When the times were a-changin’, Tom Paxton was there. A true pioneer of the 1960s folk movement, Tom sang regularly at Greenwich Village’s infamous Gaslight Club, and helped blaze the trail for a whole generation of singer-songwriters while penning his own standards like “Ramblin’ Boy,” “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound,” “The Last Thing On My Mind,” and “Bottle of Wine”
To celebrate his birthday today I pulled some excerpts from a conversation I had back in 1993 with Tom and his wife, Midge, while they were visiting Nashville on what happened to be their 30th wedding anniversary. We sat around the dining room table in my little condo and enjoyed a wonderful afternoon of coffee and cookies as we talked about his impressive career in folk music. Happy birthday, Tom!
When did you enter the New York folk scene?
I came to New York in 1960 courtesy of the Army, and when I got out of the Army I stayed in Greenwich Village. I had been coming in on weekend passes and sleeping on sofas of friends, haunting the coffee houses, doing guest sets and meeting other guys. So when I got out I just did it full time instead of weekends, and made about as much as I had been making on the weekends — which was not very much indeed. But in those days there were a lot of coffee houses in the village that had folk music in them, and so there were a lot of stages to get up on. Then you’d pass the hat afterward, and you might make $10 in an evening if you were lucky. And there were a few places like The Gaslight that were on a slightly higher plane on the “food chain.”
Who were some of the regular performers in 1960s at The Gaslight?
Some of the earliest friends I made were people like Noel Stuckey (who became Paul of Peter, Paul and Mary) as well as Peter Yarrow. Phil Ochs showed up in ‘62. Dave Van Ronk was another of my very earliest friends and who was my best man when I got married. Midge and I got married in ‘63, and went to the west coast on a trip. We met Eric Anderson and invited him to come back to New York, which he did. And Bill Cosby was one of us. He started at The Gaslight in 1962 on July 4th weekend, and he was there for about 3 months. That was his first professional gig. It was wonderful to watch him. He was funny the first night he got up, but he got better every night. Peter, Paul and Mary sang their first three songs in public at The Gaslight, just trying them out. Ian and Sylvia showed up one night from Canada and did a guest set which knocked everybody out. Johnny Cash dropped in one night and sang three songs and we just sat there with our jaws on our chests. Now and then Joan Baez would come in. Late night people would drop in at The Gaslight and do guest sets, so all the real fun was after midnight.
Do you remember when you first heard Bob Dylan?
Dave Van Ronk and I were sitting in Gerde’s Folk City one Monday night at a Hootenannie when Bob Dylan sang his first three songs in New York. We both turned to each other and said, “Hey, something there!”
Tell me about this poker game that you all had going at The Gaslight.
We had a penny-ante poker game going on upstairs. We wired a speaker up so we could tell how the show was going. And when it was your turn, you’d cash in your chips and go down and do your set and then come back up and get in the game. Then someone got the bright idea of moving the game downstairs after The Gaslight closed. And somehow in that transition it became a very expensive poker game. I wound up making more money from the poker game than I was making as an entertainer for the first year that Midge and I were married. Dylan was in that game. He was a terrible poker player, but very lucky. Or he cheated, one or the other! (laughs) Phil Ochs was not very good because he was too impatient. He was a very impatient guy anyhow. And he couldn’t wait for a good hand, you know — he had to force it…which is not the best strategy in poker!
Of all of the writing that probably took place there, does any one story stand out?
In this room that we had upstairs over the Gaslight, Hugh Romney/Wavy Gravy had brought a portable typewriter that was for anyone to use. And one night I came in early for work and Dylan was sitting there putting the finishing touches on about a four-page prose poem that just went on forever. He handed it to me and said “What do you think of this.” So I sat down and read it and said, “God, this is incredible stuff, are you going to sing this?” And he said, “Well I hadn’t thought of that, you know, it’s a poem.” And I said “Well, you know, if you put a tune to it you’ve got a song and if not you’ve just got a poem that’ll just be in some little journal someplace.” So he said okay and he wrote a tune and sang it the next night at The Gaslight, and it was called something about a hard rain’s gonna fall, I think it was (laughs).
Here is Tom with Pete Seeger in 1965 on Seeger’s Rainbow Quest PBS show singing “Ramblin’ Boy”. Enjoy!