Tom Paxton fell in love with the story songs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger after his father's ailing health prompted a move from his childhood home on Chicago's North side to the dirt roads and cornfields of rural Bristow, Oklahoma.
"Unfortunately, dad (a chemical manufacturer in South Chicago) was already too sick and died 3 months after we moved there in 1948," lamented Paxton, who returned to Chicago often during the late 1960s and early 1970s to perform in the folk haunts of Chicago's Old Town District. Today, Paxton lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
Learning guitar as a teen, Paxton traded Oklahoma for New York's Greenwich Village in early 1960, a year earlier than soon-to-be-famous-friends Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Dave Von Ronk.
"Talk about good timing," he said. "Coffeehouses then mainly had Beat poets. The few folk singers there were mostly just filling space between the poets, but folk music took over by the summer's end, just as I was getting out of the army."
While Dylan generally gets the credit, folk music historians acknowledge Paxton as the first of the era to perform self-written songs, rather than just covering Guthrie, Seeger, and traditional folk standards.
"I don't know if I'd give myself that kind of credit, but it's true not too many were writing songs then," said Paxton. "Most played traditional songs. I still had traditional songs in my repertoire, but my own songs gradually started taking over."
Once Paxton lit the fuse on the powder keg that would become the folk music explosion of 1963, guitar-carrying kids flocked to the Village and everyone started writing their own songs.
"We all respected each other and played our songs for each other," he said. "I remember one night at this bar called The Kettle of Fish, Bob Dylan leaned over and asked me what I thought of this song he'd just written called 'Gates of Eden.' It wasn't long after that Dylan exploded. "Maybe there was a little jealousy, but we were happy for his success because we all liked Bob and respected his work."
Music is an integral part of Paxton's DNA. "I remember as a child listening to this floor-standing radio and how music made me feel things I didn't even know were inside me. I'm grateful beyond measure to still be as passionate about music today."
Despite this, the 77-year-old Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner will perform his final Chicago concerts this weekend at The Old Town School of Folk Music. Opening all U.S. tour dates is Janis Ian, who duets with Paxton on the title track of his 63rd career album, "Redemption Road," a 14-song collection on his own Pax Records.
"I've known Janis since she was 13-years-old," he said. "I was on stage with Janis when she made her first public performance in Greenwich Village during a benefit concert a bunch of us were doing. Two years later, she hit big with 'Society's Child.' Janis lives in Nashville and I often record there, so I asked her to sing with me."
Paxton's current "Redemption Road" travels will be his last world tour. "This is the most intense tour I've ever done in the U.S," he said. "I'm enjoying it, but this is it for me. I'm not retiring, but I'm done with the road. I'll still go out for occasional one-off dates, but tours are over."
Despite road weariness, the folk legend will continue to write and record with all the passion, wit and grace that has made other songwriters record his tunes over their own.
FYI: Tom Paxton with special guest Janis Ian will perform at 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at The Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $38. Call (773) 728-6000 or visit oldtownschool.org or tompaxton.com.