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A publication of the University of Oklahoma Foundation
Sooner Nation

Tom Paxton

OU's Grammy Award-winning folk innovator changed the future through song.

Before he helped spearhead the 1960s New Folk Movement, singer-songwriter Tom Paxton trod the boards at the University of Oklahoma’s Holmberg Hall as a drama student, finding the performing confidence that would shape his later ascendance in New York’s Greenwich Village. And like so many young people in their first years at college, Paxton formed sharp opinions about the pop music he heard as a freshman during lunch breaks at the 1955 version of Campus Corner.

A young Tom Paxton transformed the rules of folk music by writing new songs instead of sticking to the standards.  Courtesy Tom Paxton/Fleming Artists

“Oh, it was orthodox to a fault,” says 86-year-old Paxton, a four-time Grammy nominee and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, during a phone conversation. “It was just that pop music in the ’50s was pretty, pretty awful—with, you know, little rays of sunshine now and then.”

Paxton, who was born in Chicago and moved to Bristow, Okla., during sixth grade, found those rays of sunshine in vocal groups like The Crew-Cuts and The Flamingos, but the music that sparked his own art came from folk singers like Burl Ives and The Kingston Trio, performers that revived and re-popularized folk songs like “Tom Dooley” and “The Blue Tail Fly.” Those artists, in turn, introduced Paxton to Harry Belafonte; Paxton’s fellow Oklahoman, Woody Guthrie; and the seminal folk band The Weavers, led by Pete Seeger. 

Courtesy Tom Paxton/Fleming Artists

“One day, I was at a friend's place and he says, ‘Listen to this,’ ” Paxton says. “He put the arm of the needle down on an LP. And then came the banjo introduction to a folk song called ‘Darling Corey,’ and the place just opened up.”

That album, The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, contained multitudes from the folk traditions, including Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons,” Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” and “Rock Island Line,” and Celtic traditional ballads like “Greensleeves.” For Paxton, the 1955 live album was an instant education.

“I had what I like to call chromosomal change,” Paxton says. “This was my ‘Road to Damascus’ moment, where I went from someone who loved the stuff and turned into someone who had to do it.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree from OU in 1959, Paxton joined the U.S. Army and soon found himself banging out keys in typing school at Fort Dix, N. J., a short train trip to Greenwich Village and the recently opened Gaslight Café, where fellow Guthrie acolytes like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan performed. Paxton spent his days writing songs of peace on Army typewriters, then pitched them to song publishers in Manhattan. 

Paxton and other Gaslight performers were bumping up against folk music values that prized tradition over new material, but Paxton made early headway after singing his song, “The Marvelous Toy,” as an audition to join The Chad Mitchell Trio. Publisher Milt Okun signed Paxton, and soon his heroes were singing his songs—including The Weavers, who performed “Ramblin’ Boy” at their 1963 reunion concert in New York. 

Something like this is not a job ... it's a calling.
Tom Paxton

“And I subsequently had a chance to thank each one of The Weavers individually for ruining my life,” Paxton says, laughing. “‘Thanks a lot,’ you know?’ I could have been doing something steady, right?”

Instead, Paxton steadily moved the needle on what folk music—and folk singers—could be. Over the course of more than six decades, Paxton wrote songs about human events in nearly real time, signing to Elektra Records and in 1965 releasing Ain't That News, featuring songs like “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation,” as instant commentary on the optics of war. On his 2023 collaboration with singer-songwriter John McCutcheon, 2023’s Together, Paxton sings “Ukrainian Now,” a song of solidarity with the embattled nation.

Courtesy Tom Paxton/Fleming Artists

In The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir, the autobiography that inspired the Joel and Ethan Coen film Inside Llewyn Davis, noted folk singer Van Ronk wrote that Paxton changed how folk music evolved by insisting on writing new songs. He describes Paxton as blazing a trail, with Dylan following closely behind. 

“Dylan is usually cited as the founder of the ‘New Folk Movement,’ and he certainly became its most visible standard-bearer, but the person who started the whole thing was Tom Paxton,” wrote Van Ronk, who died in 2002. “He tested his songs in the crucible of live performance, he found that his own stuff was getting more attention than when he was singing traditional songs or stuff by other people. He set himself a training regimen of deliberately writing one song every day.”

And those songs could be about any aspect of life. One of Paxton’s best-known songs, “My Dog’s Bigger Than Your Dog,” became a jingle for Ken-L Ration dog food in the 1970s. He also wrote the first hit single for Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, 1967’s “The Last Thing on My Mind.”

“Yeah, I was the first one who did a lot of writing,” he says wryly. “But there was this guy from Okemah. He did a little writing, too.”

In January 1968, while “The Last Thing on My Mind” still sat near the top of the country charts, Paxton performed alongside Dylan, Seeger, Richie Havens, Odetta, Judy Collins and Arlo Guthrie in a tribute to ‘this guy from Okemah,’—Woody Guthrie—at Carnegie Hall. He sang “Pastures of Plenty,” “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “The Biggest Thing That Man Has Ever Done,” and joined the full roster for the closing, “This Land is Your Land.” 

Paxton says he knew many of Guthrie’s songs while at OU and performing in The Travelers, a folk group modeled partly after his musical heroes, The Weavers. Though he lived in New York at a time of great innovation for his musical genre, Paxton took key lessons from the bard of Okemah. 

“Something like this is not a job. It's a calling,” he says. “If that sounds self-serving, please pardon me, but that's the way it felt to me. It was a compulsion. I loved it so much, I had to. For me, it was music.

“And more and more and more, through the years, the writing became so much the most important part to me.”

George Lang is the former editor of Oklahoma Gazette and assistant entertainment editor at The Oklahoman. He lives in Oklahoma City.

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