Tom Paxton: Looking for the Moon
by Jan Vanderhorst
"It's okay to look back, as long as you don't stare!"
If anyone truly lives by those words, it's singer-songwriter Tom Paxton. While some of the songs on his latest Appleseed Recordings CD "Looking for the Moon" might hearken back to a childhood spent in Oklahoma or of life on the road as an adventurous troubadour, similar to his own, his feet and mind are set firmly in the here and now.
"I don't think I'm a nostalgia writer at all," he insists, "As someone once said 'nostalgia isn't what it used to be'. These songs are a little (romanticized) about a life I once knew or that was known by others, as opposed to the way it is now, but that's not to say I think the world's going to Hell in a hand basket."
It was the music that would change us
It was life in the key of C
It was everything we wanted
It was the truth that set us free
It was life in the key of C
It was a different time. It was a time in which I was comfortable, but I'm OK now too. I just wanted to revisit an old way."
On the song "My Oklahoma Lullaby" Tom sings that 'you can hear a dog bark up in
Kansas'..."So you know I'm talking about before there was air conditioning!," he laughs,
"it was like a blanket you couldn't kick off. It was very hot at night there, not so much as a breeze, just suffocating. You had the windows wide open and you hoped the screens would hold the bugs out, and you heard sounds from all the way across town."
So I lie there and hear those truck tires humming
I hear those air brakes softly sigh
Gears keep changing as they climb that hill
And that's my Oklahoma lullaby
As an elder statesman of folk music, Tom Paxton has had a close-up view of the ebb and flow of folk music's popularity.
He started out during the folk music boom in the early 60's, gaining widespread exposure more from his songwriting than from his own recordings. "Ramblin' Boy," "The Last Thing On My Mind," "Bottle Of Wine" and "The Marvelous Toy" were immediate fan favourites by folk and mainstream audiences alike.
While many of his contemporaries of those Greenwich Village days are no longer involved in folk music Tom continues to write, record and tour. For him the reason for his career's longevity is easy to explain.
"Work cheap!," he says laughing, "the simple reason is that I've never stopped working. I enjoy performing, although I'm really hating the travel. I still love the music. The sound of an acoustic guitar is still one of my favourite sounds in the world. I can't think of a reason not to do it, I can just think of reasons why I should do it a little less than I do. I'm gradually eliminating some of the old stomping grounds and turning them over to the younger guys."
The new performers who have come on to the folk music scene in the last few years and the talents they possess have made a big impression on Tom Paxton.
"For one thing," he explains, "a great many of them play guitar a lot better at this phase of their careers than we did at the same phase in ours. There were exceptions of course, (Dave) Van Ronk was always a wonderful guitar player and there were others, but Phil (Ochs) and I were pretty basic, and (Bob) Dylan the same thing. There was not a lot of sophistication to our guitar playing and I hear a lot of that now (in the younger performers)."
After nurturing a career spanning 40 years and hundreds of songs, you'd think Tom would have a handle on his songwriting. But such is not the case.
"It's just as hard (to write a song). It never was easy. There were songs which mercifully came out pretty quickly, but I've never found any real analogy between how easily a song comes out and how good it is. I had songs come in 20 minutes that just stank, but I also wrote "Ramblin' Boy" in about 20 minutes. So you never can tell. I have a couple of songs on "Looking for the Moon" that I worked on, off and on, over a couple of years and I like them as well as anything else on the album. Sometimes you work on something for a long time and it starts showing the strain and it just sounds like something that's just been worked to death. There's no way of telling (how much time it takes), but the one thing I know for sure is, it's hard every time."
Knowing when a lyric is just right and the song's finished is a much easier task for Tom to figure out.
"When you're singing a song you've just written," he says, "and you come to a particular line and there's a little voice that says 'Uh uh, there's a little speed bump here,' and that line just doesn't sing the way the rest of them do, you know you're not done yet.
"For example on 'My Pony Know The Way,' there was the last line of the second verse. I sang it for a couple of months in a different way with a different line and I was never really satisfied with it until one day I finally sat down and wrote an entirely different line, which is the one I'm using now. The minute I wrote that line I said 'Done!' I knew I was done. If you leave yourself open to the possibility that the song is not done, then you're free to say it's done when you know it's done."
The last song on "Looking for the Moon" was a difficult one to approach as a writer, even one as skilled as Tom Paxton. "The Bravest" deals with the horrific events at the World Trade Centre in 2001.
"It's not easy (to write a song about that subject)," he says, "I think I was fortunate when I came to write that song, that I'd been writing songs for a long time and I could see a lot of the pitfalls and avoid them. You're always on safer ground when you write unsentimentally, but emotionally. Simply telling the story will do it! What happened itself was so unbelievably dramatic, you don't have to play anything up.
"I like trying to write in the first person, as someone who was there or a witness. That's something I've done many, many times. It gives you a chance to get inside the skin, to imagine yourself in that situation. You can't help but feel emotion if you imagine yourself in that situation of trying to get down those stairs in that panicky situation. Then of all things in the world to see these guys come pounding up the stairs into it. Especially since we know how the story ends.
"I wanted to write from the human point of view as much as I possibly could, rather than some kind of a propagandist or some kind of a third party standing off observing and judging. I think it's always better to try and put yourself into the middle of it.
Now every time I try to sleep
I'm haunted by the sound
Of firemen pounding up the stairs
While we were running down
To find out more about Tom Paxton, his website address is: tompaxton.com.
Jan Vanderhorst can be reached at email@example.com