Tom Paxton

Wednesday, November 29, 2000

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded Nov. 29, 2000, in New York.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about the First Amendment, the arts, and America. I’m Ken Paulson, the executive director of the First Amendment Center. Joining us today is one of this country’s most successful singer/songwriters, a man whose music is both topical and timeless, Tom Paxton. Welcome, Tom.

Tom Paxton: Thanks, Ken.

Paulson: Great to have you here.

Paxton: Thank you.

Paulson: You don’t hear that about a lot of people anymore, being, being called topical singer/songwriters.

Paxton: No, they figured out a long time ago that there was absolutely no money in it. And I’m still trying to learn that lesson. I tell people that I — that they can make tens of dollars writing songs like this. And obviously, it’s not the only kind of song I write, but I believe in writing these kinds of songs. I tell my songwriting students that they should write the kinds of songs they like to hear. And then they’re more surely going to be writing their best songs. And, for me, the songs that I loved to hear when I was a young artist were the folk songs and the songs of people like Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie and the Weavers, songs that didn’t just tell a story but had a point of view about the human condition.

Paulson: You walked in with Phil Ochs and others. You walked into an environment in Greenwich Village.

Paxton: Yeah, I was actually, like, the first of them.

Paulson: Yeah.

Paxton: And I had no idea of that then, but Dave Van Ronk pointed out to me recently that I was the first one to be actually writing songs a lot since Woody. And, of course, it was Woody who inspired me.

Paulson: Right.

Paxton: You can really argue that without Woody, none of us would be doing what we do. Without Woody and Pete, surely none of us would be doing —

Paulson: Given your Oklahoma roots, did you — were you exposed to a lot of Woody Guthrie?

Paxton: Well, no. Actually, I grew up in a town called Bristow, which was 26 miles, I think, from Okemah, Woody’s birthplace. But I knew nothing of Woody Guthrie until I went to school, to O.U. I — we did know “So Long (‘s been good to know you),” because that had been a pop hit song with different lyrics that I think Woody wrote in order to make it more popular. But I didn’t know of Woody Guthrie until one day at — in a record store, there was this folk music thing, Woody Guthrie. And I thought — in those days, you could go and listen to it in a booth. So, I listened to a little of Woody’s album, California to the New York Island. And I thought, “What, this guy can’t sing at all. This is terrible.” Because I was used to hearing trained voices like Burl Ives. You know, I really liked Burl Ives’ singing, beautiful singing. And here was this rough kind of flat hillbilly kind of voice. And I think I said, “This is not very good.” But then, you know, I began to listen to the songs. And then I began to listen to the voice. And I began to hear the man. And so it was not a long transition to becoming a real Woody Guthrie fan. Of course, I — so I began learning Woody Guthrie’s songs, you know, like, “So Long (‘s been good to know you),” and “Pastures of Plenty,” and “This Land Is Your Land,” so many that were a part of my repertoire, my active repertoire for a long, long time.

Paulson: And, and you basically led the way in the Village.

Paxton: Well —

Paulson: And these other people walked in the door?

Paxton: I don’t think of myself as a leader. I just think I was just chronologically first. That’s all.

Paulson: Given your first impression of Woody Guthrie’s voice, what was your first impression when Bob Dylan stepped to the mike?

Paxton: Oh, well, by then, by then my ears were better. You know, my ears were better by then. One night in Greenwich Village, there’s a — there used to be a club called Gerde’s Folk City. So, one night, Dave Van Ronk and I — apparently, we had already done our three songs apiece. And we were sitting there drinking beer, and this scruffy kid in a black corduroy cap — what they called a Huck Finn cap — and a, and a harmonica rack and a — I think a Gibson guitar got up and sang three Woody Guthrie songs. And both Dave and I, who were not easy, said, “Yeah, not bad. Ooh, this guy’s all right.” So, in next to no time, Bob Dylan was the most talked about, argued about artist in the Village. I mean, they were accusing him of being a Woody Guthrie clone, which was nonsense. He didn’t sound like Woody Guthrie. Jack Elliot, in his early days, sounded much more like Woody than Bob ever did. But Bob had a tremendous repertoire of Woody Guthrie songs. He knew Woody Guthrie songs no one else knew. And perhaps Woody didn’t write ‘em. Perhaps Bob did, but who knows?

Paulson: Turned out to be a pretty fair writer. Do you recall your reaction to Dylan’s first compositions?

Paxton: Oh, yeah. I liked his writing right from the beginning. And I have to tell you about one night. The Gaslight Cafe, where most of us worked, was on MacDougal Street. And it was down about eight steps. It was a cellar. It was a coffee house, no booze. And I — it was not a large place at all. Upstairs, on the first floor, in the back, there was a, a little apartment that the Gaslight rented or owned or something, just kind of a storage room. And we set up a table in there. We had this penny-ante poker game that was continuous. And my roommate at the time was a guy named Hugh Romney, who became, later, widely known in — as Wavy Gravy. And he was a poet, a beat poet. And he had this portable typewriter, or what we would call now a laptop typewriter, that he had left in this room for general use. And so, one night, I came in early for work, and Bob was in there tap, tap, tapping and had just finished this long poem. And he said, “What do you think of this?” So, I looked at this thing, and I said, “Well, this, you know, wild imagery, you know, what are you going to do with it?” And he said, “Well, I, I, I — .” I said, “Are you gonna, you know, put music to it?” He said, “What? You think I should?” I says, “Yeah, I mean, ’cause otherwise it’s just something to go in some literary quarterly or something, but this way, you know, you’ll have a song out of it.” So, the next night — Bob never worked at the Gaslight, but he was there a lot and would get up late at night and, and do a set. And he got up, and he sang this new song called “It’s a Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” And nowadays, when I hear him sing it, and it gets into, like, what seems like the 20th minute, I think, “Did I make the right decision in advising this?” No, I’m just kidding. It’s a great, a great song. It’s a —

Paulson: To what extent did the political climate of the ’60s drive your music?

Paxton: Oh, greatly. Another, another thing that I hear from, from young writers now — and they’re right — is that they say there’s nothing to write about. Of course, they’re, they’re wrong, but what they mean, in essence, is, there’s nothing huge to write about such as we had. I mean, in one decade, we had a huge social movement, the civil rights movement, which transformed the face of this country. I graduated from a segregated school system. I — and it didn’t occur to us that there was anything wrong. It was — I mean, I look back in absolute amazement. I remember seeing “whites only” signs and all that. And I guess I was brought up properly, because as soon as it — as I became aware of that, I said, “Well, that’s wrong. That is wrong.” And it’s, it’s a short step from thinking that something’s wrong, there’s a better way of doing it, to accepting a role in that movement.

Paulson: It strikes me that something that does not exist today and probably existed then is when you sat down to write a song, you hoped others would record it. You’d hope — you hoped audiences would enjoy it.

Paxton: Yeah.

Paulson: But I have to believe you also hoped that maybe you might make a difference with that song.

Paxton: No question about it. I think it’s, it’s, I think it’s a big leap from thinking that you might make a difference to thinking that you do make a difference, however. I think grandiosity is a — it’s a short step to thinking that you’re a, that you’re a leader instead of a member. I don’t have any idea whether our songs — whether our songs helped change the world. Although, I suspect that “Blowing in the Wind” had a great effect. And the — you can’t imagine the civil rights movement without “We Shall Overcome,” which was partially written by Pete Seeger and Guy Carawan. They adapted an old hymn. It went “I shall overcome,” ahh, “I will overcome.” But you’re certainly — I think writing songs like those songs — it wasn’t so much that you thought you were gonna have a tremendous effect as it was the urge to get into the conversation, to, to say something, to speak up. Some people write letters to the editor. And we would write songs and put ‘em in Broadside magazine.

Paulson: Right.

Paxton: You know?

Paulson: That was a really extraordinary publication.

Paxton: Oh, yeah.

Paulson: There’s nothing like it on the planet.

Paxton: No, and you know what? They’ve now brought out this wonderful five-CD boxed set based on the old Broadside recordings. And, I mean, they’re old recordings, and some of them we made in the living room of the founders of the magazine on very cheap recorders.

Paulson: But for those who aren’t familiar with the magazine, it was basically sheets of paper with new songs.

Paxton: Yeah, it was mimeographed. It was mimeographed. And it came out monthly or twice monthly. And they were all new political songs. That’s — “Blowing in the Wind” appeared in Broadside magazine for the first time it appeared anywhere. And now they’ve brought out this wonderful boxed set. And I’ve thought — you know, with the Internet now and with musical notation software that is so fast, that it — maybe it’s time for someone else — not me — but someone else to start it up again, you know, to publish more songs like these. Because there is no place for songs like these except in the conversation. They’re part of the conversation. They’re not marketable songs. I mean, I would think that of all the songs that ever appeared in Broadside that “Blowing in the Wind” is the only song with real commercial value to it, that actually made money. Another thing I tell my students is, “Don’t be afraid to write songs that’ll never make you a dime. Don’t be afraid to do that. Let those songs come out. Let ‘em come out. Sing ‘em if you like ‘em,” you know? If you, if you really devote yourself to the craft and — dare I say it — to the art, you know, to the calling of writing songs and think of it as more than a business, you’ll be amazed at some of the things you’ll write. You know, if you don’t feel that everything you write must be commercially viable — although it never hurts. I mean, I’ve — I have a lot of friends in Nashville who are, you know, very successful commercial writers. And they write a lot of great songs, and we have great conversations. And they have a knack that I don’t think I have. You know, I — it’s a moot point where if, you know — if I had moved to Nashville and dedicated myself to writing commercial songs, would I have succeeded? I have no idea.

Paulson: I have to believe that after the ’60s, if that drove much of your writing, that there had to be a period where you weren’t quite sure what direction to go with your career. And, I think the audience changed, and —

Paxton: Yeah, it did. I just kept going, kept working, kept writing songs. I know that the end of that period or, to be more specific, the end of the war in Vietnam was exhilarating, and then — for Phil, for Phil Ochs — it was — he did feel lost. Because of all of us, Phil was easily the most political, the most radical animal of our crowd. And it was like a huge enemy had just disappeared. And I think it left him feeling at loose ends, wondering what to do. I didn’t wonder so much, Ken. To tell you the truth, I had a family. You know, we had kids. I had bills. I kept working. I worked everywhere. I had a good career going for myself in Great Britain and Europe a little bit. I did tours there every year that were very successful. So, I kept, I kept goin’. And then, of course, when we got Ronald Reagan, the game was afoot again. I — I’ve often said, half jokingly, you know, if Phil just could have lasted until Ronald Reagan became president, that would have done it. He’d be with us still, you know. Of course, that is to underestimate the, the power of a thing like depression. But, when Reagan came along, there was many more songs to write.

Paulson: So, are some presidents more inspirational for you than others?

Paxton: You mean, was Ronald Reagan more inspirational than Jerry Ford? Yes, yes.

Paulson: Did you ever write a Jerry Ford song?

Paxton: I don’t think so. I don’t think so.

Paulson: Let’s talk a little bit about kids, given your own writing about — writing songs for kids. Much of the censorship battles today have to do with protecting young people. Congress gathers together and —

Paxton: Sure.

Paulson: — and they have hearings about violent media. They — there are any number of city councils in this country trying to ban Eminem and Marilyn Manson from auditoriums because they say they’re a bad influence on young people. And the Internet is an extraordinary place, but also is a place where pornography can pop up at the end of any search. What’s your take, as a father and as somebody who’s written about — written for children, about popular culture and kids, and where does censorship and guidance fall into that?

Paxton: If when I was a kid, all of that was available, it would have made growing up well a lot more difficult, a lot more difficult. I know that if my friends and I had had access to the kinds of video games now, where, you know — with heads flying off, our reaction would have been, “Yeah!”, so I can understand the power of these things. I mean, the graphics and everything and the sound. It’s very, very difficult for a kid to resist that kind of stimulation. That’s very stimulating. So, I don’t have the answer, except that I know the answer lies within the relationship of adults to children, you know, guidance. I don’t think we can, I don’t think we can come in and censor stuff. I don’t think that’s the answer. Because the stuff is gonna be there, you know, whether you have to sneak to get it or walk in to get it, it’s gonna be there. And if people have not been guided by responsible, loving parents and, and mentors, then they’ll go find that stuff. If they’ve — if they’re presented with a different world view, different picture, different example is the main thing, they’re more likely to be armed against it.

Paulson: Does the spirit of what you wrote in the ‘60s continue in any form today with younger artists? Are you — do you hear folk singers out there who sort of resonate with the same kind of spirit?

Paxton: Oh, absolutely. Ani DiFranco — I mean, Ani is a very committed, activist kind of artist. I mean, her art is confrontational with, with the, the society that — parts of society with which she’s in disagreement. She’s in your face with it and brilliantly. And yeah, there are other people writing topical songs, not as many as I would like to see. But then, you know, I’m who I am. So I mean, I can’t impose my own world view on things. But, as I said earlier, I think it would — if we had, if we had the medium, if we had another Broadside, in some form, where songs could be printed and recorded and heard that would address issues, I think you’d see a tremendous outpouring. Because, for one thing, the number of young people writing songs is a trillion times what it was when I was a kid. I mean, people didn’t write songs very much. I mean, only professional songwriters wrote songs. And then, of course, rock ‘n’ roll changed that.

Paulson: What about what is arguably the most political music today, rap? What’s your take on rap?

Paxton: Well, rap is, rap is what we used to call “talkin’ blues.” I mean, the original, the oldest talkin’ blues in country music is this: [Plays and sings] Let’s see. “I was down in the henhouse on my knees. / Thought I heard a chicken sneeze. / Wasn’t nothing but the rooster sayin’ his prayers / and thankin’ the Lord for the hens upstairs.” It goes on from there. And then Woody Guthrie wrote a lot of talkin’ blues, and then Bob Dylan — Dylan wrote a lot of talkin’ blues. And the talkin’ blues is nothing but poetry or verse, doggerel, set to an accompaniment. I have, — I’ve written many, many talkin’ blues over the years, including one that I wrote back in the Vietnam War, about all the pot that was being smoked in Vietnam. It was very popular for a while. But that’s a talkin’ blues form. And rap, to me, is a very urban development of this same idea of verse recited rhythmically, which, I’m sure, is the way The Iliad was first recited, rhythmically. And, of course, they have added all kinds of techno-pop effects to it, very effectively, too. I mean, they’re very good at that kind of thing. And, yes, it is political. It is political, and it addresses issues that are of importance to its audience. I don’t think it’s getting much outside its audience, but then, neither did we, you know. I don’t — once again, it comes back to how much effect do you have really? But while I really respect the idea of rap, what I don’t like is, is — I don’t like the sexism. I don’t like the misogyny in it. I don’t like the violence. That ain’t funny. And it’s a, it’s a horrible example. I mean, this, this young, this young basketball player who brought out this rap thing is sending a terrible message, I think. So it’s — I mean, art can be misused.

Paulson: Thank you for the conversation, and thank you for the concert.

Paxton: Pleasure being with you.

Paulson: Our guest today has been Tom Paxton. I’m Ken Paulson, back next week with another conversation about the First Amendment, the arts, and America. Hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”

Paxton: [Plays and sings] “It’s a lesson too late for the learnin’ / made of sand, made of sand. / In the wink of an eye, my soul is turnin’ / in your hand, in your hand. / Are you goin’ away with no word of farewell? / Will there be not a trace left behind? / Oh, I could have loved you better, / didn’t mean to be unkind. / You know that was the last thing on my mind. / You’ve got reasons a-plenty for goin’. / This I know. / This I know. / For the weeds have been steadily growin’. / Please don’t go. / Please don’t go. / Are you goin’ away with no word of farewell? / Will there be not a trace left behind? / I could have loved you better, / didn’t mean to be unkind. / You know that was the last thing on my mind. / As we walk, all my thoughts keep a-tumblin’ / round and round, round and round. / Underneath our feet, the subway rumblin’, / underground, underground. / Are you goin’ away with no word of farewell? / Will there be not a trace left behind? / I could have loved you better, / didn’t mean to be unkind. / You know that was the last thing on my mind. / Without you, without you. / Each song in my grasp dies a-borning / Without you, without you. / Are you goin’ away with no word of farewell? / Will there be not a trace left behind? / I could’ve loved you better, / didn’t mean to be unkind. / You know that was the last thing on my mind. / That was ? the last thing on my mind.”

Paulson: Thank you.

Paxton: You’re welcome.