The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Tom Paxton

Paxton wrote this in 1960 while in the Army at Fort Dix, New Jersey. He was required to take a typing course, even though he could type. "You cannot learn to type a second time," he recalls, "your brain won't stand for it. But it was two hours a day, four days a week, so I was typing anything I could instead of the exercises. I typed the words to 'The Marvelous Toy.' A peculiar act of rebellion."

Indeed. This is among Paxton's best-known songs, another that many assume is traditional. It is also a Morrow children's book.

Scott Alarik, from the liner notes to I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound, Rhino Records, 1999 [Accessed January 3, 2002]

The complete notes follow

Tom Paxton:
I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound: The Elektra Years

Artist's Note

I knew in 1964 that Elektra Records was the perfect label for me--they were recording such artists as Judy Collins, Bob Gibson, Phil Ochs, and Tom Rush. I longed to join their company. Finally my manager, Harold Leventhal, convinced Jac Holzman to let me audition for him. I sang four or five songs in his home office while he listened expressionlessly, looking at the wall and out the window but never at me. When I finished he said, "Well, we'll try one three-hour session and see how it goes. If it goes OK, we'll sign a contract." It must have gone alright, because we went on to do seven albums together.


What does it feel like to revisit these songs now? Surprisingly good. I can't help but notice the innocence of the earliest songs and my growing need to dig a little deeper as the '60s wore on. It's clear that my influences were people like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, The Weavers, Tom Lehrer, contemporaries like Dylan, Ochs, et al., and later, Jacques Brel. Blessed with such mentors and colleagues, and with such a rich tradition to point the way, I couldn't go entirely wrong. All I can say to them now is: Thank you for the honor of your company.

--Tom Paxton
June 1998

Tom Paxton: The Elektra Years

A folk songwriter lives by standards other than those of artists working in Tin Pan Alley or down Nashville's Music Row. But by any standards, Tom Paxton must be considered among the most successful songwriters of the last 50 years. His songs, which have sold in the millions, have been recorded by folksingers Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, John Denver, Judy Collins, The Weavers, Pete Seeger, Nanci Griffith, Arlo Guthrie, The Kingston Trio, and countless others. Country singers have recorded his plain-spun, smart, and timeless songs, among them Chet Atkins, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson. Acts from as far afield as The Pogues, Mel Tormť, Mary Hopkin, Jose Feliciano, Neil Diamond, Placido Domingo, and Tiny Tim have all recorded Tom Paxton songs.

By the peculiar, nonindustry standards of folk music, it can be argued that Tom Paxton is the most successful songwriter to emerge from the folk revival of the 1960s. Since Woody Guthrie, no songscribe has written so much material that has truly entered the American tradition--been taken into the lives of average people and sung around dinner tables and campfires, on school busses, and at workplaces. As Nanci Griffith said, "He has such an amazing ability to write these classic songs that sound like nobody wrote 'em."

[In describing Tom Paxtonís influence on his fellow musicians, Pete Seeger has said: "Tomís songs have a way of sneaking up on you. You find yourself humming them, whistling them, and singing a verse to a friend. Like the songs of Woody Guthrie, they're becoming part of America." Pete goes on: "In a small village near Calcutta, in 1998, a villager who could not speak English sang me What Did You Learn In School Today in Bengali! Tom Paxtonís songs are reaching around the world more than he is, or any of us could have realized. Keep on, Tom!"]

["Every folk singer I know has either sung a Tom Paxton song, is singing a Tom Paxton song or will soon sing a Tom Paxton song. Now either all the folk singers are wrong, or Tom Paxton is one hell of a songwriter." (Holly Near)

This collection represents Paxton's most commercially visible period, from 1964-71, charting his career from scruffy, salad days to the gravy times of international stardom. Most of his best-known songs were created during this time, his fires stoked by the fabled magic of the Greenwich Village folk scene and banked by the nurturing ways of Jac Holzman's Elektra Records.

But Paxton has been a continually productive artist for more than 38 years. As of this writing, he has released 34 albums, written 15 books, and remained, unlike so many of his '60s contemporaries, constantly in demand as a live performer. Though proudly a product of those times, he has never been prisoner to them. At 62 he is regarded by the young generation flocking to the new songwriter movement as both icon and fellow traveler, hero and peer.

Part of the difficulty in exploring the genius of the man is that Paxton is not one, but three of the finest living folk songwriters. His love ballads, all in one way or another inspired by Midge, his wife of 36 years, run the gamut of romantic experience, from longing to loss to the deeper experience of sustaining love over the course of a lifetime.

He is also considered by many the finest political songwriter of his generation, a fiery progressive who uses his wit with deadly accuracy to deflate the pompous and afflict the powerful. His serious political songs, like his love songs, aim squarely at the human heart of topical issues.

Beginning with "The Marvelous Toy" and "Goin' To The Zoo," Paxton has, moreover, been among our most popular writers of children's songs and a leader in the burgeoning family-music market. He has an entirely separate career writing kids' books, including a successful series setting Aesop's Fables to verse, and is constantly in demand for family concerts.

Asked why so many of his songs have entered the tradition, where those of his more famous contemporaries did not, Paxton says, "They were plain songs. 'I Can't Help But Wonder,' 'Ramblin' Boy,' very plain. 'The Last Thing On My Mind,' a very simple song. My style's always been plain; I'm a solid guitarist, but not a complex one. So, my flip answer has always been that if I could sing 'em, anybody could sing 'em. But that's what I like about folk music. That's what drew me to it."

Paxton was born October 31, 1937, in Chicago, but his family moved to Oklahoma when he was ten. He remembers always liking the folk-sounding songs on the radio, such as "Riders In The Sky" and "Mule Train." When he heard Burl Ives, he felt the old songs taking him over.

"Folk music to me was a connection to the collective mythology," he explains. "It had a resonance that seemed to carry the experience of generations and generations before. These are songs that felt to me as if they'd been around a long time and been sung in unimaginably different settings. And yet the songs were like living momentos of that time--they weren't necessarily historically accurate, but they presented how the people felt about the times in which they lived."

Then he heard the work of Woody Guthrie, songs written in that idiom but about much more recent experiences. He could look out his window and see the same Oklahoma roads Guthrie had been walkin' down feelin' bad. And the burning populism in them resonated with Paxton's growing feeling that there was a big gap between the American ideals he had been taught to cherish and the America in which he was growing up.

Ultimately, though, it was the album of The Weavers' historic 1955 Carnegie Hall concert that would change his life forever. Though young Tom did not know at first that the concert was in itself a protest against the anti-Communist hysteria of the day (The Weavers were blacklisted at the time), he heard rebellion coursing through even the most tender of love songs. Though still planning to study drama at college, his path was, in fact, charted and set.

"Something in the spirit of that album said there are bullies in this world, and they won't go away until we stand up to them," Paxton recalls. "And yet that album was so musical. Folk music had a dimension that pop didn't have, some true salt to it."

He sang folk songs at Drama Club shows at the University of Oklahoma, and wrote his first song (which he proudly counts "one of the three or four worst songs ever written in the English language") while trying not to listen to a lecture on Shakespeare. Always he was learning folk songs, more than 200 by the time he graduated in 1959.

Apart from the easy fodder it provided for protest songs, one of the United States army's most generous contributions to the '60s folk revival was its 1960 decision to station Reservist Tom Paxton at New Rochelle, New York, and later, Fort Dix, New Jersey. He spent all his weekends at Greenwich Village folk haunts and was soon swapping sets with the likes of Dave Van Ronk, Len Chandler, and Noel Paul Stookey.

"In those days sets were short and frequent," Paxton says. "You'd have maybe five people on the bill at a place like The Gaslight [and The Bitter End]. At the time, the crowds of tourists were enormous, and one of the things they were coming for was to hear beat poets say the f-word. So folksingers would alternate sets with poets, and gradually the folksingers began to predominate. I was unbelievably lucky to be there when I was. Bob Dylan showed up in '61, Phil Ochs in '62, Eric Andersen in '63. We had a lot of fun. We were rivals, you know, but rivals for excellence."

It was a time of influences, when songwriters were absorbing styles and songs from everywhere. Paxton, who was singing almost entirely American folk songs, was known for his huge repertoire, audience-friendly stage ways, and, increasingly, his own arrestingly simple songs.

After finishing active duty, Paxton settled in the Village and was soon among its most popular performers. It was a time of attitude, and with his inviting stagecraft and knack for funny songs, he was often teased by his peers, who were increasingly affecting the carefully disheveled, artfully diffident air of the '60s troubadour. [He auditioned for a slot in The Chad Mitchell Trio, which didn't pan out. But the Trio's musical director, Milt Okun, encouraged Paxton to keep writing.]

[As Paxton recalled a few years later, "I was meeting all kinds of people: Ed McCurdy, Dave Van Ronk (we swapped Best-Man chores), Len Chandler, Bob Dylan, Paul Stookey --I learned something from every one of them. I absorbed everything I could, and it began to show in my writing. Van Ronk really turned me on to field recordings, the real sources, and it's there you got to go if you want to learn it right."]

That audience consciousness informed his writing as well. His simple, timeless melodies accompanied smart, but never obscure, lyrics. The rivers of folk tradition flowed gracefully through his inviting songs. Increasingly, other singers were recording them, but, apart from a little record for the Gaslight folk club, Paxton himself was unrecorded.

In 1964 Jac Holzman of Elektra Records had Paxton audition for him in his living room. He offered Paxton what he said was the standard deal of a three-hour recording session. If Elektra liked the results, they would sign him to a three-record deal. If not, he could keep the tapes. Between then and the release of his Elektra debut, Ramblin' Boy, later that same year, two remarkable things happened. First, Paxton wrote "The Last Thing On My Mind," perhaps his best-loved song [recorded by Peter, Paul & Mary in the early 1960s; in 1973, Neil Diamond recorded a version that peaked at #56]. Second, in a stirring full circle, The Weavers performed Paxton's "Ramblin' Boy" on their 1963 Carnegie Hall reunion concert album. The whole folk world wanted to hear this young man of whom The Weavers' Pete Seeger had spoken so highly.

[Then in 1965 he made his first tour of the United Kingdom -- the beginning of a still-thriving professional relationship that has included at least one tour in each of the succeeding years. Due to his success in Great Britain, he moved his family to England for a few years, returning to the United States in 1972.]

Paxton sees his first three Elektra albums as more or less covering the same period of flowering and discovery. His political writing grew in focus and effectiveness, railing against white racists in the South and, for perhaps the first time in song, holding President Lyndon Johnson personally accountable for the escalating war in Vietnam. His love songs also grew up with him, from the seduction of "My Lady's A Wild, Flying Dove" to the commitment of "One Time And One Time Only."

With his third album, Outward Bound, his writing grew dramatically in maturity and vision. While others were still shouting about Vietnam, he wrote the softly devastating "My Son, John" about the cold walls this ugly war was erecting in the American family. As always, Paxton drew upon everything swirling around him while writing as simply and honestly as possible about, as he dubbed his fifth Elektra album, The Things I Notice Now.

"Once I got to the point where I could write in a folk style, but in my own voice, I began to find my way," he says. "The great lesson I was beginning to learn was: get off the soapbox and draw a picture. The point of view is all in the picture; you don't have to tell anyone what to think or feel about the picture. How well you draw it will determine how powerful the work of art will be."

His later Elektra records were informed by the growing popularity of rock: "The scene was changing in that The Beatles had come, and there was a large rush for the doors as folksingers joined groups like The Byrds. Suddenly rock had grown up. Overnight it had become something a serious, young musician could get into, and there were obvious rewards for doing it. And some of them were artistic."

His song arrangements became more elaborate, which Paxton admitted made Elektra happy. But he stressed that the executives at the label never pressured him to conform to the pop market. He remembers a marketing person at the company once beginning a sentence with, "Now that you're a rock singer . . ." But when he said, "No, I'm not. Even if I wanna be, I'm not"--that was the end of it.

Also seeping into Paxton's writing and performance at this time was his knowledge of theater. Influenced by European cabaret legend Jacques Brel, whom Paxton saw at his last American concert, he sought to bring dramatic and emotional pacing to his work. He began penning powerful tours de force such as "Jimmy Newman," "Clarissa Jones," and "Now That I've Taken My Life"--as well as such hilarious songs as "Forest Lawn" and "Talking Vietnam Potluck Blues."

All along, his vision was broadening. While other folk songwriters grew increasingly introspective and obscure, Paxton was writing the brilliant real-life freeze-frames "Victoria Dines Alone" and "Cindy's Cryin'," as well as universal philosophies such as "Outward Bound" and such children's classics as the mystically fanciful "Jennifer's Rabbit." In those increasingly pretentious times Paxton was too often dismissed precisely because his songs, however deep and urgent, remained accessible and emotionally articulate.

[Paxton has continued to write satiric topical material over the years, from "I'm Changing My Name to Chrysler" (an attack on the government bailout of the auto giant) to "Little Bitty Gun," which mocked Nancy Reagan. But his songs can also be scathingly serious, such as his account of "The Death of Stephen Biko," and romantically touching, such as "The Last Thing on My Mind."]

[He has performed thousands of concerts around the world in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Hong Kong, Scandinavia, France, Italy, Belgium, Holland, England, Scotland, Ireland and Canada. That these fans still enjoy his work is a testament to the quality of his recent work, and to the enduring power of modern standards like The Last Thing On My Mind, Rambliní Boy, Bottle Of Wine [a Top 10 hit by the Fireballs in 1969], Whose Garden Was This?, Goiní To The Zoo and The Marvelous Toy.]

Paxton's reward for this faithfulness to the truest folk aesthetics has come in quieter ways. As the high-beams of the folk revival faded, many of his more successful '60s contemporaries remained land-locked in that era. But Paxton easily swam to other ports of call, establishing beachheads in the burgeoning children's music market, both as songwriter and author, and consistently releasing albums with respected folk-based independent labels, including his own Pax Records and his current label, Sugar Hill. In a world in which many hitmakers shy of their 30th birthday see their careers dumped into oldies bins, Paxton has enjoyed more than a 35-year career of continuous productivity and popularity. His fans come to his shows not merely to relive past glories--though Paxton, unlike many of his peers, has never grown surly about singing his classics. They perceive him as they always have--a gifted, witty, and provocative troubadour of the times; a wise, tenderhearted lover and a furious foe of rascals in high places; a kind and brilliant man who wears his heart on his songs and means every word he says.

Scott Alarik, liner notes to I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound, Rhino Records, 1999 [Accessed January 3, 2002]

Other biographical material on Tom Paxton from:


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