Full name Thomas R. Paxton; born October 31, 1937, in Chicago, IL; son of George Burton Paxton and Esther Paxton; married Margaret Ann Cummings, August 5, 1963; children: Jennifer Ann, Katherine Claire. Education: University of Oklahoma, B.F.A., 1959. Addresses: Home-- East Hampton, Long Island, NY. Record company-- Flying Fish Records, 1304 W. Schubert, Chicago, IL 60614.
Folk singer-songwriter Tom Paxton "belongs to that tradition of great American artists like [twentieth-century novelists] Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson who expose the flaws of [the United States] and its people through descriptions, not sermons," declared Loraine Alterman in the New York Times. In addition to satiric gems, ranging from "The Dogs of Alabama" to "I'm Changing My Name to Chrysler," Paxton has penned and recorded milder folk ballads, including "The Marvelous Toy," "Bottle of Wine," and "The Last Thing on My Mind." Though he has enjoyed a long, fruitful recording career in his own right, many of his compositions have reached wider audiences as performed by other artists, such as Dolly Parton, Judy Collins, John Denver, The Kingston Trio, and Neil Diamond.
Paxton was born on Halloween in 1937, in Chicago, Illinois. As a boy his primary interest was sports, but he credits his family's history with instilling the background he would later bring to his songwriting. According to an interview Paxton gave Mark Taylor in the Guardian, he is a descendant of one of the judges who condemned accused tyrant King Charles I of England to death. And as a boy in New Mexico, Paxton's father found an eagle feather that was later made into the pen that signed New Mexico into statehood. "That pen is now in the museum at Santa Fe," Paxton told Taylor. "Maybe this is what gave me my absorbing interest in history, particularly American history."
When Paxton was about eleven years old his family moved to Bristow, Oklahoma. By the time the youngster attended high school he had abandoned sports for the dream of becoming an actor. He also demonstrated musical talent, playing trumpet in the school band. When Paxton was sixteen, an aunt presented him with a guitar. Though he showed skill with the instrument, the guitar did not replace Paxton's desire to act, which led him to pursue a career in drama at the University of Oklahoma. While there, however, Paxton was introduced to the folk sounds of Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, and Ed McCurdy through the records of his fellow students. Recalling the experience for Wayne Robins in Newsday, Paxton explained: "What attracted me to folk was that it wasn't like all the popular music on the radio. It had another dimension to it other than formula music." He began trying to play some of the things he heard, wrote his own material, and eventually performed for his friends. By the time he graduated and landed a lead role in a Colorado summer stock production, Paxton realized that he would rather be a folk singer than an actor.
After a brief stint in the U.S. Army, Paxton traveled to New York City's Greenwich Village in 1960 to become part of its growing folk music scene. There he mingled with folk greats Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and even shared an apartment with Paul Stookey of the famed trio Peter, Paul, and Mary. Like them, he performed in small clubs, including the Gaslight, which recorded his first album. During 1961 and 1962 Paxton toured folk clubs throughout the United States. Some of his songs were gaining reputations through recordings by major folk artists--Paxton's "Ramblin' Boy" became a hit for the Weavers, and "The Marvelous Toy" showed up in the repertoires of both the Chad Mitchell Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Finally, Paxton himself landed a major contract with Elektra. He began releasing his own albums, including Ramblin' Boy in 1964 and Ain't That News in 1965.
Despite the decline in folk music's popularity during the late 1960s and 1970s, Paxton's output continued fairly steadily. He wrote and recorded songs about subjects such as the Vietnam War and Watergate, and composed Elizabethan-flavored love ballads like "My Lady's a Wild Flying Dove," which the Guardian 's Taylor lauded for possessing "all the lilt and cadences ... that characterize the oldest folk songs." Paxton also penned tunes for children, including "Going to the Zoo" and "Jennifer's Rabbit." Capitalizing on a resurgence of the folk genre in England, Paxton moved there with his family for a few years during the 1970s and recorded for the Reprise label. Upon his return to the States, he signed with Vanguard. His 1977 release on Vanguard, New Songs from the Briar Patch, discussed weighty topics such as strip mining and capital punishment, and included a song of requiem for the late president of Chile, Salvador Allende.
Heroes followed in 1978 with a lampoon of anti-gay protester Anita Bryant and a tribute to South African activist Stephen Biko. Paxton switched to Mountain Railroad Records to release The Paxton Report in 1980. He later published a children's book based on one of his songs, Jennifer's Rabbit.
by Elizabeth Wenning
Tom Paxton's Career
Songwriter, performer, and recording artist, c. 1964--. Stage actor, c. 1959; performed in small clubs during the early 1960s. Appeared on television shows, including Today, The Tonight Show, and 60 Minutes. Served in the U.S. Army, c. 1960.
- Selective Works
- Ramblin' Boy Elektra, 1964.
- Ain't That News Elektra, 1965.
- Outward Bound Elektra, 1966.
- Morning Again Elektra, 1968.
- The Things I Notice Now Elektra, 1969.
- Number 6 Elektra, 1970.
- The Compleat Tom Paxton Elektra, 1971.
- How Come the Sun Reprise, 1971.
- Peace Will Come Reprise, 1972.
- New Songs for Old Friends Reprise, 1973.
- Something in My Life Private Stock, 1975.
- New Songs from the Briar Patch (includes "Talking Watergate," "Bring Back the Chair," and "White Bones of Allende"), Vanguard, 1977.
- Heroes (includes "Lucy, the Junk Dealer's Daughter"), Vanguard, 1978.
- Up and Up Mountain Railroad, 1980.
- The Paxton Report (includes "We All Sound the Same," "All Clear in Harrisburg," "I'm Changing My Name to Chrysler," and "I Thought You Were an A-Rab"), Mountain Railroad, 1980.
- One Million Lawyers ... and Other Disasters Flying Fish, 1986.
- The Marvelous Toy and Other Gallimaufry Flying Fish, 1987.
- Even a Gray Day Flying Fish.
- And Loving You Flying Fish, 1987.
- Also released an album on Gaslight Club Records, c.
- Guardian, February 5, 1966.
- Newsday, August 14, 1981.
- New York Times, October 24, 1971.