One of the top topical songwriters of the folk-rock era, Tom Paxton never embraced electric folk-rock as much as most of his contemporaries did. However, he knew many of its principal figures well, and wrote several songs that were covered by folk-rock artists, such as "The Last Thing on My Mind," "Bottle of Wine," "Mr. Blue," and "I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound." Here he talks about folk-rock and his place in it.
You were among the first folk performers in New York of that era to write much of your own material.
I was one of the first. It didn't occur to me at the time. It was just, I had begun to write a lot, and I was writing pretty much in the folk genre. I mean, I certainly had examples of people like Woody [Guthrie] and Pete [Seeger] and Ewan MacColl. I mean, there were people writing songs. But I was one of the first of my generation to do it. It just didn't strike me as anything unique at the time. And of course, I was singing many of the songs that I was writing. But it really was many years before my shows consisted of nothing but my own songs. I did a lot of traditional songs, I did Guthrie songs, I did some of Pete's, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and stuff like that. But all the time I was writing, when I'd write a new song, I'd try it out in the show and see how it went. Gradually, there came to be enough songs of a good quality that I could just do my own stuff. But it was a long time before that really happened.
Was that a hard thing to do as far, as far as connecting with audiences that might have wanted or been expecting very traditional stuff, purist stuff?
No, it really wasn't. Because I was doing traditional stuff, and at the same time, I suppose, I was building some kind of reputation for my own songs. So it just seemed like a natural kind of progression, where my songs began to predominate in the set. I do tell, when I'm teaching songwriting, I really stress to my students that they're doing themselves, perhaps, a disservice by just doing their own songs from the gun. Because, very frankly, when you go out on a stage, you're not a songwriter anymore. You're a performer. It's a different hat, and you really need the best armament you can provide yourself with. And a lot of times, the young writers' songs ?? he doesn't have enough, or she doesn't have enough songs, of a quality to fill a whole set, particularly if they're doing 45 minutes or longer. So they'd be well advised to take some of the best songs that they know of by other people, and sing them too. I was always instinctively a performer when I was onstage, and if I had a great song to sing, I'd sing it. And it didn't bother me that I hadn't written it. However, I know that that's not the way it's done now. People think of themselves as songwriters from the gun, and they're gonna do it. And I hope that they survive the early part, where they don't have, really, a lot of good songs.
Was there any notion, around the time that you and other folk songwriters began to become known, that there might be a move toward electric arrangements?
Not as early as that, I don't think. I think that things began to develop strongly in that direction when the Beatles came along, because they were such incredible quality that...the rock music up until the Beatles was pretty dire stuff. It went through a long period there where, people like Dick Clark, really, were controlling what was on the air. It was unbelievably banal stuff, and all of the sudden now there was a fresh breeze of rock music. And then of course Dylan changed the game entirely, when he started doing it.
But before -- I think before Dylan plugged in, I don't think anyone was thinking in those terms. And then after that, many people were.
That was such a rapid transition; within a year or two almost everyone was playing electric.
"Tectonic" springs to mind (laughs).
Was there any sense among folkies who weren't electrifying, quickly or at all, that they would be left behind and made obsolescent?
I don't think you have to make a choice. I think it's both. If Dylan had not plugged in, would folk music have gone electric? I think, absolutely it would have. I think you had people like Roger McGuinn, for example, didn't need to hear Dylan do it. He was already -- he was into Beatles before that. I mean, he was into the Beatles from the beginning. So I think it's very clear that he would have found his 12?string Rickenbacker whether Dylan plugged or not. However, having said that, Dylan's plugging in accelerated that immensely.
Were you there at his 1965 Newport Folk festival show?
When I was there -- '63, '64, and '66. I missed the earthquake (laughs). It would have been fun for me to see it. And, in all honesty, I probably would have been one of the old farts in my attitude. It took me a while before I saw what was going on, and saw that...sure, why not. And I never saw that for myself, but I think it would have been fun to be there and see it. There's all sorts of myths about it. And you don't know whom to believe about what actually happened.
My first hint of what Bob was doing came at the Woody Guthrie memorial concert at Carnegie Hall. I was sitting next to Bob. We all sat on stage together. It was not a[n] on and off kind of thing. So I was sitting right next to Bob and the Band, and when they got up and did a couple of Woody's songs with the Band, I was kind of almost in the middle of 'em. And I thought it was great fun, myself. It wasn't as if he lost any sense of what Woody's songs were about.
In Jac Holzman's autobiography, he talks about Elektra Records specifically adapting to the new era in two ways -- recording songwriters like you and Rush that were writing original, contemporary material instead of traditional folk, and marrying those to electric band arrangements.
Indeed. The fourth album I did for Elektra, Paul [Rothchild] produced the first three. And when it came time to do the fourth album, he was so busy with the Doors and stuff that he couldn't do it. So he turned me over to Peter Siegel. And Peter was the first one to introduce those arrangements into my stuff, with the album called Morning Again. There's one track on there, "Clarissa Jones," which was really folk-rock. And Grisman's on it, playing mandocello, David Grisman. It really rocked, I thought. And, you know, possibly I could have gone more in that direction. But I was always listening, in my head, I was always hearing...the acoustic guitar has always been what I loved the most. And I don't think I really had that -- I know I didn't have that rock mentality or anything. I was still a kid from a small town in Oklahoma. And I just wanted to hear folk songs.
At the same time, Morning Again's a lot different from your first couple of albums, where it's acoustic, almost totally solo.
Yeah, the albums I do nowadays are much closer to the first three I did, than the ones I did for a while.
Did you sense any reluctance on Elektra's part to keep you and lower-key folk-based performers on, after they started having success with all-out rock?
I never felt any pressure from Jac to change what I was doing. I mean, it was there for me to do if I wanted to. And, you know, when we did 6, that was fairly fully produced. Milt Okun produced that album. But then we did the live album, a double album, we did that live, and I had acoustic instruments on that. I had piano, bass, and a guitar, plus my own guitar. So I never felt it.
However, I think probably my...I think my failure go in that direction more probably damaged, in the end, their eagerness to work with me. And it's hard to know, really, how it all ended. Because Jac sold Elektra about the time that I was wrapping up the live album. And I could have stayed at Elektra. But I felt a lack of enthusiasm there, by then. And so I left, and signed with Reprise, which was a dead relationship from the beginning. It never really got off the ground. I did three albums for them. And I just wasn't their kind of artist.
That's interesting, because by that time Reprise/Warners had a reputation as being one of the more sensitive big labels for creative artists.
Yeah, but I think they were sensitive in a West Coast kind of way, which I was not (chuckles).
I wanted to ask about some of your songs that were covered in folk-rock versions. There was Dion doing "I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound," right at the beginning of folk-rock in 1965.
He did a beautiful version of that. It's not well known at all.
Did you know he was doing that song?
No, I didn't know it until afterward. Not that it's folk-rock or anything, but Neil Diamond cut "The Last Thing on My Mind" about the same time. But I was tickled to death with Dion's recording when I finally heard it, because I thought that he absolutely understood the song and read the lyric the way I would like to hear it read. I thought it was one of the best recordings of that song I've heard.
Then there was the Fireballs with "Bottle of Wine."
(Cackles loudly) That was such fun, because it was flat-out jukebox rock'n'roll, you know. It was really a kick to hear that. And it almost -- I think it would have gone to number one, except the one woman who oversaw the ABC radio station affiliates banned it, because it was about wine. And so, without those stations, it didn't make it. It was in the Top Ten. I think it would have gone all the way if they'd let it be on the ABC radio stations. But I loved it. I thought it was great fun.
Did they get that through Carolyn Hester, by any chance? Because you've been friends with her since the early 1960s, and she knew Jimmy Gilmer of the Fireballs pretty well.
You know, I don't know. I never knew...I never knew how that recording came to pass. But that's a good guess. I know that Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner recorded "The Last Thing on My Mind," because Jack Clement, the producer, heard me sing it at the Gaslight. And I never knew him or anything until that was in the can as well. Most of the hit recordings of my songs have come, really, over the transit, without me pitching 'em. Somehow they just found their way into some recording studios. The artists and producers found them themselves. There was no kind of active promotion on them.
Did you know that Sandy Denny did a couple of your songs?
She did "The Last Thing on My Mind," but I didn't know that she did anything else.
She did "Hold On To Me, Babe."
I didn't know that! How nice.
It's only on a bootleg. But it's from 1967 on the BBC, so obviously she found the records, or had been turned on to them.
Yeah. Isn't that great. Well, that always blows me away when things like that happen. And then, you know, like Willie Nelson did "The Last Thing on My Mind," just out of the blue it came. Who knew.
You spent a lot of time performing in England in the mid-1960s, more than most other folk songwriters of the time.
'65 was the first time my wife and I went over. When we went over the first time, it was like the blossoming of the folk boom, folk revival in Britain. And there were literally hundreds of folk clubs around the British Isles, a folk club being a group of people, rather than, as there was here, a venue. I mean, you had the Gaslight in Greenwich Village, which was what we laughably call commercial. But it was bricks and mortar. Over there, it would be a group of people would organize and form a folk club, and they would usually obtain an upstairs room in a pub, and meet like once a week and have their own what they call floor singers, and maybe a minor guest, and then a major guest who would do two half-hour spots. And there were hundreds of these around the British Isles.
So when we went over there in '65, my first album for Elektra was being imported over there. It wasn't even released. It was being imported, and it was getting around, and people were learning the songs. And so I had like a built-in audience already. And the important thing was that every night, was like Saturday night at home. Because whatever night it happened to be, the club, the room, would be packed. So it wasn't like at the Gaslight, where, like a Monday night in January, there would be six or seven people there. A Monday night in Birmingham, the place would be jammed. Because that was the night the folk club was.
So I went from jammed room to jammed room, and I had all this enthusiasm in finding this audience. So I was doing good shows, and that kind of set up a great buzz. And like in two years, I'd gone from doing clubs to mainly doing concerts. And it's been that way ever since. I still do clubs from time to time because I like to do 'em, but that first time, to go back to your question, all anyone could talk about was Dylan. Because I was there at the same time that Dylan was there on the tour that became the movie. Indeed, Midge and I were at the infamous party at the Savoy, but managed to stay out of the way of the camera. And all anyone would talk about -- all they wanted to ask me about -- was Dylan. What was Dylan like? What did I think of Dylan? Etc. etc. So there was this fascination with this rising star, Dylan. And there was, at the same time, a very tremendous interest in traditional music. There was an acceptance of the kind of songs I was writing, which were in traditional style. But it was all acoustic.
There was a schism among the British audience not only about accepting folkies moving into rock, such as Dylan, but even before that regarding folk musicians moving from topical songs to more personal ones, as Dylan did and you also did to some extent.
Well, I think that's the way it was every...that was the mix. I mean, you would sing...I never thought of it consciously that way. But, I mean, my criteria was always, you know, is it a good song? Not, well, I better have a couple political songs in here. It's just that some of the best songs I was writing were political songs. And so I would do them as well as "The Last Thing on My Mind" and "Ramblin' Boy."
Phil [Ochs] didn't go over there very much. I don't know if he ever did. He didn't do tours like I did. I know that. I mean, it became a very major part of my career, doing tours in the British Isles. But I don't know if he ever did a single one. Which is strange. I mean, he would have had a tremendous reception there. Anyhow...
This might be out of the scope of your personal experiences in England, but why do you think Dylan's electric tour there in 1966 got such a mixed reaction? The purist part of the audience seemed more vociferous and hostile than the purists in the US, for example.
[The live album] It was done at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. I know that hall well. I played that hall several times. And I haven't heard that album. I'd like to hear that album because I understand that he's really in great form. But there was this, apparently, shouting about "traitor" and stuff. So, I mean, people took Bob very much to heart. They, in many many ways, you don't even have to be a sociologist to know, that they identified strongly with Bob. And when Bob changed, it was like a betrayal of themselves. So a lot of people couldn't make that shift with him, and they felt betrayed. They shouldn't have felt betrayed. He had a right to do what he wanted to do. But that's the way a lot of them felt. So they tended to take it very, very seriously. Very, very personally.
And to someone who wasn't around then, it seems bewildering that there could have been this expectation that he'd go out and play acoustic protest songs, since by that time he'd put out one-and-a-half electric rock albums.
I think you're right. But as I say, a lot of them took it very, very personally. They thought that the way he started was the way he should remain.
You'd mentioned that you never felt like your music was as suited to electric rock as many other of the songwriters from that time.
I know I felt...I may done it reasonably well, but it never really translated out into my live shows. They stayed acoustic and everything. Whether other people had trouble doing it, I don't know. Did Phil? Phil added orchestrations, but he never really got...
He never really got a band.
No. I know Carolyn Hester had a band for a while, but I don't think it really took. And when Judy Collins went out, her backing was primarily acoustic. I'm trying to think of anybody who actually...what about Tom Rush? Did he have an electric band with him for a while?
I don't know if he did onstage since I was too young to see him at the time, but on record he started using bands, going back to his second Elektra album in 1966.
I don't know if he did take a group out [live]. There were groups like the Holy Modal Rounders and the Fugs and stuff, they would go folk-rock. I never did. I just never felt the pull for it. And, the expense -- good god!
I wanted to ask about a few people you collaborated with. Felix Pappalardi played on some of your early records, as well as on other records by people like Ian & Sylvia and Fred Neil.
Felix played the guitarron on my first album, the Mexican mariachi bass. Have you ever seen one? He played bass using a guitarron. And not too long ago, I was talking for a little while to someone who was trying to put together something in memoriam of Felix. And the fact is, I really didn't know Felix well at all. I knew him from dropping in the Gaslight, and playing a little bit, and playing with me on the album and everything. But he wasn't around very much when I was around. There was a period there when I was not around when he and Lou Gossett, the actor, had a duo that they were getting up in the Gaslight and performing, and of course, you know, Lou can't sing. But he's a charismatic cat. I mean, he could fool ya. You'd forget that he wasn't really singing, apparently. But that didn't last very long.
So unfortunately, I can't say much about Felix. Except that he was a very pleasant guy. Very friendly guy. And a hell of a player.
Bill Lee played bass on one of your albums, and also with Ian & Sylvia, Odetta, and some other folk acts. I think he's a very underrated contributor to the expansion of folk arrangements on recordings in the early and mid-1960s.
Oh, he was wonderful. Wonderful bass player. He played with everybody. Was he just on one album with me? It seems like he was on more than that. He recorded with me, surely more than one. I just loved his playing.
How was it that he got involved with so many folk acts?
You got me. I wouldn't be surprised if it was through Odetta, though.
What were Paul Rothchild's contributions to Elektra?
I would say that Paul's contribution to Elektra would just be impossible to overstate. I think he was practically as central to it as Jac. He was always more than a producer. He was really part of the direction of the whole label. I just thought it was incredibly lucky for me, that I had Paul from the beginning. Because my beginning with Elektra was -- the way Jac [would] usually do it was, I mean, he didn't sign you to a contract immediately. What he would say was, we'll do a three-hour session. And, depending upon how that goes, we'll either sign the contracts for three albums, or I'll give you the tapes from the session to do with whatever you like. So, I mean it really was an extended audition, the first session. So how lucky I felt that Paul was assigned to produce it. And I don't know what songs we did in that first three-hour session, but they were part of what became the first album, the Ramblin' Boy album, and convinced Jac, and we went on from there. So Paul was always this -- so receptive and supportive to the artist. And he always made you feel like you were doing great, whether you were or not.
But then, he was always on the lookout. I mean, I remember him telling me once that he listened to every tape that came in over the transom. And the only artist he ever signed on the scene off an audition tape was Tim Buckley. But he was always doing that work for the label.
Judy Collins covered some of your songs. I think when people write about her, it's not often noted that she had a real superb eye for selecting material, especially from people that weren't the safest choices. Did you know her before she started recording your songs?
I did, yes. I met her -- I must have met her in '61, late '60 perhaps. I admired her right from the beginning. Just a gorgeous voice. And she played very strong guitar, too. People don't realize that. She doesn't play much guitar anymore, but she was self-accompanied and solo, and she played very strong self-accompaniment. She did a concert album. I think she recorded it at the Village Gate, and did three of my songs on it, which was just wonderful. She did "Bottle of Wine," "Ramblin' Boy," and "The Last Thing on My Mind." I think those were the three she did. And I was still so new at it all I didn't realize how fabulous a break that was. But it was. That album sold very well, and got my songs out to a lot more people.
So I knew Judy, not as a chum, because she was very much a traveling artist by then. She had, really, moved a couple rungs, and was touring a great deal. She didn't make New York City her home. She was living, at that point, in Connecticut with her then-husband. So I just would meet her when she would come through town and stuff. They were casual conversations. I got to know her, over the years, a lot better than that. But I didn't know her well then.
But I know that she did those three songs, and did 'em beautifully. And then, later on, about '71 something like that, she did a recording of my song about the Attica riots, called "The Hostage." And god, she just nailed it. Nailed it!
Do you know if there was any trepidation, on her or the label's part, when she started to move from the traditional folk repertoire of her first couple albums to the records where Rifkin arranged, and she was covering so many writers?
I don't know first-hand what the reaction was there. But my guess would be that there was zero trepidation, and nothing but excitement. I mean, they were always happy with Judy. As they should have been. She was adventurous in her own. She never went into folk?rock, but the In My Life album I thought was one of the best contemporary folk albums anyone made. And I was just blown away by the "Marat Sade" suite. And that's the kind of inventiveness that Judy had about her repertoire. I wouldn't be at all surprised that she commissioned that suite to be put together. I just thought it was phenomenal. And there was nothing rock about it. But it was very contemporary.
By the way, although she never recorded your song "Mr. Blue" on her albums, I did see a television program where she sang it and gave it a much different arrangement. It's from 1967, and she does have some accompanists, with Bruce Langhorne on guitar.
Speaking of all of which, speaking of "Mr. Blue," there was a day that I was up at Elektra. This would be about '67, something like that. And Paul Rothchild, who was dividing his time between New York and L.A. at that time, said, "Listen. Come back in the engineering room. I want to play something for you, I want your reaction to it." So I went back with him, and he put on this tape, and out came this ominous kind of drum thing and a voice saying, "Good morning, Mr. Blue."
Clear Light! [Clear Light did a long psychedelic freakout version of "Mr. Blue" on their only album, which was for Elektra]
Yeah. And he was genuinely concerned about how I'd take it. But I thought it was just fabulous! Great! And it got quite a bit of airplay -- I wouldn't call it a hit, but it got quite a bit of airplay. And I was very sad that they didn't do any more albums, that they broke up. But you would have to call that a rock arrangement.
A psychedelic one, really.
Oh yeah. Psychedelic rock (laughs). But I thought it was great! I love hearing people do different approaches to my songs to suit their own sensibilities. As long as you can tell that they love the song and they're trying to do it the best they can. Kind of the opposite end of that pole would be a bootleg single that a friend of mine sent me. A friend of mine is a square dance caller by avocation. And he sent me this bootleg 45, says, "You've got to hear this." And it was "The Last Thing on My Mind," done as a square dance call. I mean, murder doesn't quite say it. (Laughs real hard) It was a massacre. But to hear Clear Light do "Mr. Blue," and to hear Judy do "Hostage," that's exciting for me to hear something like that.
It's sometimes written that you were among the circle that Bob Dylan bounced song ideas off of in the mid-1960s, and the impression given by some historians is that it was like the king being surrounded by a court. I'm interested in your memory of the situation, since one of the things my book will be emphasizing is that Dylan was just a part of this mammoth musical movement, albeit a very important one.
I think that's astute of you. I think that it really was a question of, as they say in ancient Rome, first among equals. I don't think anybody, any of my contemporaries -- we all thought that Bob was phenomenal. But the thing is that songwriters love good songs. Songwriters love to hear good songs. So it was never hard to get us to like something if it was good. And it really had the effect of spurring us to keep trying to improve our writing, to hear good songs. And it just happened that a lot of the good songs we heard were from Bob. But I remember my excitement at hearing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" for the first time. A guy named Len Chandler sang it at the Gaslight one night. I went, what a great song that is. And the first time I heard Ian & Sylvia sing "Tomorrow Is a Long Time," which is a not widely sung Dylan song, I remember thinking that that song is utterly beautiful. I loved hearing great songs. They made me want to write great songs myself.
The impression is sometimes given that Dylan would take over a whole section of a cafe and use get-togethers among songwriters to cut other people down.
Absolutely not. What you would hear would be Dylan and Ochs going at it. Bob could be very mean to Phil, because Phil would be a little excitable, shall we say. But no, Bob was not a take over the room kind of guy. I remember once, there must have been five or six or seven of us sitting around a table at the Kettle of Fish, which was the bar upstairs from the Gaslight. We'd go there to get a beer, because they didn't have any in the Gaslight. So a bunch of us were sitting around the table up there one night, which was common. And I was sitting next to Bob, and all this bullshit was going on and everything, and Bob just leaned over to me and said, "What do you think of this?" And sang me "Gates of Eden" in my ear. And that's the kind of thing that would happen. He didn't demand that the table fall silent while he sang a new song or anything. He wasn't like that.
Many of the people I'll be writing about, like you, have had pretty productive careers since the 1960s ended. How do you view that era's legacy in terms of how it's informed your work since then?
I always say that it's okay to look back, as long as you don't stare. I think it was a wonderful time to be young, to be starting this kind of musical career. And having said that, you move on. I'm infinitely more interested in what I'm doing now, than I am in what I did then. 'Cause that was then. I loved it, but I live now.
I know that in the late 1970s you had a song about Phil Ochs, "Phil," that was criticizing all the groupies and vultures that would collar people like you and Ochs and ask for details on when Dylan was doing what in the Village in the 1960s.
There was a period there where I just refused to even talk about it, because it seemed to me like people had the whole thing skewed. I don't mind talking about it now, because after you and I finish talking about it, I'll go on to what I'm doing today, which is writing a new song. But I don't mind talking about it. Because it is, apparently, very interesting to a lot of people. And it was an exciting time. And it was our youth. So it has a significance to us, but to me, a limited significance. I'm grateful I was there, I'm grateful for the unbelievably fortuitous timing, that I happened to start my career in the 1960s was ridiculously good timing. But it's 40 years later.
One thing you mentioned in our previous talk was that songwriters today, as opposed to songwriters in the Broadside era, might have a harder time generating excitement because the times themselves are not as exciting now as they were then.
Well, having said which, it's kind of exciting watching this  election mishegas. And let's pray it doesn't get more exciting. That's not the kind of excitement we need. That's the kind of excitement we had then, which was the kind of excitement you can do without. War, you know. But, yeah. It's not as if there aren't hundreds of things to write about. I don't know if I told you this then, but when I do a songwriting workshop, I tell 'em, this is not an exercise that I'm going to give you. It's something I think you should do a lot. And you should do it not thinking of it as an exercise, but as an authentic fountain of inspiration. That is, to take today's newspaper and go through the paper, and I guarantee you that you will find a story in the paper, whether it be in the news section or Dear Abby or someplace, you'll find a story that will intrigue you. And what I want you to do, what I suggest you do on a regular basis, is write a song about that story in the first?person as one of the participants in the story, whether you're the protagonist in the story, or a witness to the story, whatever.
And by doing this, we get out of our own boring little introspective lives, which are just not [that] big a source of inspiration for folks. You'll put yourself in the middle of a situation that is guaranteed to be of interest, because it's interesting enough to be in the paper. And it'll take you out of your own life into the universe, into the world around you. Which is where all the fun is. And so you might be writing topical songs, or you might be writing songs of real emotion, about situations that are existing. But you'll certainly be tapping an incredibly rich vein of material that way.
That's the end of my sermon. Now we sing the hymn and recessional and pass the collection plate.
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