TOM PAXTON’S REDEMPTION ROAD SHARES HIS JOURNEY OF SONG
As the decades of contemporary music move beyond the nostalgic years of the past and into history, it is the most authentic of the singer-songwriters who have kept those times alive and relevant today.
Folk singer Tom Paxton is chief among them.
During the 1960’s in Greenwich Village, few artists have left as lasting an impact on American folk music. He has also maintained an equal amount of anonymity to go along with his legacy.
But, today, at 77, he carries on even during the hardest of times. With his recent tour and an album of new original songs, Redemption Road, he is finding through his work a place to heal from the loss of Midge, his wife of 50 years.
For many artists, it seems the road goes on forever, but for Tom Paxton, it is near the end with this final tour. Not that he’s retiring. Far from it. He assures us he will continue to perform, write and record. But, with the release of Redemption Road, and a North American tour with his friend singer-songwriter Janis Ian, a page has turned to new chapters necessary for this passage of a life in song.
Both the album and the tour carry a sense of closure along with the gentle opening of other windows of opportunity. This road to redemption is all about living life more fully, closer to loved ones and the music that guides him.
During our recent phone interview, the sound of grief in that familiar voice was unmistakable. His remedy was summed up in one sentence.
Nothing works for me like work,” he resolved. “Making an album is an absorbing and collaborative effort. It gives respite from the grief of losing Midge,” he explained.
But, Redemption Road is not about bitterness as much as it is about bitter sweetness. If he did not sound fully accepting of her absence during our conversation, he surely seemed to grasp the reality of mortality during this season of his life. It’s something a younger artist can avoid and postpone. But for Tom Paxton, the acceptance of this part of his journey is a natural response as he explained with his own bit of signature wit:
“Friends have said the album is kind of nostalgic. They told me it’s like a farewell. I didn’t have any conscious thought of that. But, you think about it, what else would you expect this album to be from a guy who’s pushing 80? After all, I’m a lot closer to the exit than the entrance now. But, I don’t see the album as sadness. It’s more about reflection.”
It’s also safe to say Redemption Road is about finding acceptance and celebration in the midst of life’s more bracing losses. It’s a theme that emerged from the flow of life which surrounds him even though the songs were written prior to Midge’s death.
Even so, for Tom Paxton, the road ahead appears bright with opportunity. So, the opening track, Virginia Morning, resonates with the joy of a new day.
Indeed, as an artist who has released so many impressive albums and whose legacy has influenced other important artists while deftly defining diversity in song craft; Redemption Road, stands as an important and more than worthy addition to his gallery of song. There is not a wasted moment, not a needless breath here as he sings lyrics that spin out of a heart which leans toward living fully each pulse of his life.
As can be expected from Tom Paxton, who wrote songs like “Forest Lawn” and “I’m Changing My Name to Chrysler,” there is plenty of humor running through the album. For example, “Susie Most of All” is a bouncy Piedmont-blues inspired romp with lighthearted lyrics and a good timing feel. Paxton says of the song:
“It’s my favorite song on the album. Writing songs can be like pulling teeth, but this came right out. It was fun taking artistic license with the song and getting some influence from “Green Green Rocky Road” by Bob Kaufman and Len Chandler. I was looking for that kind of freedom of association, a jump-rope rhyme feeling with nonsense verses that somehow mean something. Otherwise, how could I possibly excuse ‘English muffin, Texas toast?’ I stand by that verse till the day I die. That’s why I love that song. It is deeply carefree.”
Another entirely lighthearted moment on the album includes notable guest, John Prine, a songwriter who has demonstrated Paxton’s influence over the years. However, for the song, “Skeeters ‘ll Gitcha.” Paxton felt he had lifted something from Prine.
“I’ve known John for 25 years. I wrote that song a while ago. Midge and I saw him at Wolftrap about ten years ago. After the show we went backstage and I played this song for him and told him, ‘I think I have a song of yours you don’t know about!’ He laughed and agreed when he heard it.”
The most poignant moments on the album come from the songs that look back with a sense of gratitude and love for his friends and the memories they carry. “Time to Spare,” presents a narrative of the artist personified from the era. “It’s really just how you feel looking back on the years,” he mused. With a lilting violin throughout and lyrics that give breadth to the experience of youth (“nobody wished us anything but well, we had time to spare.”), it plays out like a lyric-novel, an epic three-minute portrayal that captures images of a lifetime of story and song.
Probably among the strongest of these memories-in-song is “The Mayor of McDougall Street,” which pays tribute to Paxton’s best friend, the late, great Dave Van Ronk.
“Dave was the best man at my wedding. He was always my best man. It was true until he died. I loved him like a brother.”
When we talked about Van Ronk’s career and how it never took off to the heights of other folk singers of the era, Paxton said,
“Dave didn’t have a commercial bone in his body. He even turned down the chance to be in Peter, Paul and Mary. He was a true Bohemian. He was really one of the best.”
Redemption Road finds its center in the touching title track with the vocal support of his current touring partner, Janis Ian. It’s a song that lends itself to that same kind of anonymity and insight that has marked Paxton’s career. It is among the best songs he has written. It is deeply personal yet universal to us all as we leave our mark on this mortal planet.
Only time and time alone treats each weary soul the same
When my sum of days have flown, time alone will know my name.
Indeed, when asked how he believed he would be remembered in the history of American music, his response was characteristically and quintessentially Tom Paxton;
“I’ll be remembered as someone who tossed a couple of songs into the song bag that’ll be sung for a while. In the long view, I wrote some pretty good songs that are easy to sing. I’ve had a rich life. I’ve written a lot of songs I can take pride in.” But he was quick to add, “I still have more.”
In fact, Tom Paxton’s place in folk music’s rich history would suggest that he is the kind of singer-songwriter who strives not to promote and highlight his own ego in place of his art, but rather has successfully become an instrument for some of the best-loved folk songs of the last 60 years. He will be remembered as one in particular who didn’t need to borrow from Bob Dylan, but drew influence from earlier generations of folk legends like Lead belly, Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston. Redemption Road supports and extends this legacy well. As Guy Clark has said:
“Thirty years ago Tom Paxton taught a generation of traditional folksingers that it was noble to write your own songs, and, like a good guitar, he just gets better with age.”
With the final song, the beautifully rendered Celtic farewell, “The Parting Glass” which ends with the words “Goodnight and joy be with you all,” it’s easy to read retirement and farewell into the song. However, as we closed our conversation, Paxton was clear about one thing;
“This is not a swan song. I’m not going to retire. I’m going to stop touring. I’ll still be writing, recording and performing. I just won’t be going from town-to-town, but I will be working. It’s like Utah Phillips once said, ‘you can’t get rich making folk music, but you can make a pretty good living.’ I’m just wanting to enjoy that good living now more than ever.”
And if that’s true, then it’s also clear, Tom Paxton has not only made a good living, but has been making a good life along the way. It is a life he generously shares with us on his continuous journey into the ordinary magic of song. It is Tom Paxton’s journey, to be sure, but Redemption Road makes one thing clear; it is our journey as well.