Five years ago, I wrote a piece about Tom Paxton for the Huffington Post. No particular reason. He wasn't in the news. Honestly, I'd rather listen to Tom Paxton than write about him, but anything Tom Paxton is okay by me. My timing was pretty good, since two years later, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Grammys.
A three-time Grammy nominee (on top of that), Tom Paxton is the only singer-songwriter I've ever seen who keeps writing new songs so wonderful - for over 50 years, still going strong - that you almost don't want him to use up time in concert singing his many classics. And his classics are not only many, but well-known and beloved.
There's a current events point to this. Hold on.
Before getting to that point, it's worth noting that you probably are one of those who love Tom Paxton, too, whether or not you know it. He has a line in concerts about chatting with him during intermission. "All I ask is that you don't say, 'Hi, Tom, love your songs, learned them at camp.'" Indeed, if you went to camp - or simply had a childhood - you likely sang his songs: "Ramblin' Boy," "Who's Garden Was This?", "The Marvelous Toy" ("It went 'zip' when it moved and 'bop' when it stopped, And 'whirr' when it stood still. I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will.")...and on and on. Even if you don't recognize the titles, as soon as they start to play, you know them. And sing along.
(Side note: Name other performers who mingle with the audience during intermission.)
Okay, now we can get to the point.
On Paxton's home page is a link to one of what he calls his "short shelf-life songs." These are songs that come from the news that he writes quickly, performs in his shows until they're out of date and then just pops in a new one. (See what I mean about him writing new songs relentlessly?) The one that's posted at the moment is a rewrite of his classic, "I Am Changing My Name to Chrysler," about the bailout but with new words on the current financial assistance program, and it's quite wonderful. Several rhymes are absolutely tremendous and worth discovering fresh, but here's is just a highlight.
Everybody and his uncle is in debt,
And the bankers and the brokers are upset.
Goldman Sachs’s, Merrill Lynch’s
Saw themselves as lead-pipe cinches,
Now they’ve landed in the biggest screw-up yet.
That's pure Paxton. To hear the entire song, it's available for free download or streaming, by clicking on his website.
In fact, Paxton has a link to several of these "short shelf-life songs." Since he rarely records them for CDs, he puts them on his website for free. As he says, "Most don't deserve a long shelf-life," but the ones on former Attorney General John Ashcroft and "In Florida" (about the 2000 vote count) are a hoot. "The Bravest" is a gorgeous, heart-wrenching Paxton gem about 9/11, and - contrary to Paxton's own acknowledgement - will easily out-live "short shelf-life" status. Click here to listen online or download.
But good, fun and even moving as these are, they don't do justice to Tom Paxton. He's been here for the long haul.
It's easy to pick out his classics. Just get his catalogue and throw a dart. You stand a good chance of hitting one. But the joy with Paxton has been hearing his new songs that seem to pop out of him like muffins from Betty Crocker.
The thing about Tom Paxton is not just the massive volume of great songs, but the variety - from these comic satires on current events to social protest ("That's What I Learned in School Today" and "Jimmy Newman" ) to comic riots ("Forest Lawn" and "Not Tonight, Marie" - the world's first true love song, as he puts it) to achingly beautiful love songs ("The Last Thing on My Mind" and "My Lady's a Wild, Flying Dove") to beloved children songs ("Goin' to the Zoo" and "Jennifer's Rabbit") and traditional folk ("Bottle of Wine" and "I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound"). It goes on unendingly.
With Tom Paxton, it's not that he's so good at his famous songs (which are many), but even at his lesser, almost-unknown songs (which are voluminous). "My Favorite Spring" is a perfect example. It's a blip in his collected works, yet the song is terrific. It starts out hopeful, turns deeply sad and winds up so jubilant you want to burst. With an infectious tune, all it does in 3:48 is explain the joy of life through passing one's own dreams to a child to carry on with their own dreams.
But that's what Tom Paxton does in his songs: hone in on life without an ounce of pretension. All done with a profound decency even when furiously angry or heartbroken. All done with a pure, sweet, infectious voice that envelopes the listener. All done with intelligence and wit, and with a sense of childlike wonder combined with sage observation. (That's a tough trick. Most people don't even try, and those that do try tend to hurt themselves.) Since his work covers a panorama of subjects and genres, you get a pretty good outlook on life when it's all put together.
Of course, even that outlook gets a Paxtonian twist. Before performing a song on vegetarianism, he notes that his philosophy of life can be summed up by the phrase, "Excuse me, but are you going to be finishing your ribs?" The chorus of the song then ends -
Oh, no, don't slay that potato,
What never done nothing to you!
That's Tom Paxton, looking out for the little man, even if it's a potato.
Tom Paxton is a national treasure. He's been one for 50 years. And he's still going strong.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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