Before you read any further, go to the San Diego Folk Heritage concert page, scroll down, click the ticket link, and buy your ticket(s) to the November 10 Tom Paxton show, if there are any left. As I write this in mid-October, there are 26 23 21 tickets remaining. The show WILL sell out, and you don’t want to miss it. Trust me.
Okay, whew! I hope you got yours. Now we can relax and get on with the story.
Tom has been playing his songs on stage for over 60 years; both he and the continue to be energetic, fresh, and engaging. From “Ramblin’ Boy,” “I Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound,” and “The Last Thing on My Mind” on his 1964 debut album to his brand new album with John McCutcheon, his creative output has been stunning in quality and quantity. I recently tracked him down and asked him how he manages. “With great aplomb*,” he answers. Within five minutes, he had offered me quotes from James Thurber, Neil Simon, and Mark Twain. (“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”) If your life is words, I guess that’s how you roll.
The last time Tom played for Folk Heritage was in 2007, coincidentally the first SDFH show I attended. I wasn’t real familiar with Tom, but quickly realized he wrote a bunch of songs I was familiar with. Great show! Since then he’s toured the world, went in and out of “semi-retirement,” took a COVID break, and released at least seven albums, bringing his total somewhere over 60. If he waits that long before returning here, he’ll be 102 years old (he turns 86 on Halloween this year). You bought those tickets like I told you, right?
In the following paragraphs, we’ll touch on Tom’s career, his current activities, his new album with John McCutcheon, and his writing/recording/touring partners, the DonJuans.
Those Days: 1960s Folk Scare and Beyond
Tom grew up in Oklahoma (also home to Woody Guthrie, JJ Cale, and Leon Russell) and by his teenage years was playing guitar and listening to Burl Ives, the Weavers, and Harry Bellefonte. The Army took him to Ft. Dix, New Jersey, which gave him easy access to New York City and its nascent Greenwich Village folk scene. Leaving the Army in 1960, that city became his home, and that scene became his life.
There, he was a mainstay of the coffeehouse circuit and a peer of Dave Van Ronk (later Best Man at Tom’s wedding) and Noel Paul Stookey, Tom’s one-time roommate. Van Ronk, in his book The Mayor of MacDougal Street (a good read!), credits Tom with opening the barn door for songwriting folk singers (“The persons who started the whole thing….”), though of course Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, among others, were out in that pasture well before he was. But the fact is, Tom was well established there when Bob Dylan showed up with his first handful of originals.
A breakout moment for Tom was when Pete Seeger sang his song “Ramblin’ Boy” at a Weavers reunion concert at Carnegie Hall. The song appeared on the resulting album, conferring instant credibility to Tom’s writing, and helping make that song a concert mainstay ever since.
There was a special place in my heart for ‘Shenandoah’ or ‘A Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night.’ I still love those songs. When I began to write, I began to write in that style. And my style has pretty much stayed simple and folk-like all the way through. I hope it’s added a little depth but I don’t think I’ve changed at all. I love this music more than I can explain. I love the bus we’re on. —Tom Paxton, 2023.
These Days: Post-COVID Whirlwind
These days, Tom keeps busy writing, recording, and performing. He’s just come off a sold-out run in the north-central US; the night after his Poway show he’ll head to Santa Monica for McCabe’s (already sold out, hint hint). For all these shows, he’s teamed with the DonJuans, whom we’ll get to shortly.
Tom is active in Folk Alliance International. His San Diego visit is an offshoot of a casual hangout session at the last big FAI meetup in Kansas City, where Dick Jay, the SDFH Chairfolk, learned he might be available and started a follow up with his agent. I caught Tom this month on a Folk Alliance Zoom songwriting panel (video here), where he was perfectly comfortable with the online format—funny, articulate, and very positive about the whole process of songwriting (“Remember, this is something worth doing!”).
During the height of COVID and the resulting music shutdown, Tom honed his craft by writing literally hundreds of new songs. Thankfully, Tom’s notebooks are being kept at the Woody Guthrie Center archive in Tulsa, along with those of Woody and Phil Ochs. Because, what are the chances Tom’s recording schedule could catch up to his writing schedule? Apparently, this level of prolificacy was not a great stretch for Tom. Dave Van Ronk tells that when starting his songwriting journey, Tom wrote one song a day for a year. That collection included the aforementioned “Ramblin’ Boy” and “The Last Thing on My Mind,” which was Dolly Parton’s first charted song, and which has been recorded by noteworthy folks from Johnny Cash to the Grateful Dead to Billy Strings. Will there be comparable gems in this more recent batch? Maybe we’ll find out in Poway.
The Last Thing on My Mind
Are you going away with no word of farewell
Will there be not a trace left behind
Well, I could’ve loved you better, didn’t mean to be unkind
You know that was the last thing on my mind
“Them” Days: Collaborations
The last couple years have seen several Tom Paxton collaboration projects come to fruition, including ones from John McCutcheon, C. Daniel Boling, and Buffalo Rose. Tom told me he considers Zoom to be one of the greatest songwriting inventions ever.
Buffalo Rose is a six-piece acoustic band out of Pittsburg, featuring dense female harmonies and tasty mandolin and dobro. You can listen to their four song EP Rabbit, co-written with Tom, on Bandcamp here.
Daniel Boling came through San Diego a few years back at the invitation of Lindsay White, a co-winner at the Kerrville New Folk Songwriting Competition. He’s since gone on to join the legendary Limeliters. He met Tom through a songwriting camp where they were both teaching and got into a regular co-write routine. Dan’s latest solo album (supported by Tom and Noel Paul Stookey), New Old Friends, arrived last summer. Dan’s former life as a park ranger shows up in songs like “Bear Spray and Barbwire.” Write what you know, they say!
All New is a fun and wide-ranging album with 28 songs!, which Tom put out in 2022 with Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer. Another fruit of COVID Zoom sessions. Lots of great bluegrassy instruments and cool songs, including the 18-second classic “Trump Lost, Biden Won.” Brevity is the soul of wit, according to the Bard.
This one was just released as I’m writing this article: John McCutcheon and Tom Paxton Together (Spotify link). Accounting for our tendency to fall in love with our latest creations, Tom considers this possibly his “best album ever.” I can’t argue—it’s really solid. McCutcheon is another longtime Folk Heritage favorite and a peer of Tom’s. The two of them have Zoomed weekly for a year and counting, as well as recorded 14 of the resulting 100 songs for this album.
The early days were kind of tough
Even when things felt too rough
We knew that we were rich enough, together
Here we are still holding hands
Young folks just don’t understand
This is what we always planned, together
The album covers the whole range of folk song topics. You’ve got stories, a couple love songs, several songs about songs (including “Same Old Crap,” which could have been a follow-up to Shel Silverstein’s “Cover of the Rolling Stone”) and treatment of wide-ranging current events/social issues. “Ukrainian” leads off the album, and the guys hit homelessness (“Invisible”), immigration (“In America”), and “Everything,” which tallies all Jesus’ teachings on homosexuality. (Spoiler: there are none.) Hopefully some of these will make it to the November 10 set list with the DonJuans.
Those Guys: the DonJuans
The DonJuans is a duo comprised of Don Henry and Jon Vezner, who have been Tom’s writing and touring partners for some years. Working out of Nashville, they are recognized songwriters in their own right, if you count earning a Grammy and about every country music songwriting award as “recognition.” That Grammy was for Where’ve You Been, recorded by Jon’s wife Kathy Mattea. I’m not much of a crier, but that song got me good.
Both Don and Jon called me up to help me flesh out this article. I’ve never talked to two guys so genuinely enthusiastic about what they’re doing. What they are doing, besides the Nashville songwriter thing, is co-writes with Tom and going out with him for playdates. Don says every once in a while it hits him: “I’m playing with … Tom Paxton!” (Imagine that in the voice of a kid who just got his Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas.) Jon has done a jillion co-writes with the Nashville elite but says Tom is “one of the best I’ve ever worked with—just unbelievably quick.”
Imagine a night on the road, maybe hanging out after the show, catching a late dinner, and suddenly you’re sitting next to Judy Collins or Tom Rush. Just another day in Tom-world. However, it’s not all fun and games. On a day off, if it’s a question of the beach or a writing session, Tom tends toward making a command decision for writing. “It’s what puts a step in his getalong,” says Don. On second thought, maybe it IS all fun and games!
On stage, the DonJuans typically warm up the audience with a few songs, then perform the rest of the show as a trio (two sets in the Poway concert). They fill out the instrumental space with additional guitars, plus ukulele and keyboards and great vocal harmonies. You can get a taste from their 2019 live album, where they play some of Tom’s old hits and a bunch of more recent tunes.
That’s what I’ll be doing November 10, hopefully with a step in my getalong, and definitely up front trying to soak up a little of the magic that will be in the air.
All My Stalkers
I once was a great big star, I had a string of hits
The years they flew by before I knew my career was in the pits
Now I’m doing Walmart openings for whoever might appear
Looking around that thinning crowd, it’s getting kind of weird, cause …
All my stalkers use walkers