He helped stir the cauldron of folk music creativity that produced the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Eric Andersen. He’s written classic songs like “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound,” “Ramblin’ Boy” and “Last Thing on My Mind” that have been covered by Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and the late Pete Seeger of Beacon.
So you can bet 82-year-old Tom Paxton has some stories to tell. But Paxton, who’s been called “America’s Greatest Troubadour” by Billboard magazine, doesn’t just tell those stories in concerts like the one scheduled for Sept. 13 at the Old School Baptist Meeting House in Warwick. He tells them to his fellow bandmates, the Don Juans, when he sits in back of the rented van they use to travel to gigs across the country.
“I just sit back there and pontificate,” he says, “you know, the ‘60s…blah, blah, blah…Joan Baez…blah, blah, blah…”
When he’s asked to be a little more specific about the “blah, blah, blahs,” he mentions the biggest gig he ever played, before a quarter million people at the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival, headlined by Dylan, the Band and the Who.
He had just earned three encores and was sitting backstage talking to friends when a female fan approached him.
“That was very good,” said the young woman who Paxton didn’t recognize.
“I just said, ‘thank you,’” Paxton recalls, “and went back to my conversation.”
The woman was one of the biggest, and most controversial, stars of the era, Jane Fonda.
Then there was the time that one of Paxton’s heroes, Seeger, paid him the ultimate tribute. Seeger and his pioneering group, the Weavers, sang Paxton’s “Ramblin’ Boy” in their historic 1963 reunion concert at Carnegie Hall, which was recorded for posterity.
Just one problem. Seeger got the lyrics wrong – even as he kept singing the song in concert and on record.
Instead of “Here’s to you/My ramblin’ boy,” he sang “Fare thee well/My ramblin’ boy.”
Paxton could have cared less.
But soon after the recording of the song, Paxton received a postcard from Seeger, who was in India with his family.
It featured Seeger’s signature drawing of a banjo, and one word after “Dear Tom” and before “Pete.”
But while you might hear stories like those in Warwick if you go to the September concert, and “must-do” songs like “Bottle of Wine,” “The Marvelous Toy” and “Whose Garden Was This,” along with the classics already mentioned, this Paxton concert might be slightly different than those you’ve seen during the past 50-plus years.
Paxton will be performing with his band of about three years, the Don Juans, comprised of Don Henry and Jon Vezner, who wrote the Grammy Award-winning song, “Where’ve You Been,” recorded by Vezner’s wife, Kathy Mattea. When Paxton met the duo at the Swannanoa Gathering folk arts festival in the Blue Ridge Mountain town of Ashville, North Carolina, three years ago, he had been thinking about getting off the road. Then they started playing together. About four songs into their set, a musical lightbulb flicked on in Paxton’s head.
“These guys are not just sidemen,” he said of the singing, songwriting guitarists.
Tom Paxton and the Don Juans have been playing together ever since.
“And now I’m having too much fun to quit,” he says, noting that he once had another touring “band,” the duo of Bob Gibson and Annie Hills.
Besides, at 82, Paxton came to a belated realization about performing.
“This is who I am,” he says, “an unregenerate ham.”
He’s been one for eight decades, or ever since he was a second-grader in Chicago who wore an Uncle Sam suit in a school play and was bathed in applause.
“I said to myself, ‘How do I get more of that?’” he recalls thinking.
About three-quarters century later, he’s figured it out.
Editor’s note: This concert had originally been planned for March 22, but postponed due to the coronavirus. Tom Paxton debuted his song “Whose Garden Was This,” on the very first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, and it became the first environmentalist anthem. With the 50th anniversary of Earth Day tomorrow, we thought it apt to run this story this week. The concert, sponsored by the Warwick Historical Society, is still planned for Sept. 13.