T om Paxton, a pioneer of the Greenwich Village folk revival of the 1960s, will take the stage November 14 at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Peekskill with his longtime friend and colleague, Judy Collins. Many may not know that, before Bob Dylan was dubbed the “Voice of His Generation,” it was Tom Paxton who’d set tongues wagging on the burgeoning Village folk scene with his topical, sometimes political, sometimes personal, songs. Paxton recalls that it was on the cusp of that turbulent decade that he “came to the Village, stayed in the Village, and started all of this.”
“All of this” is Paxton’s humble way of describing a career that has spanned nearly half a century, has spawned more than 40 albums (not including scores of compilations), and has produced at least 20 books, including a dozen children’s books. Paxton’s songs have been recorded by, among others, Johnny Cash, the Spinners, Neil Diamond, Dolly Parton, Dion, Pete Seeger, Tiny Tim, and Placido Domingo. Talk about eclectic.
Even music lovers who scoff at the seeming simplicity of folk can find something in Tom Paxton’s catalogue that suits their fancy, whether it’s a silly, drunken reverie like the oft-covered “Bottle of Wine,” or a starkly beautiful, soul-baring love song like his signature, “Last Thing on My Mind.”
Paxton embraced the broadness and versatility of the genre early on and never allowed the folk label to pigeonhole him. In love with the acoustic guitar, he never “went electric” or tried to commercialize his sound. “I was part of that scene that grew up in Greenwich Village,” says the singer/songwriter, who turned 71 on Halloween. “It was the dying of the Beat Generation and the beginning of the folk revival, and it was my incredibly good fortune to be there at the birth. It was an exciting time.”
And Paxton recognized the headiness of the time at the time. “All I’d ever wanted was to be in the middle of something like that, and here it was,” he says. “The important thing is that it was all folk music of all kinds—bluegrass and blues, Appalachian songs and Jewish songs and cowboy songs.”
Paxton was one of the first folksingers of the late ’50s and early ’60s to write his own songs. The late Dave Van Ronk, another Village folk fixture, credited Paxton—not Dylan—with being the first member of the sixties folk movement to be known for, and successful at, writing his own material.
“Well, Dave was my best man when I got married,” says the twinkly eyed troubadour, who’s been married to wife Midge for 45 years. “I always relied on him to say nice things about me.” But does he agree? “He mentioned that to me, too, and I said, ‘Well, what about Woody Guthrie?’ and he said, ‘That was the previous generation.’ Maybe I was kind of a bridge into my generation from Woody. I don’t know.”
That “bridge” is still sturdy—as is the repertoire Paxton will be showcasing when he performs here with Judy Collins. “Judy and I have done shows for going on, I think, two-hundred years now. I always love doing shows with her and I expect we’ll do a few songs together. She draws a classy crowd.”