In a career spanning more than half a century, GRAMMY®-winning folk legend Tom Paxton has composed a veritable goldmine of American music. Instilled with an activist’s passion and a storyteller’s finesse, his songs—which have been covered by the likes of Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, and Willie Nelson—resonate with melodies as endearing as nursery rhymes and narratives affirming an intimate conscience.
With his latest album, Boat in the Water, Paxton, 79, continues to articulate his craft in such inimitably empathetic ways.
Can you sense how your songwriting has evolved over the years?
Well, that’s an interesting question. I’ve always likened myself to a farmer with a field, and each year he plants a crop in that field and with luck harvests it in the fall. In my case, I plant different crops but it’s in the same field and it’s the same farmer. So I don’t find that I write different songs from the ones I wrote at the age of twenty-five, but I hope that now and then I write a song that I was not capable of writing at the age of twenty-five. But they’re not that different. They’re still the same sound to them, people tell me.
The writer is the last one to be able to identify his own songs, but they tell me that a song can be recognized as being likely from me. I accept that’s true because I can certainly identify a song as probably written by Dylan or probably written by Leonard Cohen. There’s a style, there’s a sense to it. So, I don’t think I write differently—it’s the same brain, the same right hand—but perhaps there might be a depth to the songs now that there wasn’t then. I don’t know. I certainly don’t try to write differently than I wrote [back then]. I don’t know what that would sound like.
When you’re writing a song, do you have any audience in mind?
Oh, sure. Without being able to put a face to it, it’s the same group of people I’ve sung to for fifty-six years. They’re good people and we see a lot of things through the same lenses, and it’s really primarily for myself as a singer that I write the songs. But it’s also [for] the people that have been with me for years and years and years that I write. If not for them I might just keep it to myself and say, “I don’t have to write it. I already know that.” It is for the people who come to my shows that I write the songs.
Is it disillusioning if the audience doesn’t quote, unquote “get it”?
No, it does not. I feel like I’m responsible for what I do and what I release and I’m not responsible for how it’s received or poorly received. And so, I don’t worry about that. I just worry about getting it right for myself, to make sure it’s clear and musical and I hope entertaining, but at least engrossing; that people know that it’s sincere, that it’s a deliberate work of art. It’s not the work of a dilettante. It’s the work of someone who’s been doing it a long time and cares very much about doing it well.
You are revisiting some of your older songs on Boat in the Water. What was the reason behind that? What did you think you could bring to them at this stage in your life that maybe you didn’t the first time around?
Well, part of it was a conversation I had with producer, Cathy Fink, who’s an old, old friend. She said, “I’d like to hear these songs again.” She’d been listening to a bunch of my old records and she said, “You know, that song ‘Life’ is a wonderful song and I’d like to hear it again. Let’s put it on here.” I said, “Sure.” And I did the same thing with “Evry Time,” [which] is a song I think I wrote in 1962. It’s certainly one of the oldest recordable songs that I have, and I’ve sung it in a lot of soundchecks and a lot of dressing rooms. So I said, “Let’s take another shot at this one.”
Did it resonate any different with you?
Oh, I love the song. To me the song is really an evocation of my early love for the songs that Burl Ives used to sing. He used to sing lots of songs that did not have a steady beat to them, a lot of the old Appalachian songs that he used to sing. It was just kind of my homage to that kind of song and I’ve always loved it. It’s just a very simple song. It only has two verses to it, but it seems like a complete song to me.
In light of some of the songs you write that are critical of certain social or political ills, how do you manage to salvage the compassion and sense of grace and beauty that comes through in some of the other songs you write?
That’s not too difficult, actually. Each song is its own message. Each song has its own parameters. I don’t bring a political sense to a personal song. I also write songs that I hope will amuse a seven-year-old child. You bring the tools to the project that the project requires. And if you’re writing a song to amuse a seven-year-old boy, you include irreverence and a sense of fun, a sense of the ridiculous. You don’t bring a sharply tuned social mind whereas, if you’re writing a song satirizing a president who is an egregious liar, you don’t bring the same vocabulary that you use with the seven-year-old boy’s song. You bring a different vocabulary, a different sensibility. They’re all different songs and I tend to take them as the ideas come to me. The idea will come to me of something ridiculous and fun and rather innocent and I’ll go ahead and write that song and hope that it finds that seven-year-old boy or girl and amuses them. If I’m satirizing the president, I’ll use a different box of tools. Each song has its own perfection that you strive for.
So, writing a song in which you would satirize the president or critique certain social ills doesn’t compromise the compassion that is required to write the other songs?
No, I never write a song that denies the other songs I write. There’s no underlying similarity. I mean, they all come from the same fella, and I’m not going to write a song that directly contradicts any other song I’ve written. There’s got to be a consistency. Even if I’m writing a funny song for kids, I’m not going to say something in that song that I don’t believe.
Is songwriting a discipline that you return to all the time? Are you always receptive to new ideas?
Yeah, I find the ideas come pretty regularly. There’s a kind of a receptive frame of mind that I seem to be a little more able to slip into now than maybe I used to be. I know that working with [co-songwriters] Jon Vezner and Don Henry is good for me. We just finished four dates out in the West and shortly before those dates I heard a melody from Jon. I said, “Give me a tape of that.” And I turned it into a song which we put in the shows out in California and it really went down beautifully. And while we were sitting in a dressing room in Berkeley, he was doodling around on the ukulele and he struck a chord and I said, “Whoa, what was that?” He played it again, and I sang a silly little phrase that is turning into a delightful little ukulele song. I’m always on the lookout, so to speak.
Do you ever fear giving too much of yourself away in what you write?
Oh, no. No, I don’t feel that at all. I do write personally but it’s usually not as Tom Paxton. I use the first-person singular a lot because it’s more suitable for songs, I think, to be personal like that. But it’s very seldom that it’s Tom Paxton who’s being personal. It is the narrator in the song who’s sharing, but of course it’s always the writer who is easily identifiable. But I think I just kind of shrink from making Tom Paxton the subject of Tom Paxton’s song. It seems to me to be such an egotistical thing to do. I just thought of a way of putting it: I’m a ham, but I’m not a show-off.