Tom Paxton’s 2002 record Looking For the Moon was nominated for a Grammy award, and has been finding it’s way back onto my playlist over and over ever since. I don’t think there’s a bad song on the whole CD, so following it up was going to be a major challenge, and maybe that’s why it’s taken six years to do so. Well, Tom has recently issued that followup, and from the first note Comedians & Angels sounds like a perfect sequel to the earlier record.
It begins with a Biblical reference, “How Beautiful Upon the Mountain” (it comes from the prophet Isaiah). Paxton notes that “the chorus came very quickly, but the verses were slow to emerge. I couldn’t find my way to the heart of this song until it had gone through three or four totally new versions. And then I found it: its heart was with those saints–secular and otherwise–with whom I’d marched, prayed, argued and sung for so many years” So he takes an essentially spiritual chorus and adds it to three secular verses (with spiritual depth) and creates a gorgeous song. The first verse talks about Selma, Alabama, and Martin Luther King; verse two is the March on Washington, and more; and verse three is passing the torch to a new generation. Political activism through music. It’s what folksingers have sung about for years.
Paxton calls all these song “songs of love,” and admits that since he’s almost 70 years old his “definition of love songs is broader than I once would have found it to be. Still, there is love in them all.” In “Out on the Ocean” (written with George Wurzbach) he sings of his love of sailing, but also his love of coming home. “What a Friend You Are” is a tribute to a special friend, unnamed. Maybe it’s you. There are songs for his wife Midge, for his children and his grandkids, and to the world at large. Even … to all the rest of us. The lyrics are personal and moving throughout. The music is gentle and acoustic, well played by a band including Mark Howard (guitar), Tim Crouch (mandolin, fiddle), Al Perkins (Dobro, slide guitar), among others, and led by Tom’s own Martin guitar, the music has a dated (read ’60s-ish) sound, but it’s soothing and extremely musical.
Paxton has had a long and successful career, he’s written at least one of my absolute favorite songs (“Last Thing On My Mind”) and he continues into his eighth decade to produce fine folk music. Comedians & Angels is perhaps not the equal to Looking For the Moon but it’s right up there.