Tom Paxton

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Tom Paxton proved to be one of the most durable of the singer/songwriters to emerge from the Greenwich Village folk revival scene of the early '60s. In some ways, he had more in common with the late-'50s generation of folksingers such as Dave Van Ronk (who was 16 months his senior) and even older performers than with the new crop of singer/songwriters with whom he tended to be associated, such as Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs (both of whom were several years his junior). But like Dylan and Ochs, and unlike Van Ronk, Paxton was a songwriter caught up in the left-wing political movements of the time and inspired to compose topical and protest songs. In general, his tended to be more lighthearted than theirs (the musical satirist Tom Lehrer was at least as much of an influence on him as Woody Guthrie), though he could be just as witty and just as harshly critical of his opponents. Like such mentors as Pete Seeger, and unlike Dylan, he never cared to make much of a transition to the mainstream, never picked up an electric guitar and tried to play rock & roll. (None of his many albums ever reached the Top 100, and he never scored a chart single as a recording artist.) Nor did he burn out in the '70s like Ochs. Instead, he kept on, year in and year out, writing and singing songs that commented, often humorously, on the state of the body politic. He also contributed more than a few love songs, some songs of joyous celebration, and especially later in his career, many children's songs. In fact, his biggest successes as a songwriter, the songs that became hits for others and were covered over and over, proving to be his most valuable copyrights, fit into these respective categories: "The Last Thing on My Mind" (by far his most popular work), "Bottle of Wine," and "The Marvelous Toy." But other artists were also attracted to such socially conscious compositions as "What Did You Learn in School Today?" and "Whose Garden Was This?," as well as reflective, melancholy songs like "Ramblin' Boy" and "I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound."

Born in Chicago on Halloween in 1937, Paxton moved with his family to Bristow, OK, in 1948, when he was ten; his father died soon after. His first musical instrument was the trumpet, but he next took up the ukulele, and in the summer of 1954 an aunt gave him his first guitar. In 1955, he matriculated at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, initially as a drama major. There he became interested in folk music and began writing songs. He graduated in 1959 with a BFA and acted in summer stock, though his main interest had shifted to singing. He went into the army reserve early in 1960, and that spring was stationed at Fort Dix, NJ, which allowed him to begin going into New York City and performing at the amateur-night hootenannies in Greenwich Village clubs. When he finished active duty in September 1960, he settled in New York. He began making his name both as a singer in such clubs as the Gaslight and the Bitter End, and as a songwriter, publishing songs in the folk magazines Broadside and Sing Out!. When Mike Pugh left the Chad Mitchell Trio, Paxton auditioned to replace him; Joe Frazier eventually won out instead, but the group and its music director, Milt Okun, were impressed by Paxton's songs, resulting in his … Read More

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