Folk icon Tom Paxton shares lessons learned at Swannanoa Gathering

Tom Paxton returns to the Swannanoa Valley for one of his favorite things

Fred McCormick

Tom Paxton knows a lot about music. The 2009 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient has recorded more than 60 albums between his 1962 debut “I’m the Man That Built the Bridges (live)” and “Boat In the Water,” which he released last April.

He also knows a lot about the world. He was among the artists who, at the height of the American folk music revival in the early 1960s, flocked to New York’s Greenwich Village. Much of the music which came from that scene gave a voice to a generation that challenged the established American culture.

And much of what he knows he learned from folk icons Peter Seeger and Woody Guthrie. He shared some of those lessons during Contemporary Folk Week at Warren Wilson College’s Swannanoa Gathering July 30-Aug. 5.

The workshop-style summer program offered by the college in Swannanoa annually is composed of seven distinct weeks in which attendees learn from respected members of various folk art communities. Few are as distinguished as Paxton, who has taught a pair of classes at The Swannanoa Gathering for the last three years.

Paxton, who was honored with an official Parliamentary tribute by the House of Commons in the United Kingdom in 2007, has been coming to the Warren Wilson campus for the Gathering since 1996. He attended the event every year for several years before his late wife Midge began battling an illness that would claim her three years ago.

In the three years since, the Gathering has been one of the things Paxton looks forward to every year.

“I think (The Swannanoa Gathering) is just one of the greatest things in my life,” he said last week in the minutes before his "Writing a Traditional Song" class in the school's Kittredge Theatre began. “It’s all about, not just music, but the music I love, which is traditional, acoustic music that’s been made by people on their front porches for hundreds of years.”

Tom Paxton shares some of the experiences and knowledge that have come from over 50 years of making music in his "What I Learned From Pete & Woody" class.

The Swannanoa Gathering's focus on preserving and re-imagining that traditional way of making music has kept Paxton coming back.

"That's always been important to me," he said. "I am among not just friends but colleagues when I'm here. I look forward to it all year. We all do."

Contemporary Folk Week gives students the unique opportunity to learn from not only Paxton, but also his fellow iconic singer-songwriter, Janis Ian. Kathy Mattea, the two-time Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year, is also among the roster of accomplished musicians presenting at the Gathering.

"I had people like Pete Seeger and others to encourage me when I was starting out,. Alan Lomax was another," Paxton said. "They told me that I was on the right track and that I should continue, which I did. Now it's my turn to pass it on and to encourage younger people, and I'm glad to do that."

Instructing also helps the 79-year-old Chicago native continue to learn more about his craft.

"There's an old truism, if you want to learn something, teach it," he said. "It helps me as a writer to teach classes in songwriting."

Paxton has taught "Writing a Traditional Song" and "What I Learned From Pete & Woody" at the Gathering the past three years. The latter class encourages songwriters to use the news of the day as a foundation for songs.

"It's a blanket term for writing songs out of the newspaper, out of events, out of our common experiences that aren't necessarily the fodder for popular or hit parade songs," he said. "It's always fun to have a hit, but chasing hits is not something that turns me on. We write songs that are topical or comical."

That formula can often produce timeless works, according to Paxton.

"When you think about it, our national anthem is a topical song about a specific battle in one of our less important wars," he said. "To this day the Kingston Trio's most requested song is "Charlie on the MTA," which was written as a campaign song in the mayoral primary in Boston for a candidate who didn't make it out of the primary. But the song lives on forever."

Tom Paxton learned to be ready to play three songs when he first began playing sets in coffee shops in Greenwich Village, he told his class.

Paxton writes music from the point of view of a participant of or eyewitness to an event.

"As Shakespeare told us we are holding a mirror up to nature," Paxton said. "You're going to get some good songs that way."

Society is never short on inspirational material, he believes.

"Right now we have an embarrassment of riches, don't we?" he chuckled. "I mean am I the only one who realizes that 'hoochie coochie' rhymes with (former White House communications director Anthony) Scaramucci?"

Using contemporary events to create art has another, less obvious benefit, according to the man who rewrote his 1979 song about the federal loan guarantee to Chrysler - "I'm Changing My Name to Chrysler" - to "I am Changing My Name to Fannie Mae" in 2008 in reference to the government bailout of the U.S. financial system that same year.

"It turns your attention away from your stupid self and out into the world," he said. "You learn more about humanity and become more interested in what's going on than what you lack in your life."

Ultimately, what Paxton learned from Seeger, Guthrie and others extends well beyond music.

"We're all members of a family and what happens to you affects me," he said. "As John Donne put it, 'no man is an island,' and that's really true. We're part of a family and what concerns you concerns me. I hope the reverse is true, but I have to proceed on that assumption. I've learned to fight bullies because they don't go away until you punch them in the nose. You can do that metaphorically, by the way."

As for the music, the messages will live on, Paxton said.

"Folk music doesn't have to go through editors and publishers," he said. "Folk music is lumber with the bark still on."