Tom Paxton, ’60s folk icon, bids Toronto farewell
Photo Credit/ A.I. Marin
Hugh’s Room, a Bloor and Dundas West folk club, hosted Tom Paxton this Tuesday. Paxton, 78, is a veteran of New York’s Greenwich Village folk scene and played amongst the likes of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger.
While he may not have the fame of those two, he is certainly an icon in his own right, with his songs dappling popular music’s soundscapes. Paxton’s “Whose Garden Was This?” is the title track on an early John Denver record, which set the tone for Denver’s rise as music’s naturalist. “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation” speaks for the American anti-war movement in Jean-Luc Godard’s Loin de Vietnam documentary. “The Last Thing on My Mind” is one of the most widely covered folk love songs. Those who grew up with Canadian children’s music will know “Goin’ to the Zoo” from Sharon, Lois and Bram and Raffi. And, speaking locally, “By a Gun For Your Son” made it into U of T’s Peace, Conflict and Justice curriculum.
This is Paxton’s final year of touring. However, his appearance at Hugh’s Room didn’t feel like a grand goodbye, but instead merely another stop made by a well-travelled folk musician. Paxton played a set consisting largely of songs from his new Redemption Road album, accompanied solely by award-winning Toronto musician Ken Whitely and a largely older audience, who provided surprisingly harmonious backing vocals on a number of Paxton’s songs.
Paxton essentially seems to be quitting while he’s ahead. His voice is strong, with a richer sound than when it emerged in the early ’60s, and he remains inspired, as evidenced by his new album, which he has made available both as a physical CD and on SoundCloud despite his supposed “hate of his computer.”
Paxton’s set was both a product of his ’60s-folk roots and his experience of time. He opened the set with “How Beautiful Upon the Mountain,” an intertextual gospel tribute to the civil rights movement. Interestingly, this song was written in the 2000s along with “There Goes the Mountain,” a song protesting mountaintop-removal coal mining, which Paxton played immediately before breaking into his Silent Spring-esque classic, “Whose Garden Was This?” These songs were accompanied by the occasional political statement, including a congratulations to Canada on getting a new prime minister.
Tracks like these contrasted with songs like “Time to Spare” and “Comedians and Angels,” which referenced politics only in so far as they were part of Paxton’s sense of the human condition, for instance: “Revolution was a-comin'/In the vanguard we would be/We could feel the coming victory in our bones/But the music started changing/And one morning around three/We decided we would all be Rolling Stones.” Other songs like “Ireland” and another that paid tribute to his wife of nearly 51 years, who died in 2014, took the theme of loss even further.
Perhaps this second theme hinted at Paxton’s “farewell tour” status, but it never seemed that way. Rather, Paxton came across, as he always has—as a narrator of the stories of others, albeit a witty one with a social conscience. Pete Seeger said of Paxton’s works, “like the songs of Woody Guthrie, [they became] part of America.” Despite this, Paxton has retained the image of the small-venue folk performer. This is because Paxton’s songs have a life separate from their writer—they didn’t take him on a brooding, counter-cultural path to stardom like Dylan, or to the rebellious and tragic world of Phil Ochs. Instead, the songs aided those who needed them, while Paxton kept on playing for those who were intrigued enough to find out where those songs came from.
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