Tom Paxton (born Thomas Richard Paxton on 31st October 1937) is an American folk singer-songwriter whose songs include modern standards such as ‘The Last Thing on My Mind’. He was born in Chicago, Illinois, the youngest child of Burton and Esther Paxton. Burton’s ill health caused the Paxton family to move to Wickenburg, Arizona, where Tom began riding horses at the numerous dude ranches in the area, and where he was first introduced to folk music, discovering the music of Burl Ives and others. In 1948 they moved to Bristow, Oklahoma; Tom grew to adulthood there and to this day considers it home. He attended the University of Oklahoma, majoring in drama; he also discovered the music of Woody Guthrie and The Weavers at this time. “Woody was fearless,” Tom would later say. “He’d take on any issue that got him stirred up … and he became one of my greatest influences.”
Tom briefly joined the US Army as a Reserve, and was sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey. Here he was required to learn to type, but it being the Army, it didn’t matter that he could already type. So for two hours a day, four days a week, recruit Paxton ‘learned’ to type. It was during these hours that his keys tapped out the lyrics to ‘The Marvellous Toy’. After his discharge, Tom moved to New York and became absorbed into the folk music scene, especially Greenwich Village and the coffee house circuit. His associates in the Village were people like Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk and Paul Stookey (of Peter, Paul and Mary) – Paul and Tom shared an apartment at one time – plus of course Bob Dylan. Tom once listed his influences as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bob Gibson (who subsequently produced many of his albums), Burl Ives, Tom Lehrer and Mississippi John Hurt.
His early success in Greenwich Village coffee houses led to an ever-increasing circle of work. He teamed up with Gil Robbins (the actor Tim Robbins’ father) as a duo. They released a single, ‘Teen Angel’/‘Strange Rain’, in 1961 (see below). Tom made his solo professional debut at the Gaslight, the renowned folk haunt where his first album was recorded live in 1962; Gaslight Records pressed 2,000 copies of I’m The Man That Built The Bridges (now available as a CD and download). Tom also auditioned to join the Chad Mitchell Trio, but although he failed, the group enjoyed a 1963 hit with ‘The Marvelous Toy’. He performed at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival (introduced by Pete Seeger), singing ‘The Willing Conscript’, recorded and released by Vanguard Records. Tom would go on to record songs with Vanguard at the Newport Folk Festival the following year. However, his association with Vanguard lapsed, and it would not be until 2000 that it released Tom Paxton: Best of the Vanguard Years.
In 1964 Tom Paxton was signed to Elektra Records for whom he recorded his best-known work. His definitive debut album was Ramblin’ Boy. In 1965 he made his first tour of the United Kingdom – the beginning of a still-thriving professional relationship and important fan base.
Following his final album with Elektra in 1970 – the live The Compleat Tom Paxton – Tom’s records were released on numerous different labels including Reprise, Flying Fish, Cherry Lane, Mountain Railroad and for a time his own PAX Records label. Latterly his material has been released on Appleseed as well as other labels (see below).
Tom’s many biting and humorous satirical songs such as ‘Forest Lawn’ were highly influenced by his affection for the music of Tom Lehrer. He once sent Lehrer a copy of his 1980 album One Million Laywers & Other Disasters with a note saying, “You have a lot to answer for”.
In addition to song-writing, Tom has written many critically acclaimed children’s books, some of which were inspired by his songs for children.
He married Midge (Margaret Ann Cummings, born 23rd February 1945) in 1963 and they have two daughters, Jennifer and Kate. All three women have served as inspiration for many of Tom’s songs. He has three grandsons: Christopher, Sean and Peter. Sadly, Midge died, aged 69, on 1st June 2014. All Tom’s love songs were composed for her.
Tom Paxton has performed thousands of concerts around the world. His songs have experienced enduring appeal, including modern standards such as ‘The Last Thing on My Mind’ (perhaps his best-known song; it has been recorded and performed by dozens of artists, including Judy Collins, Peter, Paul & Mary, Sandy Denny, Phil Everly, Dolly Parton, Jose Feliciano and Porter Wagoner), ‘Ramblin’ Boy’, ‘Bottle of Wine’, ‘Whose Garden Was This’, ‘The Marvelous Toy’ and ‘The Hostage’ (which recounts the 1971 uprising at Attica State Prison).
In February 2002, Tom Paxton was honoured with the ASCAP Lifetime Achievement Award in Folk Music. A few days later, he received three Wammies (Washington, DC, Area Music Awards): Best Male Vocalist in the “Traditional Folk” and “Children’s Music” categories, and for Best Traditional Folk Recording of the Year for Under American Skies (the album he made with Anne Hills in 2001). Rather surprisingly, this is the first Paxton album to receive an award of any kind.
Tom Paxton has been nominated four times for Grammy Awards in his career, all since 2002.
In 2004, the Martin Guitar Company introduced the HD-40LSH Tom Paxton Signature Edition acoustic guitar in his honour. In 2005, Tom received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting at BBC Radio 2’s Folk Awards at London’s Brewery Arts Centre. In 2006, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance. On 22nd January 2007, Tom was honoured with an official UK Parliamentary tribute at the British House of Commons at the start of his 2007 United Kingdom tour. On 3rd May 2008, he received a special lifetime tribute from the World Folk Music Association, and a concert was held at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall & Arts Center at Northern Virginia Community College, Alexandria, Virginia.
In the January 2015 edition of his Tomfoolery newsletter (subscribe to the mailing list on Tom’s official site) Tom Paxton announced his plans to quit touring at the end of 2015. Later, during a performance on radio on 19th March 2015 (Radio Heartland; Minneapolis, Minnesota public radio) Tom explained when asked if this could be the final tour: “It is, it is. I’m going to quit touring in November. By that I mean I will go from home to point A and do something, but then I’ll come right home from there; I’m not going on to point B, C and D the way I’ve been doing for 55 years. Enough of that, I’m so tired of – I mean, yesterday I was in three airports and on two flights. I’m too old for that crap, I’m just worn out from travelling. Not from performing! Do that at the drop of a hat. But the travel is just too much.” That means we will occasionally still get to see Tom in concert!
Jason Wang’s The Tom Paxton Setlist Archive (It is excellent, check it out!!! Jason has been invaluable to us, contributing many live sets and info – plus pointing out errors we’d overlooked. Thanks a million, Jason! )
In August 2014 Tom started a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to produce his latest album of brand-new songs, Redemption Road, released 10 March 2015. Even though the campaign has obviously been closed now and the album is out, it is still interesting to view Tom’s uploads of early versions of some of the songs. Check it out!