Thomas Richard Paxton (born October 31, 1937) is an American folk singer and singer-songwriter who has been writing, performing and recording music for over forty years. In 2009, Paxton received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
His songs have experienced enduring appeal, including modern standards such as "The Last Thing on My Mind", "Bottle of Wine", "Whose Garden Was This?", "The Marvelous Toy", and "Ramblin' Boy". Paxton's songs have been recorded by Pete Seeger and The Weavers, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Doc Watson, Harry Belafonte, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Kingston Trio, The Chad Mitchell Trio, John Denver, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, Willie Nelson, Flatt & Scruggs, The Fireballs, and many others (see covers). He has performed thousands of concerts around the world in such places as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Hong Kong, Scandinavia, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Holland, England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and all over the United States; and his songs have been translated into various languages. Paxton enjoys a strong relationship with fans throughout the world.
Tom Paxton's songs can be emotionally affective and cover a wide range of topics, from the serious and profound to the lighthearted and comical. "What Did You Learn in School Today?" mocks the way children are often taught lies. "Jimmy Newman" is the story of a dying soldier, and "My Son John" is a moving song about a soldier who comes back home and can't even begin to describe what he's been through. "Beau John" is a civil rights era song about taking a stand against racial injustice. "A Thousand Years" tells the chilling tale of Neo-Nazi uprising, and "Train for Auschwitz" is about the Holocaust. "On the Road to Srebrenica" is about Bosnian Muslims who were killed in a 1995 massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina. "The Bravest" is a song about the firefighters who gave their lives while trying to save others on September 11, 2001. Then there are Paxton's "short shelf life songs", which are topical songs about current events and things in the news. These songs can be lighthearted and comical, or serious depending on the situation, and they change all the time as new ones are written and old ones can reappear as things seem to have a way of cycling around in this world. They include: "In Florida", about the 2000 election scandal; "Without DeLay", a song about the former congressman; "Bobbitt", about John and Lorena Bobbitt; "Little Bitty Gun", which lampoons Nancy Reagan; "I'm Changing My Name to Chrysler", about the controversial federal loan guarantee to Chrysler in 1979 (which was rewritten in 2008 as "I Am Changing My Name to Fannie Mae" about the 700 billion dollar "bailout of the U.S. financial system"); "The Ballad of Spiro Agnew", and "Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation" (which became "George W. Told the Nation" in 2007).
Thomas Richard Paxton was born October 31, 1937, in Chicago, Illinois, to Burt and Esther Paxton. His father was "a chemist, mostly self-educated", and as his health began to fail him, the family moved to Wickenburg, Arizona. It was here that young Tom began riding horses at the numerous dude ranches around Wickenburg. It was also here that he was first introduced to folk music, though at the time he did not know what it was called. He also discovered the music of Burl Ives while in Wickenburg.
In 1948, the family moved to Bristow, Oklahoma, which Paxton considers to be his hometown. Soon after, his father died from a stroke. Tom was about fifteen when he received his first stringed instrument, a ukulele. Tom received a guitar from his aunt when he was sixteen, and he soon began to immerse himself in the music of Burl Ives and Harry Belafonte.
In 1955, Tom enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, where he studied in the drama school. It was here that he first found other enthusiasts of folk music, and discovered the music of Woody Guthrie and The Weavers. Paxton would later note, "Woody was fearless; he'd take on any issue that got him stirred up ... and he became one of my greatest influences." During college, Tom was in a group known as the Travellers, and they sang in an off-campus coffeehouse. Tom's first original song was an Elizabethan murder ballad with the title "Robert".
Upon graduating from the University of Oklahoma in 1959 with a BFA, Paxton acted in summer stock theatre and briefly tried graduate school before joining the Army. While attending the Clerk Typist School in Fort Dix, New Jersey, he began writing songs on his typewriter and spent almost every weekend visiting Greenwich Village in New York City during the emerging early 1960s folk revival.
Shortly after his honorable discharge from the Army, Paxton auditioned for the Chad Mitchell Trio via publisher Milt Okun in 1960. He initially received the part, but his voice did not blend well enough with those of the group members. However, after singing his song "The Marvelous Toy" for Okun, he became the first writer signed to Milt's music publishing company, Cherry Lane Music Publishing.
Tom soon began performing at The Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village, where he became a mainstay. In 1962, he recorded a privately-produced live album at the Gaslight entitled, I'm the Man That Built the Bridges. During his stay in Greenwich Village, Tom published some of his songs in the folk magazines Broadside and Sing Out!, and performed alongside such folksingers as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen, Dave Van Ronk, and Mississippi John Hurt. Tom met his future wife, Midge, at the Gaslight one night in January 1963 after being introduced to her by David Blue.
Pete Seeger picked up on a few of Tom Paxton's songs in 1963, including "Ramblin' Boy" (which Seeger performed at The Weavers reunion concert at Carnegie Hall) and "What Did You Learn in School Today?" Meanwhile, Paxton had increased his profile as a performer, appearing at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, which was recorded by Vanguard Records. A month after Newport in 1963, Tom married Midge. He began traveling the country on the coffeehouse and small-venue circuit before returning to New York. Tom became involved with causes that promoted human rights, civil rights and labor rights. In 1963, Tom and a group of other folk musicians performed and offered moral support to striking coal miners in Hazard, Kentucky.
After returning to New York, Paxton signed with Elektra Records in 1964, a label which at that time featured a distinguished roster of folk musicians. Tom would go on to record seven albums for Elektra. As the folk revival hit its peak, Tom began getting more work outside of New York City, including benefit concerts and college campus visits. In 1964, Tom took part in the Freedom Summer and visited the Deep South, with other folk musicians, to perform at voter registration drives and civil rights rallies. His civil rights song "Beau John" was written after attending a Freedom Song Workshop in Atlanta, Georgia, and the song "Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney" was written about the unjust and brutal murders of three civil rights activists (Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney) in the summer of 1964 by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. Numerous musicians of various musical genres began recording Tom's songs as the 1960s progressed.
Of the songwriters on the Greenwich Village scene of the 1960s, Dave Van Ronk said, "Dylan is usually cited as the founder of the new song movement, and he certainly became its most visible standard-bearer, but the person who started the whole thing was Tom Paxton ... he tested his songs in the crucible of live performance, he found that his own stuff was getting more attention than when he was singing traditional songs or stuff by other people... he set himself a training regimen of deliberately writing one song every day. Dylan had not yet showed up when this was happening, and by the time Bobby came on the set, with at most two or three songs he had written, Tom was already singing at least 50 percent his own material. That said, it was Bobby's success that really got the ball rolling. Prior to that, the folk community was very much tied to traditional songs, so much so that songwriters would sometimes palm their own stuff off as traditional."
In 1965, Tom Paxton made his first tour of the United Kingdom. The tour was the beginning of a still-thriving professional relationship that has included yearly performances of the country since that time.
In 1967, the rock group Clear Light recorded a menacing and lengthy psychedelic version of Tom's song "Mr. Blue". Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton's recording of "The Last Thing on My Mind" reached the top ten on the U.S. country singles charts in December of 1967. Then in 1968, Tom managed to score a Top 10 radio hit when The Fireballs recorded his song "Bottle of Wine". In the 1960s, Tom even licensed one of his songs, "My Dog's Bigger than Your Dog", for use in a Ken-L Ration dog food commercial. Not too fazed by the success of some of his songs, Tom continued writing and performing. Though some of his songs were becoming hits for other people, he hadn't any huge hits of his own recordings. Tom was not interested in jumping on the folk rock (or, as he once joked, "folk rot") bandwagon though, and continued his folk singer-songwriter style on albums like Outward Bound (1966) and Morning Again (1968). On January 20, 1968, three months after the death of Woody Guthrie, Tom and a number of other prominent folk musicians performed at the Harold Leventhal produced "A Tribute to Woody Guthrie" concert at New York City's Carnegie Hall. Tom was determined to keep speaking out, writing, and singing songs of social significance. As musical trends changed and people became more experimental with their sound, Tom decided to try some more elaborate recording techniques, including neo-chamber music with string sections, flutes, horns, piano, various session musicians, as well as his acoustic guitar and vocals, similar to what his labelmate Judy Collins and his friend Phil Ochs were experimenting with around this time. Tom finally broke into the album pop charts with The Things I Notice Now in the summer of 1969, and also charted with Tom Paxton 6 in the spring of the following year. Tom's song "Whose Garden Was This?", an environmentalist anthem written for the first Earth Day, was later recorded by John Denver and became the title track of Denver's 1970 album. The diverse "Baroque Folk" experimentation on Tom's recordings was basically short-lived though, and he tended to think that the music was becoming too overproduced and away from the more natural acoustic roots that he loved best. Regarding this time, Tom said, "the acoustic guitar has always been what I loved the most ... I know I didn't have that rock mentality or anything. I was still a kid from a small town in Oklahoma. And I just wanted to hear folk songs." Tom continued to sing and perform his songs on acoustic guitar at his live performances, and it wasn't too long before his albums would once again generally reflect his original traditional-sounding style.
In 1969, Tom performed at the Isle of Wight Festival and was very well received by the English audience.
As he continued to record for Elektra and perform extensively, Tom and Midge had two daughters: Jennifer and Kate.
Tom Paxton and his family lived in Holland Park, London for about four years in the early 1970s. After a stay in England due to the professional success and love of the country, Tom and Midge went on a tour of New Zealand and China, and even appeared on a Chinese talk show. Tom released How Come the Sun in 1971, and that album gave him his highest chart ranking in the U.S., but it only got up to number 120, and his next album, Peace Will Come (1972), barely even reached the charts. Tom and his family soon returned to New York and the Long Island town of East Hampton. They eventually moved to the Washington, D.C. area around 1977. After recording three albums for Reprise Records and a few for "an English label that didn't pan out well", Tom signed with Vanguard Records, with whom he recorded a live album with Steve Goodman, New Songs From the Briarpatch (1977); which contained some of Tom's topical songs of the 1970s, including "Talking Watergate" and "White Bones of Allende", as well as a song dedicated to Mississippi John Hurt entitled "Did You Hear John Hurt?"
In 1978, Tom released his album Heroes, which contained a song dedicated to his friend Phil Ochs, who had unfortunately taken his own life in 1976. The album also includes the song "The Death of Stephen Biko", which details the brutal killing of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko in South Africa.
Paxton's 1979 album, Up and Up, contains the song "Let the Sunshine", which addresses issues concerning environmentalism and solar energy. Tom has also performed at the Clearwater Festival, an annual event, started by Pete Seeger, dedicated to environmentalism and cleaning up the Hudson River. His 1983 album Bulletin includes a song about Woody Guthrie entitled "They Couldn't Take the Music."
In 1984, Paxton briefly was a member of a trio (along with Bob Gibson and Anne Hills) known as the Best of Friends.
After recording for labels like Mountain Railroad and Flying Fish in the 1980s, Paxton started his own label (Pax Records) in 1987.
It was during this time that Tom Paxton continued to suffer from an undiagnosed and deepening depression that affected his work. With some advice from Midge, Tom began to look for a solution, and he was eventually diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, for which he is still being treated today..
As the 1990s rolled around, Paxton began delving deeply into children's music, recording nine children's albums during the decade. Along with his good friend Jim Rooney, Tom recorded a live album in 1996 that contained some new comical songs about current events. Eric Weissberg, John Gorka, Robin and Linda Williams, among others, also performed; and the album was titled Live: For the Record. In the mid-1990s, Tom also began to give more workshops in songwriting.
In 2000, Paxton once again began to write more of the topical songs for which he originally became known. In 2001, he released an album with Anne Hills entitled Under American Skies, and in 2002, Tom released an album of all new songs entitled Looking for the Moon (Appleseed Recordings). Tom was pleased with Looking for the Moon, and at the time it was released he expressed that it might be his best album so far. Looking for the Moon contains the song "The Bravest", which is about the firefighters who gave their lives while trying to save others in New York City on September 11, 2001. Also, around this time, Tom began writing and releasing his "Short Shelf Life Songs" about current events for free download on his website. The "short shelf life songs", as Tom calls them, are about politics and things going on in the news. Tom wrote a number of topical protest songs that were critical of the Bush administration's actions. For example, the song "Homeland Security" lampooned exaggerated terror threats, and "John Ashcroft and The Spirit of Justice" comically mocked John Ashcroft's prudishness over the Spirit of Justice statue. In 2007, Tom rewrote a song of his from 1965 entitled "Lyndon Johnson Told The Nation", about the escalation of the war in Vietnam, and transformed it into "George W. Told The Nation", about the surge in the Iraq war.
In 2007, Tom Paxton became one of the founding members of the Copyright Alliance, whose purpose is to promote the cultural and economic benefits of copyrights.
In 2008, Paxton rewrote his song "I'm Changing My Name to Chrysler", about the controversial federal loan guarantee to Chrysler in 1979, as "I Am Changing My Name to Fannie Mae", about the 700 billion dollar "bailout of the U.S. financial system".
Paxton continues to perform yearly tours of the United States and United Kingdom.
Tom married his wife Midge in 1963, and their marriage continues to this day. Tom and Midge currently reside in Alexandria, Virginia. They have two daughters, Jennifer and Kate, and three grandsons, Christopher, Sean, and Peter. All have been sources of inspiration for Tom's songs.
Paxton described his political views in the following way: "My own politics more or less resembled Will Rogers's politics. He had said that he belonged to no organized political party ??? he was a Democrat ... Being young and impassioned almost automatically put me over on the radical side of most issues. Being older, I find myself still more or less there, somewhat to my surprise."
Awards, honors, and nominations
In February 2002, Tom Paxton was honored with the ASCAP Lifetime Achievement Award in Folk Music. A few days later, he received three Wammies (Washington, DC, Area Music Awards); as Best Male Vocalist in the "traditional folk" and "children's music" categories, and for Best Traditional Folk Recording of the Year for Under American Skies (the duo album he made with Anne Hills in 2001). This was the first Paxton album to receive an award of any kind.
Paxton has been nominated four times for Grammy Awards in his career, all since 2002. He was first nominated in 2002 for his children's album, Your Shoes, My Shoes. The following year, Looking for the Moon received a 2003 nomination for "Best Contemporary Folk Album". Live In The UK (2005), received a 2006 Grammy nomination in the "Best Traditional Folk Album" category. Most recently, his 2008 album Comedians and Angels received a 2009 nomination, also in the "Best Traditional Folk Album" category. Tom was honored with a 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy, and the formal announcement was made during the 51st Annual Grammy Awards telecast, which aired on February 8, 2009.
In 2004, the Martin Guitar Company introduced the HD-40LSH Tom Paxton Signature Edition acoustic guitar in his honor.
In 2005, Tom Paxton received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting at BBC Radio 2's Folk Awards at London's Brewery Arts Centre.
In 2006, Tom Paxton received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance.
On January 22, 2007, Paxton was honored with an official Parliamentary tribute at the British House of Commons at the start of his 2007 United Kingdom tour.
On May 3, 2008, Paxton was honored with a special lifetime tribute from the World Folk Music Association, and a concert was held at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center at Northern Virginia Community College, Alexandria Campus, in Alexandria, Virginia. In addition to Tom Paxton, the performers who appeared in person included: The Chad Mitchell Trio, Peter Yarrow and Noel "Paul" Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary, Christine Lavin, Anne Hills, The Limeliters, Carolyn Hester and Side by Side.
Tom Paxton's songs have been recorded by (among others):
The Carter Family
Johnny Cash (with Diana Trask)
Dave Van Ronk
Simon & Garfunkel
Peter, Paul and Mary
The Kingston Trio
The Chad Mitchell Trio
Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner
Flatt & Scruggs
J. D. Crowe
Au Go-Go Singers (featuring Stephen Stills and Richie Furay)
Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer
Jim and Jean
Cry, Cry, Cry
Sharon, Lois & Bram
Chris de Burgh
The Irish Rovers
Paddy Reilly with The Dubliners