Thank You Tom Paxton
I’ll preface this review with an anecdote that I related in the “60 for 60” folk music symposium in the current issue of Sing Out! Magazine.
In 1968 or ’69, when I was 14, or maybe just turned 15, I heard there was going to be a big folk concert at McGill University in Montreal and decided to go. It was a bunch of local acts doing short sets in the first half and a headliner from New York in the second. When I got there, I discovered it was a “blanket concert”: thousands of McGill students – four, five, six and more years older than me – sitting on blankets on the floor of a huge gym. It was pretty full and I had no blanket so I sat on a long bench that lined the back of the gym wall. Between acts, I had an interesting conversation with the man sitting next to me. He obviously knew a lot about folk music and gave me some suggestions on records to look for. When the intermission was announced, he said he enjoyed talking with me and left.
After the break, the MC, Tex König, introduced “one of the greatest of the Greenwich Village folksingers: Tom Paxton!” That man I’d been talking to all night walked on stage and did an amazing hour-long set that I still vividly remember 40-odd years later.
That was the “it moment” for me. I started to listen to every record and read every folk music book I could find. I subscribed to Sing Out!, went to coffeehouses and concerts, and was soon a part of the action – hanging out, learning some guitar, putting on concerts, running folk clubs, volunteering at folk festivals and writing articles and reviews. It became a way of life – and still is.
|Mike Regenstreif and Tom Paxton (2009).|
So, Tom Paxton, who, some years later, became a good friend, and who I’ve had the pleasure of working with a bunch of times in different contexts over the years, had a lot to do with drawing me into the folk music life.
Tom was one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the 1960s – in fact, Dave Van Ronk once told me that Tom was the first Greenwich Village folksinger, before Bob Dylan, who worked hard and consistently at songwriting – and remains one of the greatest singer-songwriters today.
I know that Tom has influenced many, many artists over the years, among them the fine actor and singer-songwriter Tim Grimm. On his new album, Thank You Tom Paxton, Tim sets aside his own songs in favour of a dozen of Tom’s dating from as early as the early-‘60s to as recent as 2007.
Tim includes a very nice version of “The Last Thing On My Mind,” unarguably the best known and most-often covered of Tom Paxton’s songs. There are several other well-known songs on the album, but several of Tim’s choices are more obscure.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard another cover version of “General Custer,” a satirical look at the demise of the ill-fated Custer at Little Big Horn that was on Tom’s never-reissued 1971 LP, How Come the Sun. Tim gives the song a fine bluegrass treatment with able backing from the White Lightning Boys. Other lesser-known Paxton songs that Tim brings to life include “Bishop Cody’s Last Request,” done in a folk-rock arrangement faithful to the song’s late-‘60s origins, and a lovely version of “All Night Long,” a meditation on late-night loneliness and doubt, and on the power of song.
Some of the other highlights – can you really pick highlights from an album of songs that are all great? – include a duet with Joe Crookston on “Rumblin’ in the Land,” a song about hard times that seems just as relevant in 2011 as it was when Tom wrote it almost half a century ago; “Fare Thee Well, Cisco,” a loving tribute to the great folksinger Cisco Houston, who died young from lung cancer at just about the time that Tom was starting his career; and beautiful versions of such Midge-inspired love songs as “Home To Me” and “I Give You the Morning.”
Another highlight – which I would have sequenced as the album closer – is a beautiful version of the inspiring “How Beautiful Upon the Mountain,” a recent song that Tom wrote in tribute to the likes of Pete Seeger, Martin Luther King and others who’ve led the way to peace and true social justice.
I really like Tim’s arrangements of these songs, some of which are faithful to Tom’s original versions, some of which take the songs in different directions. And, in addition to those already mentioned, I’ll also call attention to some fine contributions from guitarist Jason Wilber, Tim’s co-producer (who is also a fine singer-songwriter but is best known for being John Prine’s lead guitarist), and angelic harmony singers Sarah and Claire Bowman.