Folk legend Tom Paxton fights injustice through song

Thursday, April 6, 2000

From left, John...
From left, John Seigenthaler, Tom Paxton and Ken Paulson.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Folk music resonates with Tom Paxton and allows him to express himself on important political and social events, the singer-songwriter said yesterday afternoon at the First Amendment Center’s continuing First Amendment in Concert series.

“I always loved folk songs,” he said. “They seem to have a life of their own — another layer.”

That layer, the folk music legend said, often conveys important political and social messages.

Paxton, who took an active role in the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s, said he acquired an early distaste for injustice. “I was a sensitive, overweight kid in Chicago and I got picked on a lot because I was overweight,” he said.

“Because of this I hated injustice and I hated bullies,” he told the audience of about 65 people. “From this experience I developed a sense of right and wrong. I hate to see wrong done, especially wrongs done to people that are powerless.”

Paxton talked about and played some of his political songs, including “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation” and “The Death of Stephen Biko.”

“I felt betrayed by Lyndon Johnson,” Paxton said. “He said all the right things in 1964 about staying out of the Vietnam conflict.”

When asked about the Biko tragedy by First Amendment Center founder and program co-host John Seigenthaler, Paxton said: “Biko’s death struck a chord in me.”

After reading an op-ed article about how the South African civil rights leader who actively opposed apartheid died in detention in 1977, Paxton said he “felt such outrage that it compelled me to write a song.”

Tom Paxton...
Tom Paxton

Paxton has written songs about many social and political controversies, including the song “Johnny Got a Gun,” which tackles the subject of kids and guns. “I wrote the song before the tragedies in Paducah and Columbine, but the message stays true,” he said.

Paxton does not shy away from current events, including the controversy in Columbia, S.C., where the Confederate flag still flies over the state Capitol. Paxton sang that “it’s time to haul it down.”

When asked by First Amendment Center executive director and program co-host Ken Paulson about what topics inspire him to write a song, Paxton noted that “you never know which idea will come up.”

For instance, Paxton said that he had never written about the bombing in Oklahoma City even though he grew up and attended high school in the state. He also said that he had never been able to write about abortion. “I get tongue-tied in the pen when it comes that topic,” he said.

Paxton says he is hopeful that the youth of today will take a more active role in speaking out on the important issues of their time. “I am hopeful. I am seeing more and more young people coming to folk concerts and to issue-oriented events,” he said.

“We are producing, for the time being, a new generation of students who are willing to think different thoughts,” he said. “The songwriters are a bit behind the curve, but they will catch up.”

When asked by Paulson whether any of his songs had changed history, Paxton modestly said no. “Songs don’t change history, people do,” he said.

The exception, Paxton said, was the song that became the mantra of the civil rights movement — “We Shall Overcome.”

The song, which was originally a church hymn titled “I Will Overcome,” was changed to “We Shall Overcome” by Pete Seeger and others at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., Paxton said.

“It is hard for me to imagine a successful civil rights movement without that song because it had such unifying power,” he said.

The only other song with that type of unifying power is “Blowing in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, Paxton said.

When asked about current popular music, Paxton noted that in order to obtain commercial acceptance, much of contemporary music must address romance and have a good dance beat.

Paxton said there were some songwriters of the present generation who will come around and address injustices, much as he, Seeger and others did.

“You have to remember that everything we did and said we did in the context of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War,” he said. “Those social and political crises pulled us together.”

Paxton said he never runs out of political and social crises to address in his music.

When asked about his place in the context of the current climate of music as a huge commercial business, Paxton quipped: “I’m never going to give Tim McGraw a sleepless night.”

However, Paxton did — as Seigenthaler predicted in his introduction — “entertain and enlighten.”