Tom Paxton,
Live in the UK
(Pax, 2005)

Tom Paxton has been a beloved American institution for so long that it's easy to overlook him. Of the what-you-see-is-what-you-get school, he has been writing and singing essentially the same kinds of songs since the early 1960s. The tunes are simple but catchy, the lyrics either satirical or meditative or celebratory, the politics those not of a fire-eating ideologue but of an honest, decent liberal. On that last point alone, the world sure could use a whole lot more Tom Paxtons.

But there is only one, of course. This live recording, collated from two appearances in October 2003, during his 39th tour of the United Kingdom, captures a typical Paxton concert, consisting of (mostly ephemeral) topical ditties -- he calls them "short shelf-life songs" -- and the classic works written in the 1960s and '70s. The latter have gone to take on lives of their own, to become sort of like actual folk songs and (as I once observed from personal experience) to be treated by authentically traditional singers as if from the same musical pool that produced (in my particular experience) "More Pretty Girls Than One." Personally, I expect to tire of hearing "The Last Thing on My Mind," "Bottle of Wine" and "Ramblin' Boy" about the same time I no longer want to hear Buddy Holly tunes. That will not happen in my lifetime, though I cannot speak to my next one, if any.

What I like best here, though, are the powerful environmental anthems "There Goes the Mountain" and "Whose Garden Was This?" As Paxton performs these songs in an era when the natural order is disintegrating even as the reactionaries in power in America see our air, water, landscape and wildlife only through dollar signs, you can hear an uncharacteristic bitter undertone creep into his voice. The one non-original, the eternal "There But for Fortune," is sung as a tribute to that missed-more-than-ever leftwing patriot Phil Ochs.

Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, who also produce the CD, back him on stage, nicely filling out Paxton's sound without overwhelming it.

by Jerome Clark
13 May 2006

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