His last tour was billed as his last European excursion but here – just a couple of dozen months later – is the return of a folk legend in the form of Tom Paxton. This time he’s brought as musical support Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer – who produced and also helped out musically on his new album Boat in the Water. Cathy is a marvel on clawhammer banjo – as well as vocals and guitar – whilst Marcy is a multi-instrumentalist (she plays at least fifty instruments Cathy proudly informs us) and a third voice. It makes for a different sound to that we’ve come to know on previous tours.
The trio open the show with How Beautiful Upon the Mountain – an earnest call for peace and understanding, something that is lacking in the second song Battle of the Sexes. This coupling illustrates Tom Paxton well – serious songs on environmental and social issues, peppered with humorous ditties to lighten the mood and not let things get overly earnest and preachy. He recycles one of his regular jokes when talking about the venue stating he’s “just happy to be anywhere” before adding after a pause “that isn’t Washington”. Tom Paxton, it would seem, is not too pleased with the lost the popular vote by millions president-elect his homeland is about to democratically accept. Which makes the fast talking reality check from Tom’s fairly recent If The Poor Don’t Matter so painfully appropriate: “Push them back, sweep them out, anything to keep them out,Keep them real branded out, standing with their hands out. Knocking at the back gate, radio talking hate, Wrong here, strong here, know they don’t belong here.” When he considers the indignities they will suffer Tom Paxton can only conclude “If the poor don’t matter – then neither do I”.
The title track of the new album is a jolly sing-a-long ditty with a chorus which relies on what we are assured is a wholly legitimate rhyme of “oughta” with “water”. Well, ok. Tom Paxton, you see, does not take himself too seriously. On My Pony – a song about an imaginary cowboy that Tom really likes – whilst Cathy and Marcy switch to guitar and dobro Tom adds yodelling to his repertoire explaining in self-commentary “late in life Paxton began to yodel”. It seems that songs are quite often brought to Tom Paxton by people he didn’t know that he knew who wander around his mind – mostly he likes them, like the dapper would be beatnik and bon viveur of And if it’s not so who makes a convincing case for living in a fantasy world if real life isn’t anywhere near as entertaining.
Before one of Cathy & Marcy’s songs – Get up and do right – the duo state that “if you’re going to use the weapon of music use it wisely” : and this is a very sixties folk song that one could imagine Peter Paul and Mary pouncing on as a handy rabble rouser. Tom’s You Are Love is a true heartfelt outpouring of affection – written for his wife, he also sang it just three years back at Cathy and Marcy’s wedding – counting a couple of dozen of the ways of love it is unabashedly grateful for the resolving of an internal emptiness: “a voice within me whispered, Why? Why? Why? / Why must you keep struggling on your own?”. And if this is all getting too honeyed, then before the interval there’s just time for a signature hoboing song “ramblin’ around this dirty old town / singin’ for nickels and dimes / times getting rough / I ain’t got enough / to buy me a bottle of wine”. And, sure enough and so appropriately, Bottle of Wine passes from a choral sing-a-long to humming in the queue at the bar.
After the break Marcy and Cathy have a mini-set of their songs which are solidly in the same American folk revival vein. Girl Django shakes things up with an imagined arrival in town of Django Reinhardt’s guitar totting sister – it bounces along with a gypsy jazz vibe and is just the kind of song the Kingston Trio would have wanted. There’s a nod to a great mentor – Pete Seeger – with a banjo and mandolin driven Golden Thread and then a setting of a Woody Guthrie song that the duo put together when Nora Guthrie invited them to dig through her father’s unused lyrics. Welcome Little Newly Come is a doting father’s bagatelle to amuse the new baby. And then Tom returns with his most amusing song of the evening – learning to play my christmas guitar – which features bum notes alongside missed chords and big tempo changes as the right note is painstakingly tracked down. It’s funny because it’s true.
There’s a strong thread of reflection in the remaining songs of the evening – a celebration of the great blues man in Did You Hear John Hurt – and Tom did, first at the Newport Folk Festival and then several times a night when he came to Greenwich Village and played the Gaslight. Another listening on these nights was Dave Van Ronk who sometimes got Tom $10 a day singing gigs – which wealth served to tempt him from the acting path he had considered to the financial security of folk music! And thank goodness that he did – otherwise who would have been there to play Ramblin’ Boy to Pete Seeger – who would go on to both play and record it at Carnegie Hall with The Weavers? And without Tom Paxton’s many – sixty or more – albums folk based singer-songwriter music would have been a lot poorer. A two song encore brings some more nostalgia for the lost – and exciting – days of youth. “I miss my friends tonight” Tom sadly acknowledges singing Comedians and Angels, recalling “When Dave was in his glory, and singing Brecht and Weill, The Clancys hauled a chantey out and gave us Paddy Doyle.” The final closer has Marcy and Cathy sporting a ukulele a-piece, both tucked under Tom’s arms, on a gentle lullaby Dream on sweet dreamer. It’s a lovely way to close a show of old friends, old songs, some new ones, reminisces and just enough anger to remind the audience that there’s nothing to do but keep on striving. Just about the last of his real contemporaries from that fabled folk music up-welling of the first few years of the sixties – his songs are worth hearing and the man’s worth celebrating. Tom Paxton – it’s good to have you back again.