A Few Minutes With… Tom Paxton

February 24th, 2015, 4:00 pm by Greg

Interview and story by Don Wilcock

In his more than half century as a singer-songwriter, Tom Paxton has never landed a single on the charts, and yet his song “The Last Thing on My Mind” was covered by dozens of artists from Pat Boone to Neil Diamond. Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton went to No. 6 on the country charts with their version. It was one of hundreds of songs Paxton wrote and performed as one of the avatars of the folk revival in Greenwich Village in the early ’60s. And chances are that he’ll sing it again at The Egg on Friday night (February 27) when he makes a stop on what he’s calling his farewell tour.

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Like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in The Wind,” the lyrics of Paxton’s signature song touched a chord in a generation of folk music fans with its line: “Well I could have loved you better, I don’t mean to be unkind, you know, that was the last thing on my mind.” Unlike Dylan, Paxton did not evolve into rock, but he set the precedent for Dylan’s original compositions at a time when their contemporaries were looking strictly in the rear view mirror for traditional folk material.

“Everybody sang folk songs in 1960, including me,” recalls the 77-year-old Paxton about his early days in the Village. “I was just beginning to write songs, and my repertoire was mostly traditional songs, Weavers songs, Pete Seeger songs, Ewan MacColl, Woody Guthrie and good old anonymous. Gradually, as songs I wrote found their way into the repertoire by the end of the ’60s, I was doing only my own songs, but it took that long really. For me (the change) was very gradual and very natural. It wasn’t until I had more than enough of my own songs that were of a quality that I just stopped doing anything else except on rare occasions because I felt my role had become a songwriter in the folk vein.”

“’The Last Thing on My Mind’ was one of those songs so many songwriters tell me come to them completely whole out of the blue,” he explains. “When I’m teaching songwriting I love to stress rewriting and tell the story about a guy who is working in his flower garden, and he senses he’s being watched. He looks over his shoulder, and the new pastor in the church is leaning on the wall looking into the garden and just shaking his head in admiration saying, “Isn’t it wonderful what God can do?” And the guy in the garden says, “Yeah, well you should have seen the place when God had it.”

“So what I tell these writers is, yes, you get this inspiration, this flush of creativity, and you get it all down, and you say that had to be from God. And then you say, ‘Hey, if it’s from God, I’d better not mess with it.’ And that’s the big mistake. Yeah, you get these things and you get ’em down on paper, but then you need to switch a little over to the editorial brain and say, ‘Well, this is wonderful, but it’s not done.’”

Of course, Paxton had no idea he’d created a classic in “The Last Thing on My Mind.” “No, no! I had no idea, no. I’d written a good song, but I thought ‘Leavin’ London’ was a better song than it’s proven to be, a song worthy of popularity which it never really got. No, I had no idea that ‘Last Thing on My Mind’ was that good or ‘Ramblin’ Boy.’ I remember the first time someone told me they had heard someone singing ‘Can’t Help Wondering Where I’m Bound,’ and I was floored by that, that someone had taken a song of mine and was singing it, and it was all a surprise to me.”

In the 2013 Coen Brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis” a character wearing Army fatigues sings “The Last Thing on My Mind.” Was that character supposed to be Paxton? “Well, some people say so,” shrugs Paxton. “But I know I would have cut my throat before I would have worn my uniform in Greenwich Village.”

When the film was released, the Coen Brothers told reporters the screen play was inspired by Dave Van Ronk’s memoir “The Mayor of MacDougall Street.” Paxton takes issue with my contention that Llewyn was in fact supposed to be Dave Van Ronk. “Bullshit! No, sir! The publicity did not say that. It was based on his book which described the Village in 1962 or whenever that thing was, but Llewyn Davis was not Dave Van Ronk, was never intended to be. I thought the movie was great. Apparently, you didn’t like the movie.”

No, this journalist did not like the movie, not just because there was confusion as to how much of the lead character was based on Van Ronk, but also because the emphasis was more on the implication that the lead character in particular was having such a terrible life, and that it was more about surviving on people’s couches than it was about the music.

“Well, that was me,” says Paxton. “I slept on people’s couches for a couple of years. I don’t think Dave did that. Llewyn Davis is a fictional character! I knew characters like Llewyn Davis who were geniuses at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. I mean Dave Van Ronk when he went to Chicago did not subconsciously blow the audition (with Albert Grossman) by singing the least imaginable commercial song in his repertoire as Llewyn Davis did. No, I took the movie on its own terms, and I thought it was really good, and I had my quibbles, too, but they didn’t affect my feelings for the film. I thought it was good.”

If you’re thinking that Paxton is an old folkie turned old fogie, pick up a copy of Redemption Road, his 62nd album which is slated for release on March 10. All the things his fans liked about him in 1964 have been sharpened to an exquisite point. Listen in particular to “The Losing Part” where he sings, “When the American dream never happened to you, it just slowly faded away until it broke your heart.”

“’The Losing Part’ is a song I’ve had in my song box for 10 years easily, 10 years, but I never recorded it until now,” he says. “It didn’t seem right until now, but now it seems perfect. It seems to fit the album so well. I remember Wadsworth talking about poetry as emotion recollected in tranquility. So I was not in a bad space when I wrote the song, but I was perhaps remembering or imagining a bad space. It’s very important to me that people realize that although I use the first person singular constantly, it’s almost never Tom Paxton.”

In 2009 when Paxton was 74 years old and had released 61 albums he told me, “Seeing history repeat itself is God’s way of telling you you’re too old.” In 2011 he laughed when I reminded him of that quote saying “That’s good. You mean I said that? Hooray for me.”

I didn’t ask him this time. Somehow, it seemed obviously irrelevant.

WHO: Tom Paxton
WHERE: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
WHEN: Friday (February 27), 7:30pm