Tom Paxton Finds His Farewell at McCabe’s Guitar Shop
Photographs by Jacki Sackheim
As American music history continues to unfold, our icons, legends, troubadours, and storytellers often bring with them unique windows of time that only they can open. Sometimes, thanks to the clear-eyed legacy of a living legend, a unique portal is granted, allowing us to see deeply into the past, making the grace of this present moment all the more treasured and valued.
Such a moment happened on September 11, 2015, at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California. Tom Paxton, one of the finest songwriters of our time, walked down the short flight of dark, narrow stairs and stepped onto the stage for his second-to-last show as a touring performer. After more than a half-century of bringing his songs and stories full of humor and heart to stages the world over, Paxton has decided to hang up his traveling shoes. He is clear though, this is not a retirement. He will continue to write, record, and perform on occasion within easy travelling distance from his Virginia home. But, his days as a widely touring artist have drawn to a close.
That Paxton chose to end his 50-years-plus run on McCabe’s historic stage, which has been host to so many of Paxton’s legendary friends over the years, says volumes about the intimate and enduring nature of the venue and the artist. It’s a welcome space Paxton has made his home over the decades, even recording a live album there.
Paxton was supported by father and son stringed instrumentalists, Fred and Zach Sokolow. The pair provided the artist with just the sonic warmth suggested by so much of Paxton’s music. Their instincts for the material was impeccable.
Paxton took the stage, before a sold-out audience, as unassuming as when he first hit Greenwich Village’s Gaslight in the early 60’s, while on leave from the military in Fort Nix, New Jersey. His voice, a bit worn around the edges, remained strong and soulful as he delivered two hours of music. His connection and regard for his audience of long-time fans is rare in its openness and accessibility, for such a legendary artist.
One life-long fan in the audience, who garnered well-deserved acknowledgement as one of Paxton’s heroes, was Elektra Records founder/owner Jac Holzman. Holzman did as much for the folk music of the ’50s and ’60s as he did for rock and roll during the ’60s and ’70s. He signed Tom Paxton along with Judy Collins, Josh White, Phil Ochs, and Theodore Bikel to their first record contracts. He was also responsible for key artists of the rock era like the Doors, Love and Queen.
As Paxton opened with his song paying homage to the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s, which has a title borrowed from the words of the prophet Isaiah, “How Beautiful On The Mountain (Are the Steps of Those Who Walk in Peace),” his words accurately reflected his own life and career. Paxton has quietly, compassionately, and effectively spread peace through music. Like his early days at the Gaslight, the audience sang along loud, proud, and clear.
The set included more new songs than old, with a healthy helping of tunes from his recent albums, Redemption Road and Comedians & Angels. The entire set gave a fine snapshot of his career with new songs of hope and rebirth like “Virginia Morning” and humorously rendered word-plays with a Piedmont stylistic slant on “Susie Most of All.” He also delivered fond remembrances of his good friends via “Time to Spare” and especially his tribute to his best friend, Dave Van Ronk, with “The Mayor of McDougal Street.”
Many of Paxton’s stories centered on 1963, when he was a regular at the Gaslight, where he met his wife, Midge (who passed away last year). Soon after that starting point, he found himself on national festival stages attracting the attention of Pete Seeger and other folk music greats.
Paxton recalled playing folk standard “Rambling Boy” for the first time for Pete Seeger, who then decided to play it at Carnegie Hall for the Weavers’ reunion. As Paxton put it, “I was so excited, I didn’t know whether to shit or vote Republican!”
As he journeyed through the past with familiar songs and reflections, he gave the qualifying statement: “Nostalgia is okay as long as you don’t stare.”
Throughout the night, Paxton did not stare, but he also gave his best work more than a passing glance, delivering each song with a gentle love and presence for the meaning they conveyed.
“Bottle of Wine” — his surprise top ten hit of 1967, made popular by the Fireballs — gave good reason for a singalong but also served as a reminder of how this artist has frequently flown below the radar of notoriety. It also became evident that Paxton is a peer of Bob Dylan’s today, without a sign of influence from the Minnesota bard. In reality, by the time Dylan came to Greenwich Village, Paxton had already been there a year and had begun the unusual practice of including original songs, mixed with folk standards, during his set.
It was during 1963, in fact, when the three most important songwriters of the Village were Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Tom Paxton. While Ochs self-destructed during the ’70s, Dylan became an iconic superstar, Paxton kept the song-and-people connection as the focus of his work. He has remained the same throughout his career, emphasizing the folk song over ego and commercial success.
“Whose Garden Was This” was among the first songs written about pending ecological disaster, while “Did You Hear John Hurt” conveyed the sense of excitement Paxton got from discovering the legendary country-blues artist for the first time. There was also the poignant song Paxton wrote for his wife as an engagement gift in 1963, “My Lady’s a Wild Flying Dove,” which carried its own personal echo of bittersweet loss this night.
But, it was during the show’s final moments when the reality of closure began to set in. Paxton’s eyes grew misty, as did many in the audience. There was no announcement or special mention of this particular farewell. However, as he sang the familiar words to his most famous song, the realization and the bittersweet irony of the moment could not be ignored. The audience joined in singing verses and chorus:
I’ve got reason a plenty for goin’
This I know, this I know
The weeds have been steadily growin’
Please don’t go, please don’t go
Are you going away with no word of farewell
Will there be not a trace left behind
I could’ve loved you better, didn’t mean to be unkind
You know that was the last thing on my mind
With a glance up of recognition, he concluded with “The Bravest,” a gentle and compassionate homage to firefighters who lost their lives during 9-11. He then wiped a few tears from his eyes and walked back up McCabe’s famous set of stairs to a standing ovation.
If an artist has to say goodbye to the road, this is certainly the way to do it. It’s simple: just do what you’ve always done. Tell your stories from the heart, laced with humor; sing songs, new and old, that make the audience feel, think, and sing along; and don’t dwell too long on goodbyes. Just give a good show and leave us wanting more.
Last Friday night, at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, Tom Paxton said farewell to his 50 years on the road and left us wishing for just one more song. It’s the kind of magic only the most gifted of songwriting troubadours can pull off. Thank you, Tom. Don’t be a stranger. And please forgive me if my final words are stolen from a line from one of your songs: “please don’t go, please don’t go.”