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Woodstock folk fest honors Tom Paxton

Tom Paxtwill be honored Woodstock Folk Festival this weekend.

Tom Paxton will be honored at the Woodstock Folk Festival this weekend.

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Tom Paxton

♦ Woodstock Opera House, 121 Van Buren St.

♦ 8 p.m. Saturday,
July 14

♦ Tickets, $25

♦ (815) 338-5300;

♦ For complete festival schedule, visit wood

Updated: August 14, 2012 6:09AM

Tom Paxton has been an acclaimed artist on the folk scene since the early 1960s, with hits like “The Last Thing On My Mind,” “Bottle of Wine,” “Ramblin’ Boy,” “The Marvelous Toy” and “Going to the Zoo” that transcended the genre and took root in America’s imagination.

He has been nominated four times for Grammys, and was the recipient of the Recording Academy’s 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Paxton, 74, was born in Chicago, but moved away as a child. He’s been in the area often and returns perform at the Woodstock Opera House July 14 and at the annual Woodstock Folk Festival, where he will be awarded the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Paxton recently talked to Sun-Times media about his music and life.

Question: Some describe you as the bridge between artists of the late ’50s to the ’60s songwriters, and many credit you as being first, ahead of Dylan, in forging the way for folk artists to do substantially original material and not just traditional folk. What do you say about that?

Tom Paxton:Well, I didn’t realize that I was any kind of a pioneer. I was following in Woody’s (Guthrie) footsteps. He was my inspiration, and also people like Pete Seeger and Ewan MacColl over in England. It felt natural to me to try to write songs. I tried to write in a traditional format because that was the music I loved. I didn’t realize I was the only one doing it. (Dave) Van Ronk pointed out to me that I was the first one since Woody to write nearly all of my songs.

Q. So, you were turned around by someone like Woody who was speaking his mind.

TP: It was a strange journey for me. I grew up in a middle-class family, a small town Oklahoma boy. I played trumpet in high school band in Bristow, Oklahoma, and I played football. We used to play Okemah (Woody Guthrie’s hometown) every year in football. My first folksinging mentor was Burl Ives. He sang that very sweet, whimsical kind of repertoire, beautiful singer. When I got down to the University of Oklahoma, I was a drama major, and heard some Woody Gurthrie recordings, first thought was “My God, this guy can’t sing.” I was used to hearing trained voices, beautiful voices like Burl Ives. But very quickly Woody’s spirit started to come through, and I began to say “this guy is special, I like this guy, he’s a fighter,” and I began to see folk music in a more political way, although not exclusively political.

I also love the fun. But I began to see that there was an edge that was possible, that one could write songs in this idiom that had something trenchant to say about what was going on. So I quickly became a Woody Guthrie fan and I learned lots of his songs.

Q. Acoustic guitar has always been your mainstay. You did not follow rock or folk-rock trends. Were you ever pressured to change your sound or instrumentation?

TP:There was some gentle pressure from Elektra back in the mid-’60s along about the time I did my third or fourth album for them. And we did do some more contemporary arrangements, and that was fun. But to me the greatest sound has always been an acoustic stringed instrument, so that’s what I love and that’s what I keep wanting to do.”

Q. On July 15, you will receive the “Lifetime Achievement Award” at the Woodstock Folk Festival. You have also received this award from the Recording Academy, ASCAP, and the BBC. How do these awards resonate with you?

TP: They are very heart-warming to me. They mean that, you know, I haven’t been a voice crying in the wilderness, that my work has mattered to people and that makes me very happy.

Q. You were born here in Chicago, so technically got your “start” here. What does Chicago mean to you?

TP:Chicago has always been extremely important to me, such a fabulous supportive folk scene, there was always a place to play. And when I began doing shows at the Old Town School, that was perfection to me. Chicago means the world to me.

NOTE: At 2 p.m. July 14, Paxton appears at Read Between the Lynes Bookstore, 129 Van Buren St., Woodstock, to read and sign copies of his children’s books, The Marvelous Toy and Going to the Zoo. From 12:30 to 6 p.m on July 15, Paxton headlines the Woodstock Folk Festival on the historic Square in Woodstock. He will receive the festival’s 11th “Lifetime Achievement Award at 4:15 p.m.

Lillia Kuzma is a local free-lance writer.

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