In 1955, a young drama student from the University of Oklahoma named Tom Paxton was in the audience for a Weavers concert at Carnegie Hall. It changed his life.
Hearing Pete Seeger’s band made Paxton want to play folk music. “I was somebody who loved it. I was somebody who had to do it,” he said. “I felt that I could do it.” More than six decades later, Paxton is still playing folk music.
“It’s all their fault,” he joked from a phone in his Alexandria, VA home.
“I got a chance to thank (The Weavers) personally for ruining my life.” With more than 50 albums, numerous Grammy nominations, five “Lifetime Achievement” awards, hundreds of tours home and abroad and a Martin guitar named after him, Paxton’s life has been remarkable.
On Friday he joins pals Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer at Hannah Community Center in East Lansing to kick off the Mid-Winter Singing and Folk Festival. “I’m looking forward to playing with them,” Paxton said. “I always do. You can’t go wrong with those two.”
The joy of performing with Fink and Marxer—and in a group called The Don Juans—encouraged Paxton, 80, to keep touring. Three or four years ago he thought about quitting. “That lasted about 10 to 15 minutes,” Paxton said. He quickly decided to “postpone my retirement while I’m having this much fun.”
He never chose a folkie career for wealth.
“Anyone who thinks you’re going to make money in folk songs—give me five minutes with them,” Paxton said. “You can’t get rich—but you can make a living.”
Part of his folk revenue has come from famous artists who covered Paxton songs. They include A-listers like Judy Collins, Joan Baez, John Denver, Peter, Paul and Mary, Willie Nelson, Harry Belafonte, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner and The Weavers. “Neil Diamond did a wonderful version of ‘The Last Thing on my Mind’,” Paxton said. “I wanted to tell him, ‘Don’t stop there!’ ”
In 1970, Paxton played “Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song” in a bar in New York. “Bob Dylan said, ‘I like that song. I want to do it.’ Four years later, he did,” Paxton said. “I’m glad I didn’t hold my breath.”
Of those who recorded his songs, Dylan was one of the bigger thrills. So were Seeger and Johnny Cash. When others sing his songs, “It’s usually someone I know,” Paxton said. He has met most of the artists that have covered his music.
The guitarist has no objections about performing his most familiar tunes like “Bottle of Wine,” “Ramblin’ Boy,” and “Whose Garden Was This.” “I enjoy doing those songs,” he said. “I’m really lucky that way.”
Part of Paxton’s appeal has been humanistic and peaceful messages. His activism began with 1960s Civil Rights marches. “In the Trump era, I feel it’s important to be honest myself,” Paxton said. “I get up in the morning and aspire to be decent.”
For the East Lansing show, he said to expect “some of the old, some written in the last couple of years.” Referencing Michael Wolff ’s recent book, Paxton promised, “there might be a little fire and fury!
“I still love to write. I’m the same guy who wrote ‘Ramblin’ Boy’,” he said. “I plow the same fields and come up with the same crop.” That process includes many missteps.
“I estimate 10 songs to get a keeper,” Paxton said.
“I’m like Charlie Brown and Lucy holding the football, hoping that this time, maybe I’ll kick it,” he said. With a chuckle, Paxton added: “My average is better than Charlie Brown’s.”