A KICKSTARTER ALBUM
According to the late, great Dave Van Ronk, Tom Paxton initiated the
change from folk musicians performing traditional material to writing
their own songs. While historians commonly credit Bob Dylan for this,
Paxton was on the scene first and achieved widespread local popularity
for his self-written tunes. Van Ronk should know. He was there at the
center of the Greenwich Village revival of the 1960s and good friends
with both artists. Dylan, of course, went on and continually
transformed. He went electric, country, gospel, etc. and now has a
wonderful new album of American pop standards sung first by Frank
Sinatra, Shadows in the Night. Paxton hasn’t. He’s still performing original acoustic folk music much like he always did.
The good news is that Paxton still pens really good songs and
performs them well. Paxton’s compositional skills are well known. After
all, he wrote several contemporary classics, such as “The Last Thing on
My Mind”, “Ramblin’ Boy”, and “Whose Garden Was This”. On these 13 new
songs, Paxton continues to mine the same basic melodies and themes. Redemption Road
contains silly songs, romantic tales, protest anthems, and such that
are reminiscent of his earlier albums. In some ways, the line from his
first album in 1962 to this one is straight and short, especially when
one considers that he has released more than 50 discs over the years.
Paxton waxes nostalgic on several tracks. He praises Van Ronk on “The
Mayor of Macdougal Street”, whom Paxton calls a giant among pygmies. He
croons sweetly without being sugary about old romances and life choices
on “Time to Spare” and “Ireland”. Paxton, who was made several albums
of kids music, gets less than serious on “Skeeters’ll Gitcha” (with John
Prine) and “Susie Most of All”. He’s also righteous about injustice and
proclaims that “If the Poor Don’t Matter” then none of us do in the
eyes of the lord. We have a duty to those with less, and we ignore the
imperative to help others at our own risk.
However, these brief descriptions do not convey Paxton’s intelligence
and humanity. He deals with love and loss, sex and death, in clever
ways that cut through the bull without preaching or using fancy
language. He presumes his audience is smart enough to understand the
world around us and what’s important. We appreciate a story well told, a
lesson that inspires us to be better, an appreciation of our particular
memories and our shared ones. Paxton knows nothing lasts forever and is
still struck by the beauty of the world and its peoples. He’s realistic
enough to understand the fragility and temporal nature of it all.
The title track, performed with Janis Ian, directly confronts the
possibility of redemption: the big question of what is the meaning of
life. He wrote the lyrics to a preexisting instrumental by Geoff Bartley
from 2008. And in all his wisdom, Paxton humbly acknowledges he doesn’t
know either. All he comprehends is that time passes. The melody
suggests the quiet dignity of death. Life may be a mystery, but that’s
no reason to presume it hasn’t been worth the pleasure and the pain.
Paxton received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award back in 2009. The
recording business has changed, and he no longer has label backing or
obligations. The record was the direct result of a successful
Kickstarter campaign. This really isn’t much different than his first
album on the private Gaslight label back in 1962. Paxton hasn’t changed.
He’s still an extraordinary writer, singer, and performer of
self-penned songs in the acoustic folk tradition.
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