Folk Legends Unite: Tom Paxton and John McCutcheon Together on October 27th
John McCutcheon calls Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind “just a perfect song.” Fourteen years younger than Tom, he never imagined that one day he’d be writing songs with the veteran folksinger, performing with him, and presenting songs from their just-released 14-song album Together with him. At this point in their careers, they’ve written more than 100 songs in a collaboration they began on Zoom during the pandemic.
“I remember hearing “The Last Thing on My Mind” as a teenager,” says John. “There’s a part of me that, even though Tom and I have been friends all these years and we treat each other as peers, I know that he is my elder in every categorical way. There was a point early on where I said, ‘I’m writing with Tom Paxton. How cool is that?’
“If you’d told me at age 14, when I was learning to play the guitar and learning Tom Paxton songs and somebody said, ‘Ok, you’re going to know this guy someday. He’s going to be one of your best pals. You’re going to write together and put out an album together,’ I would have said, ‘Yeah, the aliens have just landed on my roof. Thank you very much.’”
The two come from opposite ends of the folk spectrum. Tom began as a protege of Dave Van Ronk in Greenwich Village, in the same coffeehouses as Dylan, both of whom were breaking with folk tradition in creating original music. John arrived on the scene about a decade later, playing traditional folk songs. John began writing his own songs in 1984.
“I was more [of] a student of traditional music than Tom ever was. We have similar beginnings, albeit 18 to 20 years apart, in that Tom is an Okey. Woody Guthrie was part of his early palette, and the same thing has happened to me. I got a guitar for my 14th birthday, went down to the library, and the Woody Guthrie songbook was the only thing under the subject guitar in the card catalog (1966).
“Tom was already a veteran of Greenwich Village by that time. When I was 18, a kid in my college dorm lent me his banjo, and that was all she wrote. I convinced my college advisor [to send me to] Kentucky and West Virginia and meet with banjo players, and I just never went back to college.
“Oh, man, this is what I wanted to do. There was a period of time when I was mostly learning traditional music, learning traditional instruments, hanging out with traditional players a lot of whom had appearances on Rounder Records and were never big sellers because it was too weird for the general public, but I was also writing songs because I had the Woody Guthrie songbook and grew up listening to Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton and people who wrote songs, but I didn’t approach it as a serious discipline until I decided to listen to people who’d grown in the tradition and who wrote songs, people like Jean Ritchie who is such a literate songwriter that most people don’t know she wrote songs that sound so much like traditional songs.”
Years ago, Tom told me this about songwriting: “So, what I tell these writers is, yes, you get this inspiration, this flush of creativity, and you get it all down and you say that had to be from God. And then you say, ‘Hey, if it’s from God, I’d better not mess with it.’ Ah-hah. And that’s the big mistake. Yeah, you get these things and you get ’em down on paper, but then you need to switch a little over to the editorial brain and say, ‘Well, this is wonderful, but it’s not done.’”
John has released 40 albums and earned 60 Grammy nominations. His song “Christmas in the Trenches” is considered one of the 100 essential folk songs” by Folk Alley. The oldest of nine children, he used to lock himself in the bathroom and play hambones. His mother would knock on the door. When he didn’t answerer, she said, ‘I know what you’re doing in there.’
At a 2019 Library of Congress Concert in Washington D.C. he told his enthralled audience, “Often I repaired to the only room where as a member of a large family you were assured of any privacy, and it’s perfect because it’s got a really sturdy chair and our room had a mirror opposite the chair which was really good for practicing but what was that about, and you see when you have five sisters the only time you can go in there for any amount of time is like at two o’clock in the morning. So, I would show up there, and I would lock the door.”
One of the songs on Together is “Life Before You” that has a sudden twist at the end. You think it’s a romantic love ballad, until the lyric reveals that it’s about a daughter getting off the bus in at 3 in the afternoon. John can’t remember who came up with the surprise ending. “We agreed to co-write the surprise,” says John. That’s the kind of thing where one of us is really on fire. The other one is absolutely encouraging. ‘Go! Go! Be with it, baby!’”
Tom Paxton And John McCutcheon Together at Eighth Step on Friday, October 27, 432 State St. Showtime: 7:30p.m. Tickets: $30 – $50