulted from a series of recordings made at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village, New York in the autumn of 1962. As well as folk and folk-history tracks, it included another popular children's song, 'Goin' To the Zoo'. One night in early 1963, a certain Margaret 'Midge' Cummings saw Tom singing at the Gaslight; for her it was love at first sight. Two weeks later, Tom proposed; they were married in August 1963 and have been together ever since.

The Elektra Years

And here's to you my ramblin' boy,
May all your ramblin' bring you joy.

– from chorus to 'Ramblin' Boy'

Appearances at the 1963, '64 and '66 Newport Folk Festivals further enhanced Tom's growing reputation as an original, and distinctively voiced, writer and performer. His second album, Ramblin' Boy, recorded in 1964, began a seven-year period with one of the leading folk music labels of the '60s, Elektra. In total this yielded seven albums: Ramblin' Boy (1964), Ain't That News (1965), Outward Bound (1966), Morning Again (1967), The Things I Notice Now (1968), Tom Paxton 6 (1970) and, also in 1970, The Compleat Tom Paxton, his first live album since I'm The Man That Built The Bridges. Although much more has followed since 1970, in many ways the six studio albums for Elektra encapsulate everything that defines the music of Tom Paxton. The first three albums have a very simple musical line-up, just Tom and his guitar, accompanied by a second guitar, banjo and bass. For the second three albums, Tom and new producer Peter Siegel variously added acoustic, electric and bass guitars, strings, drums, keyboards, flute and saxophone.

Tom Paxton's Many Styles

Traditional Folk Singer

Folk music — and especially American folk music — is the tradition from which Tom Paxton's body of work grows. His second album Ramblin' Boy includes a track 'Fare Thee Well, Cisco', in memory of folk singer Cisco Houston, who died of cancer in 1961 at the age of 42. Cisco had been great buddies with folksong god Woody Guthrie, the two men travelling and singing together in California from 1939 onwards. Tom performed one of Woody's songs, 'Pastures of Plenty', at the famous 1968 Carnegie Hall tribute concert to Guthrie, who died on 3 October, 1967 from Huntington's Disease. Other performers at that tribute concert included Arlo Guthrie, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and Joan Baez — a big-hitting team.


Among the most beautiful of Tom Paxton's songs are the gentle folk ballads like 'Last Thing On My Mind', 'Wish I Had a Troubadour', 'I Give You The Morning', and 'And Then You Smiled', with their finely crafted lyrics and simple guitar accompaniments:

Are you going away with no word of farewell?
Will there be not a trace left behind?
Well, I could have loved you better,
Didn't mean to be unkind.
You know that was the last thing on my mind.

– chorus from 'Last Thing On My Mind'
If I had a troubadour, I'd signal with my hand
And he would sing for you.
He would sing for you until you'd smile.

– from 'Wish I Had a Troubadour'
Through the waving curtain wall the sun is streaming.
Far behind your flickering eyelids you're still dreaming.
You're dreaming of the good times and you're smiling.

– from 'I Give You The Morning'
I was certain you'd be tender
As you turned my love away,
But then you smiled,
Then you smiled.

– from 'And Then You Smiled'


So, you can laugh at Sull because he's mean and drinks a lot,
But don't laugh at Sully's bucket, that's the only friend he's got.

One of the folk traditions that Tom Paxton has helped keep alive is that of the troubadour storyteller. The Ain't That News album includes a track entitled 'Sully's Pail', one of the few tracks he recorded but did not provide the lyrics1 for. This unaccompanied poem tells the story of a tunnelling accident in which the man Sully has been rescued from certain death by his friend and co-digger Jim Reilly. Both men have almost reached safety when Sully sees his rescuer killed by a rockfall just six feet away him. From that day on Sully has always used his friend's food pail to eat from; the story of why is told to a young worker who laughs at Sully's old battered pail.

Protest Singer

James Chaney your body exploded in pain,
And the beating they gave you is pounding my brain.
And they murdered much more with their dark bloody chains
And the body of pity lies bleeding.

From the same album comes the track 'Goodman and Schwerner and Chaney'. This song concerns the murder in Mississippi of three civil rights workers by members of the Klu Klux Klan. The three disappeared one night in June 1964; their bodies were found six weeks later, buried in an earth dam. The black youth, James Chaney, had been gruesomely beaten then shot three times; his two white co-workers had been shot once each. After the Mississippi authorities showed indifference to the murders, US President Lyndon Johnson ordered FBI supremo J Edgar Hoover to (reluctantly) investigate. Eventually the facts began to emerge and 18 men, all KKK members, including the local Sheriff and Deputy Sheriff, were charged by the US Justice Department with conspiracy to deprive the three of their civil rights (the Mississippi authorities refused to prosecute for murder).

Anti-war Singer

'My Son, John' from the Outward Bound album is about a soldier returning to his home from war. The young man is deeply troubled and drawn in on himself, refusing to talk to his father about his experiences. The song became something of an anthem for the anti-war protest movement of the 1960s.

He seems glad to be home, but I can't be sure.
When I asked him what he'd seen and done,
He went up to his bedroom, and he closed the door.
My son, John, John my son.

A poignant reminder that death is never far from any soldier, anywhere and at any time, is found in the song 'Jimmy Newman' from the Tom Paxton 6 album. Here, two buddies share a tent at a medical evacuation airfield. It is early morning and preparations are under way to load the injured men onto transport aircraft to fly them home to the US. One man is telling his buddy how great everything is: the sun is shining, there's coffee and breakfast waiting, the sound of engines warming up can be heard. His buddy, seemingly indifferent, just lies in the tent, asleep. For the last two verses, Tom's voice takes on an edge of panic:

Get up, Jimmy Newman! They won't take my word,
I said you sleep hard, but they're shaking their heads.
Get up, Jimmy Newman, and show them you heard!
Ah, Jimmy just show them you're sleeping!


One of Tom Paxton's best loved humorous songs (or perhaps better described as a monologue with musical accompaniment) is 'Talking Vietnam Pot Luck Blues', which first appeared on the 1967 album Morning Again.

Well, I may be crazy, but I think not,
I'd swear to God that I smell pot.
But who'd have pot in Vietnam?
He said, 'What do you think you've been sittin' on?'
These funny little plants, thousands of them.
Good God Almighty... Pastures of Plenty!

Tom had already used the rhythmic word pattern and the guitar part of 'Talking Vietnam Pot Luck Blues' in 'Talking Pop Art', a song on the earlier Outward Bound album, but now with different lyrics. It would crop up again in the satirical song 'Talking Watergate' from the 1977 album, New Songs From The Briarpatch.

A good early example of Tom finding a humorous take on things we have nearly all experienced, and been driven crazy by, is 'Is This Any Way to Run An Airline?' from the Outward Bound album. Tom is stuck in an airport terminal building; his plane has been delayed and he is constantly fobbed off by the airline's representative with excuses as to why his flight is not ready.

Oh I carefully examined every corner of the building
For the next fourteen hours or so.
And the bulletins kept coming from the reservation counter,
Yessiree we're getting ready to go.

Blaming the delay on the weather just about everywhere else, the final stinging promise is:

You've had a couple dirty days,
But your ticket's good for thirty days,
And when the runway is completed,
Would you like to board your plane?


A number of Tom Paxton's songs, while having a light-hearted feel to them, are in fact biting satires on whatever topic it is Tom is highlighting. A good example is 'Buy a Gun for Your Son' from the Ain't That News album, where the targets (in this case literally) are the manufacturers and retailers of 'War Toys':

Buy a gun for your son right away, Sir.
Shake his hand like a man and let him play, Sir.
Let his little mind expand, place a weapon in his hand,
For the skills he learns today will someday pay, Sir.

Or celebrity resting places, as in 'Forest Lawn' from the album Tom Paxton 6:

I want to go simply when I go.
They'll give me a simple funeral there I know,
With a hundred strolling strings
And topless dancers with golden wings.
Oh take me when I'm gone to Forest Lawn

Children's Songs

Tom Paxton has always loved writing songs for children; many of his albums feature at least one. The two written for and about his daughters, 'Katy' and 'Jennifer's Rabbit', have already been mentioned, as have 'The Marvellous Toy' and 'Goin' To The Zoo'. Then there's 'My Dog's Bigger Than Your Dog', 'Englebert the Elephant', 'Come and Play Catch with Me' and others which featured on the 1974 album Children's Songbook.

Jennifer slept in her little bed,
With dreams of a rabbit in her little head.
Jennifer's rabbit, brown and white,
Left the house and ran away one night,
Along with a turtle and a kangaroo,
And seventeen monkeys from the city zoo,
And Jennifer too.

– 'Jennifer's Rabbit'

All The Way Home

All the way home, let me stay home,
Where the cool summer breezes always blow.
Been the world 'round, been in your town,
All the way home I want to go.

– chorus to 'All The Way Home'

In the early 1970s, Tom felt that he had a greater following in England than in the US, and so the Paxton family crossed the Atlantic to set up a new home in the UK. Tom signed a new recording contract, this time with the Warner Brothers Reprise label. This partnership, which Tom has described as 'dead from the beginning', lasted only a couple of years, but yielded three new albums: How Come The Sun (on the back sleeve Tom is seen sitting on a sofa with Midge and his daughters, Jennifer and Katy), Peace Will Come and New Songs for Old Friends, the last of which was recorded live at the Marquee Club in London. Breaking with Reprise, Tom decided to return to the US and settled back in Long Island, New York. From then on he has been involved only with small record labels: MAM, Private Stock, Flying Fish and, more recently, Appleseed.

All the way through, his albums have continued to provide an eclectic mix of ballads, wit, satire, serious reflection on the world, social and political stick-poking, topical commentary and downright good songwriting. Tom Paxton has never released a single, and none of his 50+ albums have appeared in the top-100 US album charts3, yet his fan-base is enormous. Now in his 70s and far from being content to stay home, Tom continues to tour, delighting his audiences all over the world; he has toured the UK every year since 1965.

In 2005, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting at BBC Radio 2's Folk Awards in London; the following year, he was the recipient of a 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award from the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance.

When not on tour, Tom Paxton lives in Alexandria VA.

Some songwriters have a strong social conscience, others a penetrating vision of love and personal relationships, and still others satirical skills and a sense of fun. In Tom, all are combined.
– Milton Okun, founder of Cherry Lane Music and a close personal friend of Tom Paxton.
1They were written by Dick Gibbons.2A reference to the song by Woody Guthrie.3His highest-ranked album in the US album chart is How Come The Sun, which reached number 120.

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