Gary James' Interview With
Tom Paxton

As a singer, songwriter and performer, Tom Paxton has been plying his trade for over 50 years now! His music has taken him all over the world. People like Joan Baez, John Denver, Dolly Parton, Peter, Paul And Mary, Willie Nelson and Marianne Faithful have recorded his songs. And speaking of songs, do you remember The Fireballs' hit "Bottle Of Wine"? Tom Paxton wrote it. How about that song "My Dog's Bigger Than Your Dog" in the Ken-L-Ration TV commercial? Tom Paxton wrote it.

We talked to Tom Paxton about his career in music, a career that's seen just about everything.

Q - I would imagine that the music business of today must really frustrate you. When you were starting out, there was such an emphasis on talent. Today it's all about marketing. So how does Tom Paxton fit in today's music world?

A - You know what? It doesn't frustrate me in the slightest because I'm not trying to climb the greasy pole. I'm not looking to be a star or anything like that. I'm quite happy with where I am. I have more work than I really need or want. I just got back from a weekend in Denmark at a terrific Folk festival that I've played before. I'm quite content with the way things are. If I were starting out now, it would be a different matter. I would find it very difficult indeed because I've never been much of a self-promoter and I think you have to be now. Basically I don't mind the way things are for me. I've got all I need and I'm still writing songs and enjoying performing and I get to perform a lot. I'll be out in Woodstock this weekend doing a couple of shows there and looking forward to it. I'll have my old friend Ann Hills with me and it'll be fun.

Q - So, when you were starting out, you just wanted to work?

A - Oh, yeah.

Q - You never entertained the idea of being number one on the charts?

A - Well of course. Of course that's part of your mind, but in reality a very small part because it just didn't happen to people like myself. It happened to (Bob) Dylan. It happened to Peter, Paul And Mary. Paul was my room mate. So I know it happened, but I knew it wasn't very likely for me. What I really wanted to do was stay alive. I wanted to survive to the point where I could count on performing, writing and recording as long as I wanted to. That was the bottom line for me. Survival. And really it was bottom line for just about everybody.

Q - Did you ever have to take a straight job?

A - No. I refused. I stayed with this. And luckily I got enough work and I worked steadily and I kept showing up so I was able to keep it together until things began to improve and then they kept improving.

Q - When people describe you as a singer, they describe you as a Folk singer. Are you happy with that terminology?

A - Very.

Q - Wouldn't you rather be called a singer, period?

A - No. I'm a Folk singer even though I write my own songs. My songs have really been written pretty much in the Folk tradition, the Folk style of composition. Very simple. A lot of three chord songs. If it weren't' for the Folk tradition, I wouldn't write the way I write. So yeah, I'm happy to be called a Folk singer.

Q - There used to be a show called Hootenanny that ran every Saturday night. Why don't we see any shows like that today where the public can see and hear Folk singers?

A - 'Cause nobody wants a show like that. The demographics they're looking for are young people and young people do not like this music in numbers sufficient enough to support doing a show like that.

Q - The only way to get young people into that music is to have them exposed to it.

A - Not only to have them exposed to it, but to have young people making this music. Young people want to watch other young people. That's what fueled everything we did. The college kids loved what we were doing and so that supported the upper echelons of Folk music for a few years until The Beatles came along and that was the end of that.

Q - So, I take it there's nobody out there today doing what you're doing or used to be doing?

A - Well, the closest would be Ani Di Franco, who's very, very popular. She plays very big venues and sells a great many CDs. She writes her own style of course, but she writes very trenchant, politically strong songs. So I would point to her.

Q - You were interested in theatre and music as a boy.

A - Yeah.

Q - After college, you joined the service.

A - One had little choice.

Q - Because of the draft?

A - Yeah.

Q - I was going to ask what was the thinking behind that.

A - (laughs) There was no thinking. One joined because one had to join. By joining I had somewhat of a choice what I did in the Army, but without the draft you wouldn't have caught me within a hundred yards of an Army base.

Q - Did you learn anything in the service that you carried with you over the years?

A - Yes. I learned how to thrust with a bayonet, to kill you with a bayonet. I learned that. I learned how to fire a weapon. I already knew how to march. I was in a high school band. So it was just something we all had to get through or not get through. Not everybody went in you know, but I didn't have that choice. I had to go. I wasn't in long. I was only in for 6 months of active duty and then 103 years of the Reserves, I think. I think I'm still in the Reserves. Anytime there's an emergency, I expect a call and they'll say "Alright, we're calling up the 74 year olds now. C'mon!"

Q - After that 6 month period, did you ever get called?

A - No.

Q - Since you recorded for Elektra Records, would you have crossed paths with Jim Morrison?

A - Never met him. He was California. I was New York.

Q - But you did have The Doors' engineer / producer work with you, Paul Rothchild.

A - Yeah. He produce my first three albums. And then he got involved with The Doors, Clear Light and some other groups. He turned me over to his assistant, Peter Siegel, who was wonderful and Paul had been commuting. He pretty much moved everything out to the West Coast for himself and worked on the Rock. He produced Janis Joplin's last album with "Me And Bobby McGee" on it.

Q - Paul Rothchild must have been a fascinating guy to work with.

A - He was a fascinating guy to work with. I loved working with him. He knew music and he knew the studios and he was excited about recording. In those days you edited as you went, literally cutting and pasting tape. So, it was an exciting process. Mind you, it was like my first studio album, so it was really exciting for me.

Q - Did you ever march with Dr. King?

A - I didn't march, but I was on a couple of peace rallies with him, one up at the UN (United Nations).

Q - He was speaking and you were playing your music.

A - Yeah, just did a song or two. I forget exactly what.

Q - You did get to meet Dr. King, didn't you?

A - I just got to shake hands with him, that's all. It's not as if I met him, really. I was just another guy with a guitar, shaking his hand. That's all.

Q - How long did it take you to write "Bottle Of Wine"?

A - Well, I wrote it in two pieces. I wrote the melody first, which is unusual for me. It really came out of a couple of weeks at The Gaslight when John Hurt was playing on the bill with us and I got to hear him three or four times. I love his kind of Ragtimey, syncopated ticking. I always had loved Ragtime music, but there was a guy playing it on the guitar. I just loved it. After that experience I found the melody on the guitar, playing in the key of A, although I eventually moved it to the key of C, keeping the A sharps and the capo on the third verse. And so, I had that melody. I don't think I had the verse melody. I had the chorus. Every time I would take the guitar out of the case, the first thing I would do would be to play that damn melody. It was like a for a couple of months that I didn't write my words. And then finally my wife and I got to L.A. We'd driven across the country in our brand new, used VW Beetle. I was playing at a place called The Ash Grove. This was November of '63. I remember it because we were in this motel room when we got a call saying "Turn on the TV. The President's been shot." So we were there at The Ash Grove, playing for two weeks and I finally sat down and wrote the words. I wrote the words in twenty or thirty minutes. It didn't take long once I sat down and started. It all came out pretty quickly.

Q - Do you remember a TV show called Then Came Bronson in 1970, starring Michael Parks?

A - Oh, yeah. I never saw that show, but my Mom would write me letters saying they had some of my songs on there.

Q - That's right.

A - I know they used "I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound". I don't know what else. See, I was too young to realize what a big deal that was. "I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound" is on Johnny Cash's last album.

Q - You're saying you were too busy to sit down and watch it.

A - Yeah. I never saw the show.

Q - That's too bad. It wasn't on for that long.

A - I think just a season or two.

Q - You also wrote that song, "My Dog's Bigger Than Your Dog".

A - Yeah. (laughs)

Q - You would sing that as part of your performance?

A - Sure.

Q - It was probably just something to get the audience laughing.

A - Yeah. Sure.

Q - You probably never expected a dog company like Ken-L-Ration to come along.

A - No. That came right out of the blue. That was fun.

Q - That commercial probably made you more money than your concerts.

A - No. It actually made me almost no money at all.

Q - How can that be?

A - Well, things were different in those days. They weren't paying huge fees. And we were too naive to negotiate a big fee. But what I did get from it was enough money to buy some furniture for our first apartment, so I can't complain.

Q - How I remember that song!

A - Most people do. It really grabbed 'em.

Q - It was one of those songs that was tailor-made for Ken-L-Ration's product.

A - It was. I wish they'd bring it back. We'd charge 'em a lot more this time. (laughs)

Q - Maybe we'll spark their interest in this interview.

A - OK. From your lips to God's ears is all I can say.

Q - When you were playing in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, that was a very special place, wasn't it?

A - It really was. There's no getting around it. It was a very special place. It was the end of the Beat Generation where the poets would read poems in the coffee houses. People came streaming down to the Village. Tourists came down because the poets could drop the F bomb in their poems and everyone thought that was really daring. They started using folksingers in between poets and the thing that happened that they hadn't foreseen was the folksingers became a bigger draw than the poets. I got there in 1960, just about the time of the changing of the guard there. So I was there really at the beginning of Folk music in Greenwich Village.

Q - When you were actually there at the time, did you realize how special it was?

A - No.

Q - You were just doing your thing.

A - Doing my thing and hoping to get steady work. That's kind of the way everybody felt. Nobody knew this thing was going to be as big as it got. Nobody knew that.

Q - How long of a career did you think you'd have?

A - I refused to think in those terms. If I had thought in those terms, I would've said 5 years, tops! (laughs) And then I'll have to go to work. But what I hoped to do was to keep doing it. I couldn't foresee 50 years. It's been 51 years now. It'll be 52 years. I could never have foreseen that. It was out of the question.

Q - You didn't play Woodstock in 1969, did you?

A - I didn't play Woodstock in '69. Instead I played the Isle Of Wight in England, which turned out to be a much better deal for me anyhow 'cause I got a terrific response from them.

Q - Do you recall if you were asked to play Woodstock?

A - I don't honestly think I was even asked. I don't remember the conversations I had with whoever my agent was then, but I wasn't asked and I don't mind.

Q - Do you remember hearing anything about Woodstock?

A - Oh, yeah. I knew it was gonna be enormous. It had to be. Look at all the groups they had. But I don't do well in mud. I'm not a mud(er). When I looked at the movie, which was a lot of fun, I enjoyed the music a lot, but I also have been through too many of these things not to notice how uncomfortable it was.

Q - You're a creature of comfort.

A - I like my comfort, yeah. I was in the Boy Scouts. I was in the Army. I know from sleeping in the mud and I had enough of it.

Q - I don't blame you.

A - (laughs)

Q - You're still touring, but are you still recording? Do you have your own label? Do you sell your material online?

A - Yeah. I own or co-own most of my masters, but I don't put 'em out on Pax Records. The last couple have been on Apple Seed. We work out a lease deal. I own my own work, but I don't demand a hundred per cent of every dollar because that would mean I would have to do the business and I'm not a good businessman. I don't want to do that.

Q - I think the nice thing about being an artist is you'll always be remembered. Most people will be remembered by their friends and family. An artist will leave recorded material and songs that can be re-recorded.

A - Well, I hope so. There's no guarantees of that.

Q - You're right. But it's almost like an artist lives forever. And that's the nice thing about being an artist.

A - Well, the songs might live. Something tells me I won't. And you know, everything's OK that way. I love having to been able to write these songs and I love being able to write the songs I have yet to write, please God. It's really important to me. But enough already with the immortality or anything like that. You know, 10 years after I die, no one will remember my name and that's OK. If they like the songs and they sing the songs and they say "who wrote this?" and someone says "who cares?", that's OK.

Q - But people will care. An artist, through his material, seems to live on forever.

A - Well, that's a pleasant thought.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.