Saturday, November 13, 2010

It went zip when it moved and pop when it stopped, apparently.

Tom Paxton
St George's Hall, Bristol
8 Nov 2010

Confession time. Although I am reliably informed that Tom Paxton is a living legend, I had honestly barely heard of him before tonight. Although it turns out I had heard a lot of his songs. All through his set, I kept saying "Hey...didn't Val Doonican used to sing that?" There are not too many performers in the world who can namecheck Pete Seeger and Vera Lynne in the same evening. Pete Seeger introduced him at Newport; he claims to still listen to the tape to hear Seeger saying calling him "A young guy..." Vera Lynne ("is she still around?") was the most gracious TV host he ever worked with. She covered one of his songs, "Whose Garden Was This?"

The phrase middle-of-the-road kept wandering into my mind.

Paxton is the product of that particular moment in the 60s when card carrying muses were bestowing painfully whimsical children's numbers and biting protest songs on the same performers. The Marvellous Toy ("it went zing when it moved and pop when it stopped etc etc etc etc") has been adapted into a children's book by a Bristol based illustrator, but in his very grandfatherly way, Tom claims not to understand the accompanying I-Phone application.

He gets away with the appalling cod-irish sentiment of "That's my Katie little lady and I love her" by doing it as part of a medley with two other songs about his children. "Jennifer's Rabbit" is much better bit of children's whimsy than the toy which goes zip and pop: it recalls Where the Wild Things Are and Little Nemo. He follows it with a song simply called "Jennifer and Kate": a more recent piece about being a grandpa, and what his two daughters are like now they're grown-ups. ("There is this thing about fathers, they live in their own zone / They tell ya "hi, how are you" then they hand your Mom the phone.")

One certainly can't fault his sincerity. Nor his ability to laugh at himself: he prefaces "Last Thing on My Mind" with an Internet parody of the song. He wishes he could have started a rumour that the Marvelous Toy, like Puff the Magic Dragon, contained hidden drug references. His liberal anger is undimmed by time [good phrase – delete in second draft]. "I hear your government is going to set the unemployed to work. For no pay. What are they going to build? A new pyramid?" But his contemporary protest songs still seem to me to be a little obvious, like Tom Lehrer on a bad day. "Seeing Russia from her back porch / Means she knows foreign relations / And it’s only left-wing media / Who ask for explanations." Sarah Palin not very bright! Hold the front pages! But it's nice, in a depressing kind of way, that "I'm changing my name to Chrysler", with a few name-changes, is as topical today as it was 30 years ago. 

The hall isn't full, but everyone there is a fan; everyone knows all the songs and sings them whether he asks them to or not. I prefer the straight folkie-ballads: "Ramblin' Boy" (knew the song; didn't know it was by him) is wonderful, of course; and his new-ish love song to the peace movement would sound like a hymn even without the Biblical refrain. ("Marching round the White House, marching round the Pentagon / Marching round the mighty missile plants / Speaking truth to power, singing peace in Babylon / Asking us why not give peace a chance"). And I'm finally converted to the ranks of Paxton's fans by the encore. "The Parting Glass" -- sung unplugged at the front of the stage -- is charming. The song about his days of playing coffee houses in the Greenwich Village ("I miss my friends tonight") is a genuinely touching piece of nostalgia. "There's nothing wrong with looking back" he explains "Provided you don't stare". But his tribute to the New York fire-fighters is nothing short of breath-taking.  Remorselessly imagined; terribly specific; and obviously deeply felt. "Thank God we made it to the street; we ran through ash and smoke / I did not know which way to run; I thought that I would choke/ A fireman took me by the arm and pointed me uptown / Then "Christ!" I heard him whisper, as the tower came crashing down" A genuine great contemporary folksong. In which nothing goes zip, pop, or indeed whirr. 


Anonymous said...

A living legend whom I have never, ever heard of.

Talk more about Tolkien. Do it now. Your fans demand it.

Gavin Burrows said...

...or, on the other hand, do just whatever you feel like.

Andrew Rilstone said...

The next time Tolkien does a gig in Bristol, I will certainly review it. In fact, I will travel as far Cheltenham Spa.

Gavin Burrows said...

I saw him at the Martletts in Burgess Hill the other week. He had that CS Lewis with him on the spoons. But no many people went, as it was raining...

Andrew Rilstone said...


The non-snarky answer is that I'm still putting together the "everything I've written on the interwebs about the Inklings" book, which may very well have some new material in it. Though prolly more on Lewis than Tolkien.