Tom Paxton Ramblin' Boy 36:090:00/36:09
Season 1 episode 7 transcription
That clip was taken from a documentary made in the early 60s about the Gaslight Cafe, but this was true of several venues throughout Greenwich Village in that era. If you happened to be at the Cafe Wa in January of 1961 where Fred Neil was holding court…
You might not have even noticed the scruffy kid who wandered in that night fresh from a long car ride from Minnesota. 3 months later, you may have caught is New York debut at Gerdes Folk City opening for John Lee Hooker.
Or maybe it was a young Odetta at the Village Gate
Judy Collins at Cafe au go go
Was that you in line at the gaslight where Dave Van Ronk was the MC
Or were you upstairs at the Kettle Of Fish where the likes of Phil Ochs, Alan Ginsburg or Bob Dylan might be playing poker, discussing politics or philosophy, working on a lyric or a line, or just resting between one of the 6 or 7, 3 song sets they performed that night. In an interview I did with Tom Paxton in 2007, I asked him to reminisce a bit about that time…
When you think about it, those three song sets, there would be about seven or eight of us on the bill. And every time you did a set, it was a perfect lesson. You learned how to start a show, what to do next and how to get out of there.
Beginning, middle end, really
begin middle end, right? In a nutshell about six or seven times a night. Of course the, the other blessing of that was hearing all your colleagues. Several times a night. I mean, there were some good people playing in there.
Was it equally intimidating as it was inspiring or was it always inspiring or always intimidating?
I think it was mainly inspiring. Um, you know, somebody would come in and do an absolute drop dead song. Uh, instrumentally vocally something, and you really had two choices, you know, you could either say, well, that's it. I'll never… Or you could say, I gotta raise my game. Yeah. I gotta raise my game.
It didn’t last long, but an exciting community of performers emerged from this scene, singing songs on every imaginable topic—from love songs to songs ripped from the morning headlines…
Here’s Tom Paxton again from that 2007 interview…
We were political. Phil was much more political than I was. I mean, his show was like 80%, political songs. And I, I was all over the map My idols were always the weavers, you know, the range of their repertoire was, was enormous. I mean, they would sing Hush Little Baby, Don’t Say A Word and follow that with a song from the Spanish civil war, and that, to me, was the ideal. The whole range of experience could be Sung.
Tom Paxton was born in Chicago on Halloween night of 1937. He was 10 when the family moved to a small town in Oklahoma. His father died of a cerebral stroke just 3 months after the move. As a boy, Tom played trumpet, attended Boy Scout and church camps, pretty much the normal life of a boy in the early 1950s. It was at boy Scout camp where he first was introduced to the ukulele. That held his musical attention until his aunt gave him a guitar at the age of 16. He admits to having an odd attraction to folk songs—even before he knew what they were. He would learn the songs Burl Ives would sing. He was an average teen—he listen to the popular music of the time, attended military school in New Mexico, and studied acting at the University of Oklahoma in 1955. It was there that a recording by the weavers altered his course.
That track changed my life. I mean that and everything on the rest of that Weavers at Carnegie Hall album, for me, the best single folk music album of the revival. A friend of mine played it for me, Johnny Horton—not, not the country singer, but my friend Johnny, played that LP for me. And I had a chance to tell each one of the, the Weavers that, by the time it finished side two, I had undergone a chromosomal rearrangement— from someone who loved this stuff ,to someone who had absolutely had to try it.
Tom was in the army reserves and had to do 6 months of active duty. That’s what brought him closer to New York City and the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s. He would stay in the Village on his weekends away from Fort Dix, New Jersey. It turned out to be a pretty good place to both learn to write and get a folk performer’s education. It’s where he was able to practice those three song sets. Tom would tell you that he had really two epiphanies in his early career. One was that first listening session with the Weavers Live at Carnegie Hall and the other was some words from Milt Okun. Milt was the musical director for the Chad Mitchell trio as well as Peter Paul & Mary & John Denver and the future publisher who started Cherry Lane Music. After auditioning for and rehearsing with the Chad Mitchell trio, it was determined that Tom’s voice just didn’t match the other singers. After Okun gave him the bad news about the trio, he told Tom that the trio was planning on recording Tom’s song, The Marvelous Toy. He also wanted to publish it. And he encouraged Tom to keep writing his own material because he saw great potential there. Epiphany number 2. Tom Paxton was a songwriter.
That recording of the Marvelous Toy was taken from Tom Paxton’s first recording, I’m the Man That Built the Bridges a live concert from the Gaslight Cafe recorded and released in 1962, but it’s his first major label recording, 2 years later, that will be the focus of this episode No Root No Fruit.
The songwriters that came out of the Village folk scene are often referred to as “Woody’s Children.” If you think of Pete Seeger as Woody’s younger brother, here’s what Uncle Pete had to say about those writers back in the early 60s:
It makes me very happy that a whole batch of young people have come along now and picked up this idea. And they've learned from Woody Guthrie learned his songs and his, his approach. See, he wasn't trying to write flashy songs or something that would hit you over the head. They often snuck up on you.
It'd be deceptively simple. The first time you'd hear it. You'd think. Well, that's just a common, ordinary little thing, but after a couple years of singing it, you realize the song's grown on you and become part of your life.
Established 1950, Elektra Records was Known for their folk and ethnic recordings. Judy Collins, Josh White, Theodore Bikel, Bob Gibson, the Limelighters, were all Elektra artists. In 1964, the company established themselves as a label courageous enough to debut two writers of topical songs—Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton. Ochs, who Tom already mentioned was more overtly political in his writing, released All the News That’s Fit to Sing, And Paxton released Ramblin Boy. This collection of 15 original songs lives up to Tom’s goal of being all over the map like his idols, the Weavers. Ramblin Boy is a mix of topical songs, love songs, and satirical songs artfully programmed to give you a sense that this was an artist that would be around for a while. In fact, 4 of the songs on Ramblin’ Boy have absolutely stood the test of time. I will save those for later.
The album opens with Job Of Work: a song that makes a plea for just the chance to earn an honest living…
A Rumblin’ In This Land addresses the unrest in the country at the time over Civil Rights, Unemployment, and the rise of white supremacy. Sound familiar?
Woody Guthrie was the master of writing songs about current issues but through the eyes of the people affected by those issues. That’s exactly what Tom does in When Morning Breaks. The persona is a young man waiting to get his marching orders to Viet Nam.
Here’s Tom, in his twenties, from that same documentary about the Gaslight Cafe—this time on the subject of one of his other heroes, Woody Guthrie…
My chief influence has obviously been Woody Guthrie. When I was relying more on traditional material, when I didn't have enough of my own songs to rely solely on them, I found myself inevitably singing Guthrie songs. I found them to be, uh, not only do audiences love them, but they're so they're so clean and clear, cut and straightforward.
I've tried at at different times to be Woody Guthrie as, as, uh, so many of us have. I found that, that trying to speak through somebody else's lips is, is not the answer. You have to say it yourself in your own way.
One of Tom’s ways is satire. He was good at 58 years ago…
And he’s good at it now…
That song, When the Big Bad Books Go Boo, was from a recording he made with Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer just a few months ago.
Side one of Tom Paxton’s Ramblin’ Boy closes with Harper, a song that would fit snuggly with a tragic ballad of 200 years ago, and Fare Thee Well Cisco—a tribute to a fine singer of folk songs and one of Woody Guthrie’s closest pals, Cisco Huston
On side two, Tom writes topical songs about automation replacing workers, the need to organize the coal mines of Kentucky, and as he did so often throughout his entire career, a love song to Midge…
Tom married Margaret Anne Cummings, better known as Midge Paxton in 1963 and stayed married until her death after a long illness in 2014. In those 51 years he wrote countless songs for her, their two daughters and his grandchildren. My Lady’s A Wild Flying Dove was just the beginning.
So let’s talk about those songs on Ramblin’ Boy that have stood the test of time. First of all, there’s the title track which closes out the record.
This tale of loyalty and friendship continues to be sung the world over on record, as well as around campfires. When Pete Seeger learned it, sang it with the Weavers, and then taught it to the world, the songwriter, Tom Paxton became known everywhere.
To have the weavers sing Ramblin’ Boy at the Carnegie Hall reunion concert—I mean, this is, this is bliss. This is a ringing confirmation that you're in the right moj. You know, you made the right career choice.
Tom has been writing songs for kids from the very beginning. My Dog’s Bigger Than Your Dog from the Gaslight concert recording was used for an early Ken l ration dog food commercial. Here’s how it sounded at the Gaslight…
And here’s how it became a 1960s ear worm…
I’m sure that helped Tom and Midge pay a few Greenwich Village rents. The Children’s song on Ramblin Boy is Goin’ To the Zoo. It’s still being sung and recorded over fifty years later. Even Tom admits in the liner notes that this is right out of the Woody Guthrie playbook…
This song has been recorded on dozens and dozens of children’s records including Raffi, Sharon Lois & Bram, and Peter Paul & Mary…
One definition of a folk song is a song that’s still sung long after we remember who wrote it. That’s when a song slips into the tradition. I wonder sometimes what modern songs have that potential. Tom’s Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound could very well be one of those songs. It’s got what it takes: a universal theme and a singable and memorable chorus that’s easy to learn…
According to Tom, songs come a little easier when you’re younger. He remembered it this way in our 2007 conversation…
I did no rewriting on Ramblin’ Boy or the Last Thing On My Mind, or Can’t Help But wonder, you know, Bottle of Wine. That's a first draft,. But as time goes by, the need to rewrite be becomes more and more apparent. We ignore that urge, uh, at our peril I think.
There is no rewriting needed on perhaps Tom’s most enduring classic, The Last Thing On My Mind. It really is a perfect song.
This one hasn’t been recorded dozens of times, it’s more like hundreds, and in just about every imaginable style, from country to Regge. As you hear the following mash up, listen for the voices of Johnny Cash, Freddie McGregor, The Womenfolk, and, the biggest seller of the song, Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton…
I guess a perfect song cannot be destroyed, even when it becomes a square dance tune …
This is a song that continues to evoke longing and heartbreak well into the 21st century and will most likely continue to spread its beauty for many years to come. At a recent Tom Paxton concert, I noticed that he sang at least two, not just good, but great songs from 7 different decades. I can’t think of another songwriter who could that. He continues to learn the craft, co-writing with a variety of songwriters from many generations. He is kind and generous with his knowledge and his friendship, and he is the reason I discovered folk music to begin with. The release of Ramblin’ Boy in 1964 was the beginning of an almost unprecedented career, writing and playing songs for folks all over the world.
My guest this episode is Wanda Fisher. What Wanda has done for the last 44 years is absolutely vital to the survival of folk, roots, and Americana music…she is a folk dj on a public radio station. For the last 40 of those years it’s as host of Hudson River Sampler heard Saturday nights at 8 on Albany New York’s WAMC. Wanda was inducted into the International Folk Alliance DJ Hall Of Fame in 2019 at their conference in Montreal. She is also a published writer with a wonderful novel out called Empty Seats. She discovered Tom Paxton’s Ramblin’ Boy long before she knew she would be playing it on the radio one day. She was just a teenager.
It was, uh, 1964 and I was, well, let's see, I was just about 16, maybe 15, because I turned 16 late in the year. I had heard Tom Paxton on a radio program that was hosted by Robert Jay lurtzema, who was a classical DJ, mostly in Boston, on WCRB. He had a program on Friday nights called Folk City USA . And he played several songs by Tom Paxton. And of course I took notes then, and I said, I have to get that record. Well, how are you gonna get it? babysitting. So I saved up my babysitting money, and I went to this small record store that was in Quincy Square in Massachusetts. I had to order it because they didn't have a folk section.
Tom Paxton's songs told stories, they were short little vignette type stories. The Last Thing On My Mind told me a story. The High Sheriff of Hazard told a story and that rang a bell with me because of the fact that I spent summers—three or four weeks every summer in the south. My father was a union person and he always talked about how terrible it was that people would bust up unions.
And The High Sheriff of Hazard talked about busting up unions in the coal mines.
So I started putting things together and Tom was very political with this, album. And I hadn't really heard a lot of political music at the time. And I was kind of political at the time as well, listening to civil rights stories. I had been very punched in the face by the Emmett till story. And I was so upset watching that funeral a few years before, and then along comes Tom Paxon and he talks about what did you learn in school today? There's a line that keeps coming up when I hear things like George Floyd. I learned that the government never lies.
I learned that policemen are, you know, are my friends. I learned that justice seldom ends, you know, and, and he just made this whole list, and he made it in Rhyme. I was like, wait a minute, this hits home with me.
Tom hit so many bells with me on this album and I played it over and over and over again. And finally, my mother said, here's $6. Buy yourself another record. I can't remember what the second record was. I think it was probably Phil Ochs, but, you know, she said, go find yourself another record because I'm sick of listening to this one. So that is basically why this album was the foundation for me. Tom was really one of my heroes and he, he remains so today.
There are several things that I think have allowed him to endure. One of which was his late wife, Midge, who kept him going quite well. The other thing is that he cannot not be involved in the political scene. He's somebody who always cut articles out of the newspaper and let those things inspire his writing.
His guitar case always used to have little newspaper clippings in it. And then he started getting into collaborating with a lot of younger people. You know, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, John Vezner and Don Henry now who keep him going quite a bit. And then I see he's got this new album with Buffalo Rose, an EP—young people from Pittsburgh.
He gets energy from young people and the young people get energy from him. It's a symbiotic relationship. He looks at the world and he's like, yeah, the world is still beautiful even though,Whose Garden Was This, you know, even though the climate is changing and something needs to be done about it, look at all these beautiful young people who are making music. Let's make some music together. When my sister was ill and dying of leukemia, I asked him to write her a note in the hospital and he did. That's just who he is and that's on this first record and it's on the last CD that he did. And every time I see something new from him, I just get all energized because I know that there's going to be new material and it's going, some of it is going to be like, you know, driving in Virginia and how beautiful it is. And some of it's going to be about what's happening in Washington. I know that from the first penny that I earned babysitting to buy this album, to the next thing that's coming in my mail at the radio station that has Tom Paxton on it, I can rely on Tom to surprise me, but also to energize me just the way he, same way that he does with young people that he works with to write songs.
My thanks to Wanda Fisher for sharing her passion for Tom Paxton and his debut, major label recording, Ramblin’ Boy. I think we’ll end this episode with an observation Pete Seeger made over 50 years ago…
As Woody once said, I'd like to be remembered as the man who told you something you already knew. I get a little bit of that feeling from some of Tom Paxton songs, Rambling Boy—It’s hard to tell where the individual author begins and where the old tradition leaves off. They're all intermingled.