By Richie Unterberger
Ramblin' Boy was the first major recording statement of Tom Paxton, who had already been a figure on the Greenwich Village folk scene for about four years when the album came out in 1964. In that period he'd established himself as one of the folk community's foremost topical songwriters, along with other emerging composers like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Indeed Elektra Records, by signing both Paxton and Ochs (whose own Elektra debut album came out at about the same time as Ramblin' Boy), the company had perhaps the two most uncompromisingly politically progressive troubadours around.
Although Ramblin' Boy is sometimes referred to as his first album, Paxton had in fact done some other recording before hooking up with Elektra. In 1962 he made a rare LP for the Gaslight label, I'm The Man Who Built The Bridges, recorded live at the Gaslight Cafe folk club in the Village. That album, in addition to his (in)famous kid's song "My Dog's Bigger Than Your Dog" (later used as a jingle on a TV commercial for Ken-L-Ration dog food), contained a few songs that would be re-recorded for Ramblin' Boy: "Goin' to the Zoo," "When Morning Breaks," and "I'm Bound for the Mountains and the Sea." On that record, he was accompanied by Barry Kornfeld on guitar and banjo, and by Gil Robbins (father of star film actor-director Tim Robbins) of the Highwaymen on bass.
He also did some recording for Broadside magazine; a 1963 version of "What Did You Learn in School Today?," another number re-recorded for Ramblin' Boy, appears on the Smithsonian Folkways box set The Best of Broadside 1982-1988. Finally, a song from his performance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival appeared on the album Newport Broadside; that and five songs he did at the 1964 Newport folkfest are on Paxton's Best of the Vanguard Years compilation.
So when Paxton entered the studio to cut Ramblin' Boy, he brought with him not only some recording experience, but also a wealth of material from which to choose. Paxton was among the first of the 1960s folk singer-songwriters to rely almost wholly upon his own compositions, though as he told me in a 2000 interview, "It was really many years before my shows consisted of nothing but my own songs. I did a lot of traditional songs, I did [Woody] Guthrie songs, I did some of Pete's [Seeger's], 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone' and stuff like that. But all the time I was writing. When I'd write a new song, I'd try it out in the show and see how it went. Gradually, there came to be enough songs of a good quality that I could just do my own stuff."
They were good enough to impress Elektra president Jac Holzman, who offered Paxton a deal with the label, where his first three albums would be produced by Paul Rothchild. According to Tom, "The way Jac usually [did] it was, he didn't sign you to a contract immediately. What he would say was, 'We'll do a three-hour session. And, depending upon how that goes, we'll either sign the contracts for three albums, or I'll give you the tapes from the session to do with whatever you like.'
"It really was an extended audition, the first session. How lucky I felt that Paul was assigned to produce it. I don't know what songs we did in that first three-hour session, but they were part of what became Ramblin' Boy, and convinced Jac, and we went on from there. Paul was always so receptive and supportive to the artist. He always made you feel like you were doing great, whether you were or not."
For the actual Ramblin' Boy album, Barry Kornfeld would again be vital to giving the acoustic recording depth, adding banjo, second guitar, and harmonica. Also on board was Felix Pappalardi, most known these days as a producer for Cream, but back then a frequent session player on folk and early folk-rock albums, including notable LPs by Fred Neil, Ian & Sylvia, Tom Rush, Tim Rose, and Richard & Mimi Fariña. For Ramblin' Boy, he played guitarron, "the Mexican mariachi bass," as Paxton refers to it.
At the time Paxton was regarded by many primarily as a protest singer or social commentator, and indeed many of the fifteen songs on Ramblin' Boy live up to that image. Media distortion ("Daily News"), educational propaganda ("What Did You Learn in School Today?"), the sordid life of miners ("High Sheriff of Hazard"), the tragedy of war ("When Morning Breaks"), the right to work with dignity ("A Job of Work"): all were addressed on the LP. But Paxton had more range than many gave him credit for, also writing love songs, traveling road tunes, an ode to then recently departed folk legend Cisco Houston ("Fare Thee Well, Cisco"), and even children's songs. It would be his more personal and romantic songs that would prove to be his most enduring.
Ramblin' Boy had four tracks in particular that would prove to be among Paxton's most famous. There was "Ramblin' Boy" itself, the wistful ode-to-wanderin' that had already been recorded by the Weavers in 1963, and would later be done (on her obscure first set of recordings) by British folk-rock legend Sandy Denny. "Goin' to the Zoo," a children's classic, would become internationally popular. It even showed up in, of all places, a Monty Python sketch in which a surgeon had to forcibly remove hippie squatters from the body of a patient.
In a far more serious vein, "I Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound," was considerably more melodic and introspective than Paxton's usual work of the time, and has been gifted by cover versions by the Kingston Trio, Jimmy Gilmer (whose group the Fireballs would later have a huge hit with Paxton's "Bottle of Wine"), Carolyn Hester, and Nanci Griffith. There was also a little-known 1965 folk-rock cover of the song by Dion that Paxton especially enjoyed: "He did a beautiful version. I was tickled to death with Dion's recording when I finally heard it, because I thought that he absolutely understood the song and read the lyric the way I would like to hear it read."
Yet by far the
song on the album was "The Last Thing on My Mind," covered by an
variety of folk, rock, and pop artists, including Judy Collins, the
(who had a small folk-rock hit with it in the mid-1960s), Marianne
Sandy Denny, the Kingston Trio, Glen Campbell, Neil Diamond, Charley
the Move, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Seekers, Dolly Parton
and Porter Wagoner, and Gram Parsons. Paxton would record half a dozen
more albums for Elektra, and the still quite active songwriter has
several dozen albums throughout his career. "The Last Thing on My Mind"
remains, however, his most beloved standard, and the standout tune on Ramblin'
Boy, the record that confirmed the arrival of Paxton as a
-- Richie Unterberger
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