Tom Paxton - Tales from the village voice

Tom Paxton is contemplating the idea of his elevation to elder statesman of American folk music status with the death in January of Pete Seeger and says that although he concedes that he’s getting old, he wouldn’t presume to fill Seeger’s shoes.

“Pete was such an inspiration to so many people,” says Paxton in a break from preparing for the UK tour that brings this great troubadour to Glasgow this weekend with his friend of some fifty years, Janis Ian. “And the great thing about Pete was, he was a giving man to his dying breath.”

Paxton was on the receiving end of Seeger’s generous spirit more than once. As a young songwriter starting out in the early 1960s, Paxton experienced “as much fun as I could stand” when Seeger adopted his song Ramblin’ Boy and recorded it with the folk group the day, the Weavers.

He also remembers his first appearance at Newport Folk Festival, a rite of passage for young folk performers, in 1963, when he sang Ramblin’ Boy and Seeger appeared at his side and sang it with him.

“That,” says Paxton, “was one of my most thrilling moments. You can’t buy endorsements like that.”

By the time of his first Newport performance Paxton was thoroughly immersed in the Greenwich Village scene that’s depicted in the Coen brothers’ latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis. With one of his songs, Last Thing on My Mind, featuring on the soundtrack, the film has given Paxton, he says, an unexpected contemporary relevance.

More than this, however, the film has brought to the wider public’s attention someone who was not only one of Paxton’s greatest friends but also the best man at his wedding, Dave Van Ronk.

“If the film makes people go out of the cinema and listen to Dave’s music, that would be wonderful,” he says. “If they also buy his book, the Mayor of MacDougal Street, even better because I think there’s a great deal more laughter in the book than there is in the movie.”

Laughter and marvelling at Van Ronk’s guitar playing – he didn’t so much arrange songs for the instrument as orchestrate them – are two of the things Paxton remembers most clearly about Greenwich Village in the 1960s, a time that has come to exercise a fascination on subsequent generations.

“We didn’t realise at the time that it was fascinating,” he says. “But looking back, it was. We were too busy living through those times and we didn’t have the slightest notion that what we were doing would be remembered years later. It was an exciting time, a fun time. There was great music coming out of the woodwork and we were learning guitar licks – or possibly stealing them – listening and laughing. Sleep was the last thing we thought of – we’d just do that when we ran out of gas.”

Among the many people Paxton met and hung out with in those days, as he graduated from writing songs he thought were not bad to ones he hoped might be quite good (he can be entertainingly disparaging about his early efforts), was Janis Ian.

Ian was, he remembers, not much more than twelve when she turned up onstage at one of the monthly Sunday afternoon hootenannies held at the Village Vanguard to raise funds for the folksong magazine Broadside. This “little drink of water from New Jersey,” as he describes her, sang a sassy song she’d written that made Paxton and his fellow, older performers almost fall off their chairs.

“About two years later,” he says, “she had this enormous hit with Society’s Child and was I surprised that this fourteen year old kid had written something so mature? Not really. She clearly had the art and the craft. You see, songwriting is both of these things. The art is where the idea comes from and the craft is bringing it together into song form. I’ve become harder to please with my own writing – thank god – as the years have passed. But while self-editing is good in some ways, you have to fight your own internal critic all the time. Otherwise you won’t get anything written.”

Paxton and Ian’s tour is not, he’s keen to stress, a double bill. They’re onstage as a duo almost the whole time, with short solo breaks, and singing all the songs together that audiences will be expecting – Ramblin’ Boy, Last Thing on My Mind, Ian’s Society’s Child and  At Seventeen.

“It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on for me,” he says. “Plus we have one enormous surprise and I’m not gonna tell ya what it is. You’ll just have to come and hear it for yourself.”

From The Herald, March 26, 2014.

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